Friday, February 19, 2016

On Devashish Makhija’s Taandav (and other dancing men)

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

In Devashish Makhija’s brilliant new short film Taandav, a constable named Tambe (Manoj Bajpayee) points a gun at two men who have been getting on his nerves. “Naach,” he tells them, with all the authority conferred by uniform and position, but then, a few seconds later, he begins to dance himself. That’s an inadequate description though – it would be more accurate to say that he does a delirious, uninhibited version of Lord Shiva’s taandav, which is many different things depending on how you view it: a dance of creation or destruction, unmaking or remaking, despair or catharsis, or all of these.

Tambe is having a hard time of it, we learn early in this 11-minute movie (which you can watch online here). He can’t afford the fees needed to send his little girl to a good school. He then passes up a chance to purloin a stash of black money and share it with two other policemen (no one else was likely to find out). His wife and daughter are sad, the cops are frustrated, things have come to a boil – and now, faced with the pagan revelry of a Ganesh Visarjan night, something inside him explodes. At first his dance is both menacing and mildly comic – you wonder if he is having a mental breakdown and is about to start shooting around wildly. But before you realize it, it becomes a kinetic exercise in self-expression.

Despite the taandav reference, the first image that leapt into my mind while watching this scene was from a non-Indian source: the actor Christopher Walken’s dance performance in the Fatboy Slim music video “Weapon of Choice”. (If you haven’t seen it, drop everything and go watch it now. Again, YouTube is your friend.)

What connects the two scenes? Both are very funny and very unexpected – you shake your head disbelievingly even as you admire the actors’ work – and this is partly because the characters are dour-looking patriarchal figures. Both men are also constrained in clothes that don’t seem right for exuberant dancing: Tambe is in a well-fitting police uniform, while the Walken character (a morose
businessman?) is in formal suit and tie. The costumes are suggestive of the larger shackles that such men can find themselves in – as authority figures who are expected to be always detached and in control, not go wild, much less perform for the amusement of others. And the dances are acts of liberation. Tambe has stepped out of his straitjacket (this episode will lead to him literally losing his vardi too) and is playing his own tune. The Voltaire quote that ends Makhija’s film – “Man is free at the moment he wishes to be” – finds an echo in the Fatboy Slim song lyrics “Check out my new weapon, weapon of choice” and “If you walk without rhythm, you never learn”. (It might be worth mentioning here that Walken, who trained as a dancer at an early age, had become typecast in “serious” roles as a screen actor, and “Weapon of Choice” was an assignment he took on – at age 58 – with childlike delight.)

A fevered dance as a transcendental act, as a discovery of new possibilities: this is something we usually associate with female performers in our cinema – whether it is Waheeda Rehman’s legendary snake dance in Guide (where the character, Rosie, goes back to what she loves best, her art) or Madhubala’s “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya” in Mughal-e-Azam (a courtesan defies an empire and turns a showy palace into her personal hall of mirrors) or, in a less weighty mode, Sridevi’s “Kaate nahin kat te” in Mr India (the scene where the no-nonsense, Lois Lane-like heroine gets in touch with her sexually desirous side).

Male actors – not so much. I grew up in an era where some leading men – Mithun Chakraborty, Rishi Kapoor, Kamal Haasan, later Govinda – were adept on their feet, but the musical scenes were mostly regular romantic scenes rather than intense solos. Besides, consider deeper history. It is well-chronicled that before the advent of Shammi Kapoor – a phenomenon unto himself, not quite replicable – dancing did not come naturally to our male actors; they were much more often passive spectators, or beaming beneficiaries of a woman’s attention. Dilip Kumar did his first full-fledged dance scene 16 years into his career, in Gunga Jumna. And though we think of Dev Anand as the unruffled romantic hero, he had some surprisingly awkward moments when called upon to dance. “Tasveer Teri Dil Mein” from the 1961 Maya is a lovely song, but watch the scene: Anand is passable when he is just bobbing his head and clasping his hands while Mala Sinha does most of the work, but when the framing forces him to jig along in a full-body shot, it resembles a Jar Jar Binks action sequence from the Star Wars prequels.

No wonder then that Tambe’s dance is so uplifting, despite the grimness of his situation. The family’s troubles can have only grown with his suspension, yet the film’s closing scene is a warm, optimistic one: watching his wife and daughter watching a YouTube video of his taandav, he chuckles, and then they all laugh together. His brief transgression has, as with Shiva’s dance, remade a world.


  1. Jai,
    Dilip Kumar did his first full-fledged dance scene 16 years into his career, in Gunga Jumna.

    That isn't quite true - Dilip Kumar had two very energetic dances in Naya Daur

    Ud jab jab zulfein

    and part of Ye desh hai veer jawanon ka

    And before that, in Insaniyat

    Of course, it's nothing in comparison to Shammi.

    1. Ah, thanks. Should have thought of "Ud jab jab..." even though I last saw Naya Daur when I was a child. Still, the basic point about infrequency of dances remains.
      Also didn't mention Kishore Kumar and scenes like "Paanch Rupaiya Baarah Anna" - of course, he's an outlier in so many ways...

  2. and did you remember Denis Lavant's Eurodance in the closing scene of Beau Travail? of course, our films are far advanced when it comes to men dancing. In the current lot, we have no Madhuri or Sridevi but Hritik, Varun Dhawan and Shahid Kapoor!!!

  3. I could think of a very unusual actor losing all inhibitions and dancing his way to glory in the Honeymoon travels Pvt Ltd. Kay Kay Menon after being stoned I think.

  4. Anurag, Thespian Accountant: yes, true that there has been a lot more uninhibited male dancing in the past few years. If I had more space in the column, I might have mentioned Ranveer Singh's lovely dance in Dil Dhadakne Do, where he plays "Pehli Baar" for Anushka and then begins this peacock-like courtship dance, which she then joins.

  5. Another pleasure is to watch it once, and then turn of the video and listen to it. The sound pacing is lovely.

  6. Jai, such a pleasure to come back to blog-pradesh after years, and find your measured prose again. Thank you for the leads, too.

    1. JAP: great to see you here! And to be reminded of those days when it was possible to have conversations on these comment threads. Hope you've been well? I saw a photo of you with a certain Mr Bachchan recently, and figured you were being the cultural impresario you were always destined to be. Must catch up soon - let me know if you're in Delhi sometime...