Bollywood Dance-Off in Berkeley

The World

A college team performing at the Bollywood Berkeley event. (Photo: Lonny Shavelson)

Manya Gupta

Two weeks ago in Berkeley, California, teams of college students faced off in an Indian dance contest that was so tensely competitive it should have been called the Bhangra Bowl.

India's hyper-sentimental Bollywood films are luring in Indian-American college students, raised in the US, but still glued by family to India.

"Bollywood has now become part of the American conversation, it's become the language in which India and America are talking to each other through these children, through these lives," says Vamsee Juluri, media studies professor at the University of San Francisco.

Juluri says dance programs such as Bollywood Berkeley represent the coming together of the public and private selves of Indian-Americans.

"Until a few years ago, many Indian immigrants kept their Indian and American selves somewhat hyphenated and separate," he says "So they were Americans publicly Monday to Friday, and Saturday and Sunday they were Indians. And with Bollywood for the first time there's a hybrid culture that is starting to emerge."

On stage with the University of Michigan's Manzil dance team, 20 glittery dancers condense their own Bollywood film into an eight minute competitive story dance. Think a stage full of gymnasts in saris flying through Bhangra moves in a boy meets girl, girl snubs boy, girl taunts and flirts with boy until… well, you get the picture.

These students study biomedical engineering, media and communications. They are culturally modern Americans. But on this Bollywood stage, they act out 1950s scenes with subservient women, sorry, girls, chasing standoffish boys, until the girls win the boys' love. Though Michigan dancer Proma Khosla says they're not all like that.

"There are films that show like really strong women, really talented actresses, in roles where they have it all, they can accomplish anything, and they're really strong role models," Khosla says. "But at the same time you still get commercial films where they're dumbed down, they're very much about appearance, sex-symbols, they're just dancing and acting dumb."

There are stereotype reversals — On this night the U.C. Irvine team performs Cinderfella — a Bollywood style reenactment of Cinderella, with a guy at the center of the story.

Cinderfella is followed by a drama of a president's daughter in love with her bodyguard.

Like in the real Bollywood, these are themes of class struggles, poverty and wealth, weakness and power, tradition and rebellion. But in the end, always, every struggle is conquered by love.

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