The figures stand frozen under the glare of the lights and as the music strikes up,they break into life, kicking, swerving and jumping in synchronized arrangement.Wearing jeans turned up at the bottom, white trainers and T-shirts, some sporting bandannas and others wrist-bands, they shift, turn and move to the beat of hip-hop music, weaving in bouts of break dancing to create a hybrid somewhere between street dancing and gymnastics.
At the fore of the throng of teenage dancers is a young man of slight build, wearing a red Adidas T-shirt, with his hair carefully slicked to one side and combed out into curls at the back. Despite his diminutive size and boyish features, Amit Rokade is clearly the leader and takes the floor several times during the evening with a broad smile for a solo break dance performance.
Cheering him on wildly and applauding every move are his elder brother Abhishek and a core of childhood friends, each with their own distinctive hairdos, who make up the remainder of the group.
Born at the JJ Hospital in Mumbai on 26 June 1990—about a year before India set off on an accelerated path of economic liberalization—to Arun Rokade, a clerk, and Nanda Rokade, a day worker in a creche, Amit is representative of a generation of Indians who have benefited from an era of breakthrough reforms, including the introduction of policies to open up international trade and investment, deregulate the economy and privatize industries.
With the reforms came a host of opportunities for young people, including the liberalization of the media, access to information through cable television and valid career options such as hip-hop dancing. The granting of industry status to Bollywood in 2001 opened up new lines of funding and helped legitimize a previously murky industry, as associated with song-and-dance routines as it was with dirty money. This paved the way for the arrival of corporate production houses such as Yash Raj Films and UTV Motion Pictures, which kicked off the process of organizing the industry and, in turn, helped to make careers such as acting, dancing and directing more lucrative and socially acceptable for many young people.
Today, the media and entertainment industry is valued at Rs58,400 crore, and is projected to grow at a rate of 12.5% to Rs1.05 trillion by 2013, according to projections from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and audit and consultancy firm KPMG.
A shy 18-year-old who lists Michael Jackson and Omarion, the American R&B singer and dancer, as his role models, Amit was raised in the gritty north Mumbai suburb of Nallasopara, famed as a prominent township during the reign of emperor Ashok, but now a nondescript residential area, better known for its competitive property prices and excellent rail network.
He was introduced to dance as a three-year-old by his 30-year- old uncle Rohan, a choreographer who also runs the dance troupe, and the young dance-obsessed boy took every opportunity to practise his moves, on the streets, in his living room, on roof terraces and even in the classroom. The perseverance and passion paid off last year when Amit came in first on Boogie Woogie, the reality television contest that showcases young dancers’ talents, and provides them with a platform to market their acts.
The dance troupe, called Rohan and Group, also won the top prize in the group category on the show, elevating teenagers to the status of local celebrities.
"I started dancing when I was three years old," says Amit, speaking in Hindi which, along with Marathi, is his native language. "And now for the past five years my uncle has been training me. My ambition is to be a choreographer because I feel I have the quality of being a choreographer. But I am going to complete my graduation first and I have the full support of my family for this."
Rohan, who argues that dancing is a good career choice for his nephew because "there is a lot of money" in it, says budding dancers in India today have many more opportunities than his generation had access to.
Amit brings home Rs5,000 per show, an amount considerably superior to the Rs800 that Rohan earned when he was starting out.
"There were no television channels or reality shows during my time; only Boogie Woogie," says Rohan, who tried for five years to get a place on the reality television show before finally being allowed on as a contestant in 1999.
"It is much easier to get on to reality shows today because of an increase in the number of platforms available to showcase talent. It is a great career move because dancers today get paid more than we did. You also have a chance to travel."
Despite the uncertainties implicit in choosing a career as a dancer, Amit’s parents have been supportive and encouraging, he says—especially after Rohan’s success. The awards and recognition have also helped to convince his teachers to make allowances for the boy’s poor attendance record, says Amit, a first-year arts student at Viva College in Virar, north Mumbai, explaining that the principal and teachers are very supportive and excited about the dancers’ talent, and are prepared to allow them flexibility so long as they catch up on their work later. Although Amit and his fellow dancers only manage to make it to around 30% of the classes because of the time required to practise and to attend shows, he insists that his goal is to graduate from college.
The kudos, too, of having been approached to dance at an A.R. Rahman show, as well as on the Sony Ericsson advertisement alongside Hrithik Roshan, has helped to win over sceptics. "In my neighbourhood, people used to say if I am spending my childhood dancing, what will I do when I grow up," explains Amit, on getting past the social hurdles of choosing dance as a career. "Now they see that we come on screen and stuff, so they don’t say anything. Earlier they would talk, but not now."
He adds: "Also, my family is very disciplined. When it is time to study they tell me to leave this dancing and study. They are supportive of the dancing, but give equal importance to studies also. I like dancing. I can dance for 24 hours straight. But when I am at home, my mother is worried because I am dancing the whole time. So she says that I should also study."
Described by the judges on Boogie Woogie, including actor Jaaved Jaffrey, as shy and well-mannered, Amit comes to life around his friends as the centre of attention. Joking, laughing, playing practical jokes and with a mean talent for impersonation, he evidently relishes their company.
However, despite being the leader of the troupe, he prefers to let his peers do the talking during interviews and formal events, leaving him to focus on the dancing. His goals are clear and his focus is singular: He wants to be a choreographer, run his own school, innovate, create his own style of dancing and bring forms of dancing such as hip-hop to mainstream India.
I want to be a choreographer, but there is a lot of competition and I need to put in a lot of effort," explains Amit. "There is a lot of competition since there are a lot of competitors in this field, but because it is my passion, I will go for it. I have confidence in myself and I believe I can stand as a choreographer. My confidence in myself is very strong and it makes me believe that I can do it..."
He adds: "We want to promote the group and bring hip-hop dancing to Indian people. It is not very popular in India, so we want to make it more popular for it to be more in the mainstream. When the world gets involved in hip-hop dancing, then India should not be left out. India is also upgrading itself. We are moving and changing like other countries, so we should be included."
Politics—and girls—are relegated to passing interests for Amit, whose favourite activities outside dancing are honing graffiti art skills on his roof terrace with friends, playing football and video games, and taking photographs on his mobile phone. Though he shyly denies having a girlfriend, he admits that with his new found fame, attention from the opposite sex has rocketed. In addition, the troupe members says that since the wins on Boogie Woogie, they are being increasingly recognized outside of their Nallasopara stomping grounds, with the publicity from the show helping to generate interest.
They get calls to perform, sometimes several times a week, and sometimes abroad, with previous trips including Saudi Arabia, at a range of events, including wedding functions, private parties and concerts. "We are trying to promote ourselves," says Amit. "But we are also promoting the other people in our group. If we get calls, we put one another forward and give opportunities to the others too. If we share knowledge, then we get more knowledge too."
Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, he gradually warms to his theme, reflecting that young people only really know what opportunities exist if they have adequate information and exposure, and notes how the arrival of television shows such as Boogie Woogie, ever since India opened its doors to foreign investment and knowledge, have helped to shape attitudes and open minds.
In India, parents do not allow kids to develop hobbies," he says. "Abroad, kids start these things early. Here people know only money. Now that is changing to some extent. Now parents see the success of TV shows and are encouraged. Some shows are good, but others are too political. Reality shows have made a lot of difference. They must go on. They are a platform for people to show their talent."
He gave his first pay cheque of Rs500 to his mother, who insisted he take it back and spend it as he wished. He says that being able to earn money makes him happy and his parents also feel he is doing something worthwhile.
His closeness to his family is evident, and their role in shaping his views is especially clear in his relationship with his uncle Rohan, whom he describes as his "dance mentor". Another role model is his brother Abhishek, 20, also a dancer, who works as a choreographer in Bollywood and whom he goes to for advice about dancing and dance moves.
Although the family is not well off and trips or outings, such as to the movies, are rare and valued, they try to spend as much time together and often dance together at home. His mother, he adds with a laugh, doesn’t join in as she is not such a good dancer.
Largely unconcerned about politics, Amit says he will vote for the Shiv Sena during the coming general election because he feels the party will bring about some improvement and develop the area.
Influenced by his parents and uncle Rohan, who claim to have no interest in politics because of the perceived levels of corruption in it, he remains circumspect about the range and ability of political parties to effect change in society, adding that he doesn’t really bother to read newspapers.
Among his pet peeves, however, are the poor infrastructure in India, the garbage littered on the roads, overcrowding, especially on the trains, and the endemic corruption. "Given a chance, we would remove the parties from power, and then there would be a lot more things to do, but change has to come step by step," explains Amit, with the occasional opinion from one of his dance friends thrown in. "There are not enough jobs and too much corruption. And I will vote because I feel I should vote, but I believe politicians should have studied and have the knowledge about what they are doing first. They should have some idea of how to run a country, but most important, they should be educated."
Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint