Circa 1998. On the sets of Subhash Ghai’s Taal, starring Aishwarya Rai, Akshay Khanna, Anil Kapoor. For the song, Kahin aag lage paani mein, one of the group dancers from Shiamak’s Davar’s troupe has to drape a veil around Rai’s face as part of the dance. The boy chosen was Shahid Kapoor, all of 15.
Kapoor represents the ultimate dream for a Bollywood dancer: to go from being a figure in the shadows to the star in the spotlight. For many, even moving up the hierarchy from the back row to the front row is glory enough.
“Once a dance director (as choreographers are popularly called in Bollywood) spots you, he will bring you upfront, and then you are called for every song. Soon, other people spot you, and you are always busy,” says Longinus Fernandes, who choreographed A R Rahman’s Oscar-winning song, Jai Ho in Slumdog Millionaire.
He used all of 3,000 dancers at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station for the sequence. Fernandes works with a core team of 20 dancers, adding to the ranks when required.
Rozita Rajput, one of those dancers for eight years, is now his chief associate. Though initially aspiring to be an actress, she says, “I did whatever work came my way.” She moved on from the front row to doing music videos and item numbers but eventually turned choreographer.
There always has to be a Plan B, says Tarana Raja-Kapoor, Bollywood and TV actress, radio show host and emcee. Raja-Kapoor spent most of her early career dancing with Shiamak Davar’s troupe at award shows, and in the movies Taal and Dil To Paagal
Hai (which also had Shahid Kapoor
as a background dancer). She believes there is a dancing age — roughly 15
to 24, after which dancers become prone to injuries, knee and back
But there are some, like Aneesha Dalal of the Shiamak Davar Dance Company, who just keep on dancing (she’s been with the group since 1994, despite getting a break in advertising as the Liril girl).
According to choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Dhoom, Bunty Aur Babli, Saawariya) there are three types of dancers. “You can be a trained dancer — not very talented, but one who grows with work — which is where the majority fit. Or you can be a natural dancer, who can dance easily at any given time. Or you could be that rare species — a gifted dancer, who is a great combination of talent and training.”
But all three types have to be ready for the grind: the work is hard; the hours, long, sometimes unending. Says Rajput, “You are on call all the time; you have no life of your own.”
Adds dancer-turned-choreographer Kiran Giri, “Often we work day and night shifts, going from the hot sun in an outdoor location to an air-conditioned studio, all in the same day, with just two-three hours of sleep.” Giri got into Bollywood through an audition for the Aamir Khan-starrer Sarfarosh. Since then, he has worked with all the big names and choreographed the dance-reality show Saas vs Bahu last year.
A typical chorus line dancer could make anything between Rs 2,500 to 4,000 a day for a Bollywood song sequence. For tours, the rate could go up to Rs 15,000 a day, but the work is much harder as a dancer could have as many as 12 entries in a single show. “They can easily make Rs one lakh a month,” says Fernandes.
But sometimes the greed for money can be a bad thing, he adds. “The dancers could leave a song sequence shot in the sun in one film for another show that is being shot in an air-conditioned environment; there is no concept of loyalty.”
Choreographers and producers usually source their dancers from the Cine Dancers’ Association (CDA), which has around 600 members in Mumbai.
Derek Biswas, secretary of the 60-year old association, says, “From Rs 300 for an eight-hour shift 15 years ago, dancers can now make around Rs 3,000-4,000 a day. But sometimes they end up working 12-hour shifts too.” For Jai Ho, Biswas sourced 600 additional dancers from all over India.
Compare what background dancers make to smaller character actors on television who get paid Rs 1,500 – Rs 3000 per day, it seems good. But compare it to Bollywood stars who could get as much as Rs 5 lakh to 5 crore for a movie depending on their star power, or television stars who could make Rs 25,000-Rs 75,000 per day , and it might seem skewed.
But, whatever happens, sums up Fernandes, “The main aim for a background dancer is to always be busy, to keep dancing. ”