Looking at Dance in the classic film Chandni (1989)

In 1989 the film Chandni was released. It had nine songs some of which were filmed in Switzerland and the choreography was by Saroj Khan. The film starts with Rohit, (Rishi Kapoor), meeting Chandni, (Sridevi), at a wedding. Rohit is particularly struck by Chandni’s charm in the song Mere Hathon Mein which she performs in front of an all-female audience the night before the wedding unaware that Rohit is surreptitiously watching. What is striking about the dance is the different styles of dance Chandni uses in the one song. From Indian folk steps to clapping steps akin to the Garba style, she tells the story of a bride who is adorned with bangles who jokingly tells her groom to go back – she doesn’t want to go with him as he will annoy her all night! Towards the end of the song she even attempts some Bharata Natyam with token hand gestures – but the bride-to-be gestures that this isn’t working – so Chandni resorts to Bhangra instead.

Rohit and Chandni fall in love and he proposes. Rohit’s family are completely against this relationship because Chandni is not from the same social class as they are. She is considered middle class and he is upper class. In the scene when Rohit’s family come to meet Chandni and her family, she is sitting on a stage, whilst the guests and Rohit’s family are part of the audience. This time, it is another female member of Chandni’s family that dances. But, she isn’t very good – and goes to Chandni and encourages her to dance. Chandni refuses – but Rohit persuades her to do so. So Chandni stands up and dances to Main Sasural Nahin Jaoongi (I won’t go to my marital home) a song which humorously suggests that all Rohit’s family send her messages to come ‘home’ but she refuses. In the end, she sings that her love (Rohit) sends her a message – and then she can find no excuses – she will run barefoot to be with him and will never leave him. Rohit’s family are incensed – firstly that their future daughter-in-law is dancing in public and by what they see as an insult through the song – not finding any humour in it!

A really telling scene in the film is during the engagement when the groom’s family give a gift to the bride. In this case Rohit’s sister gives Chandni a pair of ghungroos (dancing bells for a dancers feet). Rohit is furious and Chandni’s family distraught by this present. It is seen as an insult to suggest that she is ‘a dancing girl’. What is interesting about this is that although Chandni, a middle class girl is allowed to dance at family functions, when it is suggested that she may want to dance ‘professionally’ this is an insult.

Most of the songs are filmed in Switzerland with Rohit and Chandni running through the Swiss mountains. The dancing is fairly non-descript and it is the scenery that captures the imagination rather than the dancing. In one scene, Rohit is imagining Chandni dancing to an instrumental piece of music. The moves here allude themselves to classical dance – namely Bharata Natyam – but the hand gestures are not clear, the footwork is unpolished and keeping it in the ‘filmi’ style the choreographer has added instances of swinging hips and heaving breasts. In all dances, it is Chandni’s (Sridevi’s) expressions and storytelling that really stand out.

Although some of the dances are relevant to the film, and help the narrative along, there are songs which are completely unnecessary, and one feels that the director was making full use of being on location in Switzerland* by shooting as many song-dance sequences as possible. In fact, as mentioned in the previous section, there is a whole dream sequence complete with dialogue and song where Chandni is imagining her honeymoon in Switzerland – even before she is married (Yash Raj Films, 1989 [DVD]).

*Song-dance picturisations can also be said to be an advert for exotic (or not so exotic locations). It is widely acknowledged that director Yash Chopra introduced Switzerland as one of the main destinations for Bollywood film shoots in the 1980s. Speaking to Karan Johar (The Making of Chandni, 2000 [DVD]), Chopra talks about how there is even a lake named in Switzerland after him – Chopra Lake!

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