The chorus line

When they dance in the films–the beauteous heroine and her female cohort, try to drag your eyes away from the supple Aishwarya and look at her companions. One of the enduring cruelties of Bollywood and all its Subcontinental offsprings in the national and regional cinema has been the relegation of the 'ugly' into the ranks of the dancers in accompaniment.

The audience gets the message loud and clear, as do these professional artistes who are forced to gyrate in the background. Here is the heroine. She epitomises purity, beauty and sensuousness. Those are the backup dancers, the chorus line. They dance well, sometimes better than the leading lady, but they are not front-screen material. They are dark, have small eyes, long chins, faces that are too broad. They are short in the neck, or have kinky and oily hair.

These support dancers must never be allowed to steal the limelight from the leading lady. This is a tacit understanding in which the producer, director, leading lady, as well as the audience by the millions are complicit. Never should the natural attractiveness of a dancer in the background – perhaps her smile, perhaps her movements – divert the viewers' eyes from Aishwarya.

And so, firstly, tell them to cut the eye-contact with camera. The chorus line is simply to present secular, controlled smiles, but nothing that dazzles. Secondly, keep the camera off the ladies at the back, have them provide nothing more than a shimmering coordinated backdrop for the ivory-skinned heroine to frolic in front of.

It must be quite a feat for the chorus line to dance professionally, and yet not attract attention. It must also be rather demoralising, knowing that you are there because everyone knows you are unattractive according to the mores of the day. Nothing must detract from the queen bee being given her due – the dance movements, the attractive dress, the spotlight and the camera angles.

It is something we do particularly well in South Asia. Tell people to their face, or at the very least imply, that they are beneath par – in this case unattractive. The chorus line dancers know that they have been chosen because they have not the power to divert attention of the audience. And what of the producer and director? They know what they need to do — feed the audience a bevy of women, all of them nicely trussed but without the ability to divert the eyes from the heroine.

For more than eighty years, the producers and directors have been giving us the chorus line with ugly ducklings without them ever changing into long-necked – and fair – swans. It is their lot for the ducklings to know their station and stay there.

Is there a way out of this situation? I think so: sabotage and/or revolt.

The next time they stage a song-and-dance number, perhaps the chorus line could go on strike? Or feign en masse diarrhoea. Or insist that the steps provided by the dance director are impossibly complicated. They can also try and ruin the script by directing dazzling come-hither-my-baby smiles at the camera and audience, the kind that would finish the career of the heroine there and then.

The best would be if the chorus girls were to set up a cooperative, which would then produce a film in which the darkest girl from the back-most in the chorus line would wrest the hero from Aishwarya. This lady would be a great dancer, mahogany dark, short-in-the-neck, a nose to do the Rani of Jhansi proud, thick waist, beady eyes, heavy eyebrows, muscular arms, and closely clipped nails. But boy can she dance!! Meanwhile, someone has slipped a couple of betel nuts into Aishwarya's dancing shoes so that she limps, stumbles and ruins each and every pirouette.

Given such a turn of event, Salman the hero looks at the ladies at the back and spots our dusky beauty of ample girth. Aishwarya weeps and wails but to no avail, it is no longer part of the script. The last song-and-dance has our new heroine – call her Surpanakha – doing a number on a Mauritius beach with a bevy of dancers completely out of focus in the background. But wait, what do I see, there at the very end of the line, the last dancer. Is this retribution at last? Yes! It is Aishwarya.

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Himal Southasian