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Dance like a man

Why Manoj Bajpayee's rivetting 'Taandav' reminds me of Christopher Walken in 'Weapon of Choice'

Manoj Bajpayee in the short film ‘Taandav’<br />
Manoj Bajpayee in the short film ‘Taandav’

In Devashish Makhija’s riveting new short film Taandav, a constable named Tambe (Manoj Bajpayee) points a gun at two men who have been getting on his nerves. “Naach", he tells them, with all the authority conferred by uniform and position, but then, a few seconds later, he begins to dance himself. That’s an inadequate description though—it would be more accurate to say that he does a delirious, uninhibited version of Lord Shiva’s taandav, which is many different things depending on how you view it: a dance of creation or destruction, despair or catharsis, or all of these.

Tambe has been having a hard time of it, we learn early in this 11-minute movie (which you can watch online here ). He can’t afford the fees needed to send his little girl to a good school. He then passes up a chance to purloin a stash of black money and share it with two other policemen (no one else was likely to find out). His wife and daughter are sad, the cops are frustrated, things have come to a boil—and now, faced with the pagan revelry of a Ganesh Visarjan night, something inside him explodes. At first his dance is both menacing and mildly comic—you wonder if he is having a mental breakdown. But it becomes a kinetic exercise in self-expression.

Despite the taandav reference, the first image that leapt to my mind while watching this scene was from a non-Indian source: actor Christopher Walken’s dance performance in the Fatboy Slim music video Weapon Of Choice (if you haven’t seen it, drop everything and go watch it now. Again, YouTube is your friend).

What connects the two scenes? Both are funny and unexpected—you shake your head disbelievingly even as you admire the actors’ work—and this is partly because the characters are dour-looking patriarchal figures. Both men are also constrained by clothes that don’t seem right for exuberant dancing: Tambe is in a well-fitting police uniform, while the Walken character (a morose businessman?) is in a formal suit and tie. The costumes are suggestive of the larger shackles that such men can find themselves in—as authority figures who are expected to be detached and in control, not go wild, much less perform for the amusement of others. And the dances are acts of liberation. Tambe has stepped out of his straitjacket (this episode will lead to him literally losing his uniform, too) and plays his own tune. The Voltaire quote that ends Makhija’s film—“Man is free at the moment he wishes to be"—finds an echo in some of the Fatboy Slim song lyrics: Check out my new weapon, weapon of choice and If you walk without rhythm, ah, you never learn.

A fevered dance as a transcendental act, as a discovery of new possibilities: This is something we usually associate with female performers in our cinema—whether it is Waheeda Rehman’s legendary snake dance in Guide (where the character, Rosie, goes back to what she loves best, her art) or Madhubala’s Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya in Mughal-e-Azam (a courtesan defies an empire and turns a showy palace into her personal hall of mirrors) or, in a less weighty mode, Sridevi’s Kaate Nahin Kat Te in Mr India (the no-nonsense, Lois Lane-like heroine gets in touch with her sexually desirous side).

Male actors? Not so much. I grew up in an era where some leading men—Mithun Chakraborty, Rishi Kapoor, Kamal Haasan—were adept on their feet, but the musical scenes were mostly romantic ones rather than intense solos. Besides, consider deeper history. It is well-chronicled that before Shammi Kapoor (a phenomenon unto himself), dancing did not come naturally to our male actors; they were more often passive spectators, or grinning beneficiaries of a woman’s attentions. Dilip Kumar did his first full-fledged dance scene 17 years into his career, in Gunga Jumna. And though we think of Dev Anand as the unruffled romantic hero, he had some surprisingly awkward moments when called upon to dance. Tasveer Teri Dil Mein from the 1961 Maya is a lovely song, but watch the scene: Anand is passable when he is just bobbing his head and clasping his hands while Mala Sinha does most of the work, but when the framing forces him to jig along in a full-body shot, it resembles a Jar Jar Binks action sequence from the Star Wars prequels.

No wonder then that Tambe’s dance is so uplifting, despite the grimness of his situation. The family’s troubles can have only grown with his suspension, yet the film’s closing scene is a warm, optimistic one: watching his wife and daughter watching a YouTube video of his taandav, he chuckles, and then they all laugh together. His momentary act of transgression has, as with Shiva’s dance, remade a world.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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