Underground Diaries, Part 44
Not long after this feature was published, Yahoo pulled the plug on Underground. Of course I regretted it, we had barely scratched the surface of American subcultures…
Next time you find yourself with a gun to your head, a suggestion: Slap on an outrageous grin and bust your best moves through undulating bolts of colorful fabric and a phalanx of bhangra-ing backup dancers.
If you know anything at all about Bollywood movies, you’ll know it works every time: A (literally) loaded situation is abruptly forgotten — at least for the duration of a song — in favor of a show-stopping, pop-hop, Hindi song & dance number that invariably celebrates the loveliness of love and the manliness of men.
Turns out it’s not just in Bollywood movies where that ploy works. I met all kinds of college kids employing the maneuver earlier this year at the Hindi film dance competition known as Bollywood Berkeley (as in University of California, Berkeley).
Of course, the coeds there faced no actual threats to life or limb that I was aware of — otherwise, I’d have alerted authorities. Still, the vast majority were first-gen American kids of Indian parents, a group that’s legendary for having high scholastic expectations. So naturally, the young ‘uns needed stress relief.
Now, you may not consider subsisting on cinnamon buns and diet soda, while rehearsing yourself into the ground in order to polish choreography you’re still trying to remember over a weekend you should be studying… to be stress relief.
Then again, odds are you haven’t attended a Hindi film-dance competition.
Competitions pit teams from Indian clubs at rival colleges against one another (Bollywood Berkeley featured 12 teams, each comprised of 10 to 20 dancers, and included entrants from UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley and Stanford). The teams do battle with big dance numbers choreographed to a medley of songs from au courant Bollywood soundtracks.
The dance numbers — which must include at least four costume changes — are equal parts art, camp and fire drill. They’re judged on concept, choreography, execution, sets and costumes.
At Bollywood Berkeley, additional big points appeared to be awarded for the tenacity and volubility of fans, and for how maniacally happy teams could appear throughout their performances.
Regardless of exact judging criteria, Bollywood Berkeley was a knock-down-and-drag-out for the ages.
And that was just for the audience.
For hour-after-grueling-hour that Bollywood night, chants and cheers of team spirit and alma mater madness rose in Oakland’s Scottish Rite Center (the site of this year’s event).
Repeated technical problems bloated the show’s run time, and temperatures inside the auditorium were more Bombay than East Bay. No one gave an inch.
At times, the cheering grew so loud that, if you closed your eyes, you could have been at an arena for a big game rather than in a big theater for a dance-off.
(Note to college sports fanatics, boosters and bookmakers: Get your season tickets now or get them later on eBay at a premium.)
Performances opened with hammy videos made by (and featuring) team members. The clips set up the characters and common Bollywood storylines the teams would then portray in dance and, sort of, pantomime.
Team-after-team took to the stage to put on exuberant displays for an audience of predominantly Indian decent: proud parents, baffled grandparents, supremely patient uncles and aunties, shrilly-cheering kid sisters.
There were African-American and white kids on teams at the event, too; being Indian isn’t a prerequisite for participation. Still, the competitions are an Indian club thing. Most participants are of Indian decent.
“I grew up watching Hindi films with the family,” says Suraj Arora, captain and lead dancer of Univ. of Southern California’s Anjaane team. So did most of his team members.
And most of them will tell you that a positive upshot of their participation in the “sport” has been the connection to their parents, their cultural heritage and mores that full Bollywood immersion fosters.
Arora, like most of the other young dancers, is also into the randomness of the genre. “You see a song — a bunch of people dancing to it — changing clothes randomly,” he says, smiling wryly. “Things popping out of nowhere, nothing really makes sense.”
“It’s a great escape,” says Amrita Mapara. “I’m an accounting major, so coming here and doing this is completely different.”
I suspect getting to hang out and dance (in close proximity) with members of the opposite sex is also a selling point for the young coeds. Though I was told that, at least for members of USC’s Anjaane team, any flirting ended once preparations got serious.
And preparations are serious. Details regarding costumes, dance moves and sets are guarded like state secrets: Teams hope to unleash shock and awe on rival teams at the eleventh hour (dress/tech rehearsal) when it’s far too late to respond.
They analyze videotape of their performances like athletes and coaches. And, as hinted at above, they adhere to strict training table diets, apparently all with pizza and Red Bull at their core (CinniBuns and Fresca, on the side).
Hindi film dance competitions have been going on at colleges in the states for five or six years.
Events generally take place in winter and spring at select universities (including UCLA and Penn State). They’ve yet to become a college sports staple, but they do offer high drama.
Bollywood Berkeley did. Even if — as is often the case with Bollywood films — audiences weren’t always sure what the drama was about. It was nothing a good song & dance number (actually, 12) couldn’t fix.
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