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The Globalization of Bollywood Dance

By Erica Marcoux, Smith College


Over the past few decades, Bollywood films have become their own distinct entity, given rise to a new variation of a genre of dance, and have developed into a globally recognized and appreciated phenomenon. Globalization is defined by dictionary.com as “the act of extending to other or all parts of the world”. In the case of dance, globalization takes place when dance companies go on tour, students go abroad or travel, and particularly since the dawn of the internet. Dancers may adopt movements from foreign genres, may train completely in various styles, and some will even work to adopt the cultural behaviors associated with a dance style. Others might put their own twist on a dance style to “make it their own” or to adapt the style to fit in with the context of dance in that culture. When dance forms become globalized, the question of whether or not the style can maintain its authenticity is raised. This, in turn, raises the question of what it means to be culturally authentic in the first place, as well as whether or not a style of dance can truly be possessed by a person or people. All of these questions become even more complex when looking at Bollywood dance, a form that in its “original” state was already a hybrid of elements of both Eastern and Western dance, but was located in India and primarily based on the classic Indian Kathak dance. Does this make it an Indian style of dance? By examining a brief history of the development of Bollywood films and dance, one can trace the evolution of Bollywood from a specific and hybridized movie dance form into a global phenomenon.


Bollywood films have been in production since the beginning of the 20th century. Similar to American films, Indian movies were originally silent, black and white films, and developed into “talkies” and musicals during the 1930s and 1940s. The first Hindi film with sound was Alam Ara, directed by Ardeshir Irani, and was released in 1931. The first talkie produced in India was Ayodhyecha Raja, directed by V. Shantaram and released in 1932 (Subhash, 1970). The early 1930’s  marked a time of great upheaval around the world, with the advent of the Great Depression, the start of World War II, and the Indian Partition. A potential explanation for the popularity of musicals at the time lies in these current events; the escapist and unrealistic nature of musicals is attractive when day-to-day life is overwhelming and distressing. The first Indian color film was produced in 1937, marking the start of the “Golden Age” of Indian cinema. The Golden Age lasted into the 1960s, and marks a period in which several of India’s classic and most popular films were created, as well as the time of India’s Independence. During this time, there was a growth in the commercial aspect of films, and a definition between commercial films and new wave films was unofficially established. The term “Bollywood” did not appear until the 1970s, when India surpassed the United States as the largest producer of films in the world. The name came from a combination of “Bombay” (which is now Mumbai, a cosmopolitan center of India, comparable to New York City in the United States) and “Hollywood” (Chidanand). “Bollywood” does not refer to films produced all throughout India, but to a specific region. Other areas of India and South Asia now have similar names, including Tollywood, Kollywood, Lollywood, and Dahliwood.

Following the Hollywood model, Bollywood films incorporated several aspects of musicals. During a movie, the characters would spontaneously burst into song, and at least one large “fantasy,” show-stopping number would be included. These sections of the films incorporate many theatrical elements, including costumes, lighting, special scenery or props, singing, and of course, dancing, as can be seen in the following clip from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, produced in movie form in 1955. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wMFXSFKRBU&feature=related[/youtube] In earlier Bollywood films, the style of dancing used was based on classical Indian dance or folk dances from throughout India. These dances included primarily the Kathak and Bharatanatyam, seen in the following images:

Since the inception of MTV the 1980s, Bollywood dancing has been heavily influenced by Western dance styles, and incorporates elements from American MTV and Broadway. In many cases, the musical numbers are released as separate music videos, and the soundtracks are released prior to the film, in order to further advertise the upcoming premieres. In modern Bollywood films, the musical numbers are oftentimes based on the hip-hop style of dance as well as the variations on hip-hop dance found in the music videos that are played on MTV in both the United States and in India. These images, from Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love music video, and from “Chhabeela, Saawariya” in 2007 show similarities between MTV and Bollywood music videos.

The inclusion of unrealistic music and dance sequences and the importance given to these music videos in Bollywood movies are a continuation of the escapist quality of films desired in the 1930s and 1940s, and put on display the extent to which these trends have circulated.
The musical numbers in Bollywood films most often include either the hero or heroine of the story, in addition to a large group of unnamed characters who have been hired as dance extras. The dance sections are often part of dream sequences or large production numbers that are disconnected from the plot line of the movie or have little to do with advancing the story. The songs being sung are most often Hindu, but may be heavily influenced by Western culture, or in some cases may be completely Westernized. Dressed in colorful and flashy costumes, the dancers perform on elaborate sets either on location in scenic regions or in artistically designed indoor settings, as can be seen in this image from Miranda Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, released in 2001. These elements add up to present a scene that is decorated with intricate details, brightly lit and embellished, and that feels separate from the “real world.” There are usually multiple musical numbers throughout a Bollywood film, but most Bollywood films are characterized by one major show-stopping performance. This number, referred to as the “item song,” is probably the longest and most fantastical of them all; characters will be seen in various costumes within the same song, and often bounce around from ornate location to ornate location and back again.

Parallel to the rapid expansion in communication technology and global interactions over the last few decades, the film industry grew, and movies from other countries became increasingly available  and accessible to the masses, particularly in terms of speed. Since roughly the 2000s, Bollywood has been the producer of the highest number of films per year, with an astounding average of over 1000 films per year. This is more than double the average number of films produced each year by Hollywood (Matusitz and Payano, 66). Today, one can purchase a Bollywood dance workout DVD, watch Bollywood routines on competition series “So You Think You Can Dance,”  which is broadcast in twenty-four different countries, attend numerous international film festivals that feature Bollywood films, sign up to take Bollywood dance classes at local studios, and more. One such studio, run by the Young Indian Culture Group in Albertson, New York, states:

Elaborate Bollywood dance numbers are an important highlight of Bollywood films. This engaging Indian dance style blends various dance forms including Indian classical dance, Indian folk, jazz influences, and Western popular.                                         (http://www.yicg.com/bollywood-dance-classes.asp).

This brings to the forefront the fact that instructors of Bollywood dance in the United States are conscious of the fact that Bollywood dance in itself consists of numerous elements and has many influences, and find this important to share with their potential students, thus amplifying the hybridity of Bollywood in a commercial way.

One way to look at Bollywood dance from a global perspective is to recognize it as a hybrid, globalized form even in its original, “authentic” state. The movements incorporated into early Bollywood films were based primarily on classical Indian dance and folk dances from the time, including both the Kathak and Bharatanatyam styles. This aspect of the dancing comes from  South Asian tradition and is based on Indian culture. The Western elements of Bollywood dance come into play in early Bollywood films mostly in terms of context. The set-up of having disconnected dance sequences that feature elaborate costumes, sets, choreography, and music dispersed throughout a movie is directly connected to the musicals being produced both by Hollywood and on Broadway during the early to mid-twentieth century. Currently, Bollywood dance is still influenced by Western culture, perhaps even more so than when it began. However, rather than taking their cues from Hollywood and Broadway, directors, producers, and choreographers are incorporating elements from music videos that one might view on MTV in both the United States and in India. These modern elements include the frequent costume and location changes during musical numbers, as well as the use of larger, more extroverted movements to capture an audience’s attention. “…the formation of Bollywood is a process at once entirely Indian and cross-cultural.” (Kao and Do Rozario, 313). The musical number “Mhare Hiwda Mein Naache Mor” from Sooraj R. Barjatya’s Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) uses both costume changes and drastic changes in location. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WkynEY0YfA&feature=related[/youtube]

Aside from the tremendous growth in technology and communication, the rapid spread and popularity of Bollywood films and dance can be attributed to migration. Close to 60,000 people leave India each year with the destination of the United States alone (NationMaster.com). The resulting Indian diaspora is large and quite prominent, and with the spreading of people from different cultures comes the dissemination of culture. As more and more individuals leave India, (many for business related reasons), the Indian population in countries outside of India increases and leads to the development of Indian communities in these countries. These communities are

dislocated from nation and establishing communal solidarity through shared cultural practices and media. The coincidence of ‘imagined space’ and ‘imagined community’ intimates a connection between Bollywood and its diasporic audiences defined by the act of imagination. (Kao and Do Rozario, 314).

The escapist nature of musical Bollywood films described previously causes these “imagined spaces” to be created, and allows for audience members to avoid reality and seek comfort in an imagined and fantasized world. In the case of the Indian diaspora, these films provide a means for remembering their home culture and reminding themselves of their Indian identities.

This appeal is, of course, not limited to Indian audiences; the pull for American audiences stems from a similar place. However, in this case, the desired escape is not to a place of imagined community, but to a place that is exotic and far away. Western culture holds a fascination with exoticism and, through media like films, makes elements of Eastern culture appear more foreign and different than they are in truth, and often does so by developing or reproducing stereotypes. In the case of Bollywood, audiences often see bejeweled women with dark eyes and long, dark hair singing in a different language and dancing in ways that are not common in the United States, in locations that are unfamiliar, providing the exotic and escapist quality of early and modern Bollywood films. The following clip puts this image of women prominently on display. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waEXlvat5GA[/youtube] Bollywood films have also become prominent in diverse Israel, and are featured at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. In Israel, there are two cable networks, “Hot Bombay” and “Yes India”, that are devoted solely to the playing of Indian films. Not only are Bollywood films and dance enjoyed by those in Israel, but they are part of a current process of collaboration between the Film Foundation of India and Israel’s Project Interchange and the American Jewish Committee to produce hybrid films.
Another contributor to the global spread of Bollywood film and dance is the growth of India as a world power. With a population of more than one billion, India ranks second in number of inhabitants in the world, and is continuing to grow significantly with each year. (http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats8.htm). Similarly, India is in the top five countries economically worldwide, and is a current model for successful education and business (therichest.org). Having these kinds of power means being an important influence on national and international culture. With the successes of India comes healthier finances, and with healthier finances comes the capacity for Bollywood to produce more and better films, for actors in the films to become celebrities, and for audience members to attend more movie showings. The prevalence of India in today’s world makes it a driving cultural force that is recognized at festivals and awards ceremonies internationally.


The existence and globalization of Bollywood dance can be viewed as both a positive and negative phenomenon. On the positive side, bringing dance to film is an effective method of both spreading the art of dance to the masses and inspiring people to participate in or become interested in the dance world. Propagating Bollywood dance creates a sense of multiculturalism in the countries it is brought to, and brings an awareness of a portion of Indian culture and dance to these countries.  When other dance traditions in these countries, incorporate elements of Bollywood dance into their own repertoire, it creates a fusion of styles, and expands the movement vocabulary accessible to both dancers and choreographers. Trained students or instructors can make adaptations to the dance style or use the movements from Bollywood as inspiration for a different piece of choreography. This exposure to “other” forms of dance not only provides opportunities for individuals to learn more about dance, but may inspire people to learn about tradition, and develop a better understanding and respect for other cultures.

On the other hand, there are several negative aspects in the globalization of Bollywood dance. While it can be seen as increasing multiculturalism, it is vital to note that Bollywood dance is not and cannot be considered representative of Indian dance or India. Making these assumptions or being oblivious to these facts leads to the production of or continuation of stereotypes that are unhealthy in creating a respectful, multicultural setting. This subliminal stereotyping is not exclusive to foreign films. For example, the way that the jitterbug might presented in a Hollywood movie doesn’t really represent the dance that originated out of black harlem culture. The context and intentions of the jitterbug as well as the depictions of the developers and dancers of the jitterbug are most likely inaccurate, and are most certainly incapable of representing an entire group of people. Another issue with Bollywood dance is the fact that its origins lie in a hybridization that makes some form of an exaggerated mockery of classical and traditional Indian dance forms.

Writer Drid Williams discusses his strong disgust toward the dance style in an article that connects Bollywood dance to post-modern dance:

Bollywood’s originators and managers are aware of the rules of Indian aesthetics, Indian           dancing and the many traditions that over the centuries produced India’s dance     forms…Bollywood’s pundits undoubtedly know—or at least know about—such things, but they have chosen rampant commercialism and consumerism with its inherent tastelessness instead. (Williams, 21).

Williams’ point of view brings up the question of authenticity in dance traditions. The Kathak’s roots are in storytelling, and the movements were often performed as part of some rituals. Bharatantayam is even further linked to spirituality; in its early forms, dating back to 1000 BC, the dance was performed as an act of the utmost devotion to the Hindu gods. The Western adaptations made to and the sexualization of the classical Kathak and Bharatanatyam dance forms may be considered offensive, and in being altered, may lose their original intentions and meanings.


Bollywood films and dance are, and continue to become, globally recognized as major elements of the Indian culture. These Indian films are prime examples of globalization, as they involve a hybridization between the West and India, migration, and the global propogation of Bollywood with the growth of India as a world power. Through the means of technology and communication, migration, and India’s increasing power and influence in the world, the dance style has been quickly dispersed throughout the world. As Bollywood films and dance become more popular, the dance form itself has taken on many forms and adaptations. Now, the dance style can be used as an element for musical films, taught in classes, performed in competitions, or used as a form of exercise. As the already hybridized dance form continues to be altered and expanded upon, it becomes questionable as to whether or not globalization is a positive or negative phenomenon. Bollywood on a global level can lead to financial gains as well as recognition for India, but it also perpetuates stereotypes. Also, an increase in the recognition of dance can be viewed positively, while the alteration of a cultural treasure can be viewed as both offensive and unnecessary. Whether or not this question of positivity or negativity is ever answered, one fact remains clear: globalization is a force that takes place for numerous reasons and on many levels, and one that does not look like it will cease any time in the near future.


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Morcom, Anna. “An Understanding between Bollywood and Hollywood? The Meaning of     Hollywood-Style Music in Hindi Films.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 10.1 (2001):     63-84. JStor. Web.

K. Jha; Subhash (2005). The Essential Guide to Bollywood. Roli Books. p. 1970

Rajghatta, Chidanand (6 July 2008). “Bollywood in Hollywood”. The Times of India.


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