The attempt of this paper is to look at Michael Jackson's influence amongst the Indian middle-class in the 1990s. Inspired by his particular style of dancing, a slew of performers and choreographed adapted and re-purposed it to define ideas of the newly emerging liberalized nation. Using Jackson's performance became a tool of breaking out of older ideas yet, Jackson's body remained invisible. In a country that is so socially divided and where the concept of "colorism" is used for caste hierarchies, black bodies are separated from the black performance.
Michael Jackson's "American" identity made him aspirational to the Indian masses while his performance made him an icon. In between those two, his black body became invisible and deracialized.
Key words: Michael Jackson, Prabhudeva, Disco, Dancing, Indian Michael Jackson, black performance, blackness, performance,
In 1994, as a young kid, I remember becoming obsessed with a song "mukkala mukabala" featuring two unknown South-Indian actors from a South Indian film Kandhalan (Loverboy) which had been dubbed into Hindi. My friends and I would sing along and wait for TV program that would feature the song, even borrowing the cassette from a friend to listen to it on loop. What struck us even then as kids was that we were obsessing over a song that was completely different from the Bombay cinema style that we were used to. Song and dance sequences have always been an integral part of Indian cinema from early days to the present - not only was it the catchy music, with lyrics that made no sense, the choreography was completely unlike what we had seen before.
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Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti have argued how song and dance sequences have always been a part of the production and circulation of films and add an additional element to the entertainment it becomes a sort of axis along which narrations of desire and identification are negotiated. While being integral to the narrative they also circulate autonomously - as objects of "aesthetic pleasure and promiscuous reproduction". But unlike the American genre system where musicals are a genre by themselves, there is no such genre classification in Indian cinema as all commercial films, irrespective of whether they are melodrama, romance or gangster – all feature song and dance sequences. What is also unique to Indian cinema is that they feature something called an "item number"- a risqué raunchy titillating sequence which does not propel the narrative forward but is added as an incentive for the viewers.
Mukkala Mukabala however was not an item song. It was more a fantasy song which was incorporated into the narrative after the male protagonist who had been falsely imprisoned was finally released - and the picturization and the lyrics of the song centered around breaking out of that imprisonment. But as kids what stood out for us more than the catchy rhythm was the choreography which was unlike a Bollywood dance sequence. The Bollywood style of dancing is generally a mish mash of various styles, having its own rhythm and generally includes a lot of bust and hip gyrations. But the aforementioned song, combined a variety of dance movements, from Indian, to street style, maybe a bit of disco but most importantly it, simulated Michael Jackson's body movements. For Indian audiences it was the first time that they were being performed by an Indian performer in a popular commercial film.
Prabhudeva, the protagonist of the film who also choreographed the dance sequences is known for his distinct choreography style and is regularly featured in newspaper and magazine articles as one of India's best dancers and is often called the "Indian Michael Jackson"2 by popular press and magazines. In many of his interviews, the actor admitted having been inspired by Michael Jackson's dancing style and he was even a part of a 1999 Michael Jackson tribute concert in Munich3. Not only is he a classically trained dancer in two dance forms- Bharat Natyam and Udupi but is also trained in "western dance"4 and his fluid body movements and dexterity demonstrate his familiarity with different genres of dancing often synthesizing both the Indian and the western form in his choreography.
Thus, the attempt of this paper is to understand Jackson's influence on Indian masses through the homage paid to his style by many of the Indian choreographers, particularly Prabhudeva. With cable television and the proliferation of cassettes, Jackson invaded the middleclass household, becoming the first "western/ American"5 performer to have that kind of mass appeal in India.
In this paper I will attempt to look at how Michael Jackson's performance was delinked from his racial identity, where the performance became a symbol of "cool Americanization" in a country with strong caste and class hierarchies and where social acceptance is strongly dependent on the skin color. Yet, Jackson's American identity allowed him to transgress over his racial identity in Indian minds.
Prabhudeva and Southern cinema
To give a quick history of what constitutes Bollywood and the regional film industries, although Bollywood has come to denote a sort of pan-Indian cinema while talking about Indian films, there is in reality no pan-Indian cinema. Bombay cinema is one the biggest and most popular film producing region in the country primarily making films in Hindi. Alongside there are several regional industries6 whose histories date back to the early 20th century, much like the Bombay cinema. Although regional film industries usually have a smaller audience catering only to the native speakers of that region, however, the Southern states released films dubbed in the four southern languages for greater accessibility.
Kandhalan was released in 1994 in Tamil language but was also dubbed in Telugu as Premikudu and in Hindi as Humse Hai Muqabala. A political thriller, the narrative centered around a middle-class boy in love with the state governor's daughter whose father not only disapproved of the relationship but was also attempting to topple the state government and create an atmosphere of anarchy. The young protagonist gets to know about it, and manages to thwart the evil plans, save the city and reunite with his girlfriend. Although the narrative was nothing new in comparison to many other similar commercial films that have similar story lines- poor boy- rich girl-opposing father-love saves the day, what made this film stand apart was not only the music but also the dances.
Despite being a political thriller, a large part of the film was devoted to dance and various dance forms. The female protagonist is a trained classical dancer specializing in Bharat Natyam style which has its origins in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and is an expression of religious and spiritual ideas. The male protagonist is a street dancer and within a few minutes of his introduction on screen, he breaks out dancing with his friends atop buses and cars on the roads of Chennai. But upon realizing that the only way to woo his lady love would be to learn Bharat Natyam, he enrolls in her dance academy, and although initially turned off by his street dancing skills, she later reciprocates his feelings after he demonstrates his classical dancing skills.
In fact, in a case of real and reel life getting intermeshed, Prabhudeva a classical dancer in real life sneers in the film at the rigorous training required by classical dancers to achieve a level of expertise. In a montage sequence lasting a couple of minutes, he becomes from a non-dancer to an expert mocking his girlfriend's efforts and years, becoming an expert in only a few days.
In a film making a point about various classical dance forms, none of the song-anddance-sequences are choreographed using any Indian dance form. While there are a couple of scenes when the two protagonists perform Bharat Natyam yet, every time the narrative breaks into a song sequence, the protagonists break into western dance movements. These dance movements are mash-up of various styles, adhering to no notion of purity and such form of dancing has become synonymous with what could be now be loosely defined as a - Bollywood form of dancing- which is synonymous not just to Bombay/Hindi films but also regional films.
To give an example, the introductory song Urvashi Urvashi which acted not just as an introduction to the film, setting it within an urban context but also showcased Prabhudeva's skills as a dancer. The song was supposed to symbolize the urban coolness of the 1990s with the choreography portraying the hero and his friends as "cool" urban youth who could break into a "western" form of dancing.
Western Dancing and sexual liberty
Prabhudeva's Michael Jackson inspired western choreography however was not the first time that a western dance form had been adapted by Indian actor and choreographers. In the 1970 and '80s disco music took the nation by storm when some of the biggest composers began using it in Bombay cinema. Actors like Mithun Chakrabarty became particularly famous for their disco moves even starring in a film called Disco Dancer. Drawing inspiration from films like Saturday Night Fever (1977).
One of the biggest music composers who made Disco music popular in India was Bappi Lahiri, who in an interview had mentioned watching Saturday Night Fever in the US before returning to compose similar kind of music in India. The point I am trying to make here is that in the 1970s and '80s Bombay cinema had already familiarized Indian viewers with a particular kind of dance aesthetics, and while the dance form became popular, its performers did not. While the disco mania of the '70s, Bollywood's disco films cannot be analyzed using the same historiography as Hollywood films because of a difference in context, the same rings true for Michael Jackson's performance as well.
Richard Dyer, in his polemical essay In Defence of Disco, contrasts disco's pervasive, egalitarian sensuality with the phallocentricism of rock music, "The difference between them lies in what each 'hears'…disco music…hears the physicality in black music and its range. It achieves this by a number of features, including the sheer amount going on rhythmically in even quite simple disco music."
Against the backdrop of economic reforms, political effervescence and technological transformations, western dance represented an occasion for freedom: it promised unemployed young men a way out of poverty, allowed young bodies belonging to various sociocultural strata of the metropolis to interact with each other and tantalized a generation of Indians with the promise of liberalization's material pleasures. Much like the disco in American cinema, where dance became a means to a desirable end: a better life, romantic success and liberation from orthodoxy, all of which were themes touched upon in Bollywood's disco films as well, albeit routed through the melodramatic imagination peculiar to popular Indian cinema.
Bethe Genne argues how while Saturday Night Fever may have revived the film street dancing genre, but it was further invigorated by the infusion from the real street where African American hop-hop, and within a decade street dancing was further revitalized by Michael Jackson and his performers who used video/DVD visual medium to popularize it. What made Jackson so successful was that he was able to use new tools from the computer age to make street dancing acquire a new-age coolness.
Taking off from Genne, I argue that some of those very features were the reason why Jackson's form of dancing became popular in India – as not only was he seen as an American performer but he epitomized the urban coolness and relatability which the Indian masses had formed with any other American performer. Although artists and performers like The Beatles, George Harrison, Elvis Priestly had trickled down – they were popular with the urban, upper middle-class youth.
In Michael Jackson, the aspirational newly liberalized youth found an icon whose videos struck a chord with the them. "Americanization" was no longer an aspiration only for the wealth, but economic liberalization and the availability of American goods (clothes, tv shows, films, food) within an easy grasp of the middle-class well. Thus, by the time the film hit the theatres and mukkala mukabala was played on re-runs on television and radio station, Indian masses were already familiar with some of American ideas and places that were mentioned in the song lyrics.
The picturization of the song is a bizarre dreamlike sequence set in the wild west and feature the two protagonists on horsebacks. The female protagonist saves the male from being hanged by two white, presumably American outlaws. They escape to a tavern and from then it is a series of clichés off what American wild west looks like, with dancing cowboys and men drinking beer, and scantily clad women. The lyrics make no sense- "Jurassic park mein sundar se jode jazz music gaye milke, Picasso ke painting mera peecha pakar Texas mein naache milke,
Cowboy dekhe mujhe, playboy chede mujhe" (In Jurassic Park beautiful couples sing Jazz Music, Picasso's painting chases me and we dance together in Texas, while cowboys check me out and playboys tease me) but the point was never to make sense. It was always about the novelty of seeing cowboys on the Indian screen and singing and dancing about Texas, Cowboys and Jurassic Park with a familiarity that had hitherto been missing.
Thus, the radicalization of visual culture was also experienced at an aural level with the inclusion of foreign structures and patterns into traditional Hindi music thus opening up of the middle-class towards newer forms and experimentations in music and dance forms. A new middle-class youth culture was being created in cities which was very different from what it had been before with tensions between the bourgeoning modernity and a traditional past that still held a strong sway on public imagination. Arjun Appadurai has described globalization's "complex, overlapping, disjunctive order as something that cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models" and Prabhudeva's dancing body becomes a map for the affects of globalization.
Yet, Ashish Rajyadhyaksha has analyzed the Hindi film industry's attempts at a "westward" expansion during the past decade and has questioned whether Bollywood was on a path of complete imitation of Hollywood. While there were strong cases of imitation in Bombay cinema where the industry wanted to appear "modern" and "cool" Jackson defied that. It was through Jackson that they realized that coolness was not necessarily inherited from other cultures, but rather it was one's own lived experiences.
Marshall McLuhan's argument of the "aural-tactility" (72) can easily be used in the case of this film in the way that its music and dance reacted to newer forms of listening and seeing through cassettes and television programs. In a society that is so obsessed with tracing lineage to ancient ages, maintaining social and caste hierarchies, and phobic about bodies touching one another- Michael Jackson's dancing style was almost scandalous in the way in which it transgressed all the former points. In a "modern" India, the only way for the youth to be modern was by breaking out of the previous restrictions, and Jackson's dancing style provided an arena for the bodies to perform the transgressions.
The de-racialization of the black body
D Soyini Madison and Judith Hamara in the introduction to the Sage Handbook of Performance Studies have highlighted the transnational nature of performance arguing how air travel, internet, digital and telecommunication technologies have brought distant cultures into close proximation, even though at times the cultures and lives of those images and visuals maybe completely alien to us. Using de Certeau, they argue that performance becomes the enactment and evidence of stories that "literally and figuratively bleed across the borders that national boundaries cut up (xx). They further argue how performance travels transnationally between local and the global so that "we may be witnesses and co-performers of a politics of culture beyond our own borders. The way the "local" is affected by transnational communication and afflictions has extended our understanding of community, nation and identity" (xx).
Michael Jackson in that sense was the first transnational star to invade Indian culture, a young African American, a performer extraordinaire who signified American coolness for most of India. His racial politics was delinked from his identity and it was only his performance and American identity that was spoken about and emulated. E Patrick Johnson argues how Blackness is a simulacrum until it is practiced – performed and racial performativity becomes the process by which the body is invested with social meanings. And while that may be true in the context of America, I argue that black bodies and performance acquire a different notion in India.
Borrowing the concept of "colorism" which is used in a very different context in African-American race critical studies, I would like to argue that Indian social hierarchy is similarly divided and defined by skin color where, the lighter skin tone denotes upper-caste status and darker hues the lower caste. It is also sharply divided in popular imagination that people from southern region of the country are darker hence worth ridiculing since the "normal", is the fair-skin North Indian upper caste person. From cinema, to media- both television and print, to advertisements, to stories, novels, mythologies and from ancient times to the present, there has been a certain pre-occupation with the lighter skin tone.
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Prabhudeva with his darker skin tone and non-traditional looks performed the "American" coolness subverting the hegemony of the fair-skin upper caste North Indians. Bombay film heroes were expected to be "manly", "macho", "conventionally good looking with good physique", "North-Indian" and "lightskinned" all of which went against Prabhudeva's darker skinned, lanky body. His was a body that would not stand out in a crowd except while dancing.
And that is what makes Michael Jackson's popularity interesting in India, with Indian choreographers being inspired by his style, they were paying a homage to him and were not mimicking him or his blackness. To make a distinction here, in 1984 after the release of Thriller, a similar indigenous video was made for a B-cinema complete with the zombies, red leather jacket and black face – that, I argue was a mimicry not just his performance but his racial identity.
But Loverboy used dance as a form of resistance against older social order and patriarchy, in a way commemorating African American dance performances. Thomas DeFrantz has argued how black social dances contained both public and private meanings. Bringing up historian Robert Hinton's debates he further elaborates in how, Afro-American dance split into two basic streams of which the first stream was more 'African, ' and the second stream was the dance that black people created for white people. It second stream was more 'European, ' both because of the technique and because the dance was created under differing degrees of duress for the pleasure of the audience. Thus, even in denying his blackness, Indian dancers were reading the nuances of the black 'performing' body which had been etched on to him. For them, Jackson's American identity was too powerful that it overshadowed his race politics.
Street dancing across the world can be understood as a performance that challenges the hegemony of classical dance forms. While not having its own style of street dancing, certain choreographers like Prabhudeva adapted the style to make it very Indian in its aesthetics. A viewer watching Mukkala Mukabla would find it difficult to distinguish it from 'Bollywood dance' but the past twenty years have seen a change in the style of choreography, and a lot of it can be attributed to Prabhudeva's influence on Bollywood.
The Southern industries have usually been more open to changes, adapting newer styles and techniques and in the 1990s was seen as more experimental when juxtaposed against Bollywood which was more conventional. While Michael Jackson was undoubtedly one of the biggest performers in the 1990s to visit India as was evident by the response of his fans to his Bombay tour in the late 1990s, but I argue that Prabhudeva rendition of Jackson's performance made the latter seen more approachable and not an American performer. In the twenty years, since it was first aired on television, the song has achieved cult status today, its dance moves instantly recognizable to everyone.
4 I have found no reference to his western dance training, but various interviews and newspaper and magazines only referred to it.
5 I am using the two terms inter-changeably in the case of India as in the 1990s, they denoted towards the same thing.
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Ashish Rajadhyaksha, "Bollywoodization of Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena," Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 4, no. 1 (2003): 25-39.
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjT12Ce0Kw8 (Mukkala Mukabla, the song from Loverboy)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGiixK8t3qo (The 1984 caricaturish video of Thriller)
 Although the term Indian cinema is generic as there is no pan-Indian cinema, I am using it in this context to mean both Bombay cinema popularly known as Bollywood as well as regional cinema. In spite of language differences, commercial cinema across different states share similarities in their narrative methods as well as the use of song and-dance sequences.
 I am using the term "western" dancing very loosely in this context to mark a form that is not Indian in its aesthetics. I am not referring to any particular dance style, except that they do not fall into the "classical" traditional modes of styles in India.
 I have been inspired to use the concept of colorism from the way in which Radhika Parameswaran and Kavitha Mendoza have used the concept to talk about caste politics in one of India's oldest animated fictions. The lighter skin always signified the mythological gods and goddesses, high-caste Hindus and other celestial beings within the narratives while the darker skin signifies demons and lower-caste people.
 Prabhudeva did a few Bollywood films but he was always cast as a secondary character and never as a primary hero.
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