The following essay on the role of the nightclub in Bollywood film is by Kush Varia, author of Bollywood: Gods, Glamour, and Gossip, our featured book of the week. For more on the book, you can also read an interview with Kush Varia or win a FREE copy of the book.
Nightclub scenes offer a variety of pleasures in Bollywood film, including visual spectacle in stages and settings, differing dance styles, and numerous costume changes. These scenes also position songs in a realistic setting as opposed to those that appear in the infamous Bollywood romantic dream sequences.
From the Fifties to the present we can trace recurring patterns in the presentation of the nightclub ranging from celebrations of different dance styles to explorations of moral issues. Protagonists role in the club also changes from being seated audience members or star attractions on stage to finally becoming revelers themselves.
In Aasha (1957) we get a sneak peak into a ladies-only cabaret (spot the male lead disguised in Islamic dress). Although the show is live, there is still a segue into fantasy as Vyjayanthimala’s character changes costume from a Dietrich-esque top hat and tails to pedal pushers and finally, appearing out of nowhere, a sky blue sequined dress topped off with a fez-style hat suggesting the exotic Arabian nights, a reoccurring theme in Bollywood film.
The queen of the cabaret stage was the extremely versatile dancer Helen, whose exotic Burmese background increased the fantasy element of her scenes. In Howrah Bridge (1958) she takes the name of Chin Chin Choo and sings of her adventures with Aladdin and Sinbad.
One of her most famous cabaret numbers is in the film Caravan (1971) where she appears intoxicated and dances in a cage linked to a slide.
Her other forays have seen her dancing on bars in private member clubs while dressed in ostrich feathers in Jewel Thief (1967)
And acting as the iris of a giant eye as she spins in a flamenco dress in Teesri Manzil (1966)
The club also provides a look into Indian notions of the Western world with Euro-American music, dancing and sexual liberalism, with dancers coming into close physical contact with each other. In Gumnaam (1965), a rock and roll inspired track is illustrated with twisty dresses and crazy dance moves to create a hedonistic experience.
While scantily clad female musicians provide visual pleasure in Qurbani (1980)
Acts of spying or subterfuge often take place in nightclubs. In the film Shaan (1980) a performance of a fantastic disco track is a context for scoping out jewellery.
Naseeb (1981) demonstrates the use of the nightclub song as not only a scene for plot development but also for showcasing a variety of pleasures ranging from cinema itself to international dance styles when three couples pop out of huge alcohol bottles. The first are dressed as Spaniards (bull-fighter and flamenco dancer), the second as Russians (cossack dancers) and the third as Anglo-Americans: a mash up of Charlie Chaplin as the tramp and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
Nightclub sets can be just as outrageous as the dancing or costumes. In Hoshiyar (1985) the key protagonists dance on a stage composed of a multicolored angel guarding an equally colorful, laser-lit dance floor. Surrounding the stage are two dragons and pillars decked with glowing eyes. The nightclub’s exaggerated physical difference solidifies its identity as a place for deviant and decadent pleasures. This difference is also suggested in the make-up of the multinational attendees at the night-club who are often glamorously dressed.
On occasion the nightclub borrows influences closer to home. One of the most controversial moments in Bollywood’s history followed the release of the song ‘Choli Ke Piche Kya Hai?’ (what is beneath your blouse?) from the film Khal Nayak (1993). The sexual overtones of the song are betrayed when the lyrics reveal that there is simply the heart and nothing else to reveal beneath the blouse.
The performance of the song between two women is full of exaggerated heaving bosoms and hip swaying in outfits inspired by traditional Rajasthani tribal dress composed of thick bangles, exposed navels and richly encrusted blouses. Here the fetishism of “the West” is replaced with an erotic exploration and exaggeration of one of India’s own sub-cultures.
In more recent films the nightclub is a meeting place for young romantics to indulge in dancing and even drinking, suggesting a potential acceptance of socially deviant activities by the successful, urban, and globe-trotting Indian. This acceptance is suggested through the use of the characters leading their fellow clubbers in dancing and the added realism of their costumes staying the same: The club is no longer a fantasy space it is a real experience where young love can declare itself as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… (2001).
From being bystanders and star acts in clubs which were spaces for particular pleasures, key characters enjoy the club as part of their lifestyle, taking to the dance floor and announcing “it’s the time to disco” as in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003):