Unbridled joy of thumkas and TikTok

Updated: Jul 05, 2020, 07:54 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

And eventually, it created a million TikTok videos, a cascade of hook steps by people from every possible background

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita VohraIt is a filmi coincidence, that the Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan died in the same week that the government saw it fit to ban TikTok.

Growing up, to admit that you listened to 'Hindi music' was a social shame. Hindi films were infra dig, considered unsophisticated and vulgar, for the very things that made them pleasurable—songs, dances, melodrama, desi excess.

The 1990s changed that in many ways. One of them was Saroj Khan. Her choreography transformed Bollywood dance—more bhava, more vigour, more adaa, but most of all, more body. Women were sexual, androgynous, expressive, their body language frank. And, she had a secret sauce—the hook step, the dancing memes of the dancing queen.

The hook step did not just galvanise filmi fortunes, it transformed India. It gave us a key to unlock the dance, to replicate it behind closed doors or on dance floors, to absorb and express sexual frankness, libidinal exuberance, our human selves, common people's pleasures, which are dismissed as vulgar. If you had talent and skill and focus, it gave you a channel to showcase it, and that is why it generated a whole new market—Bollywood-based dance contests on TV, where people got a shot at going places.

And eventually, it created a million TikTok videos, a cascade of hook steps by people from every possible background.

This is how pleasure and desire, the cooler sisters of aspiration, create new things and with them, new markets. Those who control markets, do not like to acknowledge it, and use respectability to muffle this contribution. Interestingly, in an industry strongly based on song and dance there was no Filmfare award for choreography until Saroj Khan compelled it with the success of Ek do teen. Earlier marginalised in the body of the vamp, these physical pleasures were foregrounded in the body of the heroine by Saroj Khan, subverting respectability and impossible to ignore.

These older pleasures of Hindi films have again fallen out of favour. Corporatised Bollywood was accompanied by a santisation where realism is aspirational, respectable, political, sophisticated, while the emotional and sexual abandon of song and dance and melodrama is considered vulgar and dated. Minimised into an item song, it is stuck in the end credits, like an embarrassing, flashy buaji. In this world, figures like Saroj Khan occupy ambivalent space—noteworthy, but somehow dated.

But, those joys persist on TikTok, exuberant fragments of another Indian-ness, physically, sexually, emotionally expressive. Here we see rural couples dancing with comradely intimacy and splendid uninhibitedness. We see so much queerness, matter-of-factly present alongside families. We see inter-generational playfulness and affection. We see every kind of body, older, fatter, darker performing with humour, self-awareness, vigour and innocent confidence, like older Bollywood songs, with some of their political incorrectness too. Many of these accounts, with a zero marketing budget, have millions of followers. Elites mock TikTok as vulgar or watch it ironically, while producing pheeka content hiding behind wokeness, powered by brands. Moralising and corporate markets are such interesting bedfellows, both marginalising huge swathes of culture and polyglot identities, as they perpetuate privilege.

The worlds of Saroj Khan and TikTok, take the risk of aesthetic honesty and presenting the human truth of our bodies—making themselves vulnerable to great love and great despair. Saroj Khan is gone, but her spirit will return when TikTok returns.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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