Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan is know as The Bollywood Choreographer from his outstanding work on So You Think You Can Dance, his dance studios and NDM Bollywood Dance Production and many other special projects. His newest dance step (pun intended) is into the world of animation. He is the choreographer and dance consultant for Disney Junior’s new show Mira, Royal Detective.
Disney Junior’s Mira, Royal Detective is an animated mystery-adventure series for preschoolers inspired by the cultures and customs of India. Set in the fictional land of Jalpur, the series follows the brave and resourceful Mira, a commoner who is appointed to the role of royal detective by the Queen. Along with her friend Prince Neel, a talented inventor, creative cousin Priya, and comical mongoose sidekicks Mikku and Chikku, Mira will stop at nothing to solve a case.
One of the coolest things about the show is that, like in Bollywood movies, music and dance play a very important role in Mira, Royal Detective. Each episode features at least one original song along with Mira’s signature recurring song, ‘We’re on the Case’. The show includes a variety of South Asian musical styles, including Bollywood, pop, classical, folk, fusion and more, with a classic Disney feel. Add in the dance numbers choreographed by Nakul, which showcases the diversity of the culture and highlights both northern and southern Indian dance styles, as well as big Bollywood numbers, and you have something very special.
In a fascinating, fun and far-reaching interview Stacey talked with Nakul about his work on the very exciting Mira, Royal Detective including how he created the numbers, his thoughts on the show and what he thinks audiences will love.
Your first thoughts when you learned that Disney was going to make an Indian character as the star of an animated children’s show and that you were going to be a part of it?
Honestly, Stacey, my eyes were filled with joy. I think I actually started crying. When I was called for the interview I did not really know the full capacity of this gift that I was looking at or that I was even being considered for. So, while I was sitting with Wild Canary, the sketches and some of the animation they showed me blew me away. Then knowing the entire premise was around this Indian girl, her friends and family in this city named Jalpur and how beautiful everything has been drawn out – I honestly think I forgot that I was at an interview. I forgot… I zoned out. I was a kid in a candy story looking at different sketches and just wanting to eat it all up.
Then our fearless leader, Sascha Paladino, I think he saw it on my face. I think he realized that this guy is a little bit too obsessed with what he just saw. (Laughs) Aside from his resume I think he is the guy for it. The next day I got the job. (You can hear the excitement in his voice)
What were your first thoughts about choreographing moves and full dance numbers for something like this?
It was just joy because I have always wanted to work with Disney. I have always just put it out there how wonderful would it be if I ever would get a chance to do something like this. And now it has happened! I had an opportunity years ago with a different company that didn’t work out. So, I always put it out there that if this is going to happen again it needs to be Disney. Then it did! It is so weird. It is that Law of Attraction that has been so good to me.
Then, knowing I am going to choreograph on animated characters and that too, that look like me, that look like my sister, that look like my Auntie, who just lives down the street, who looks like my mother, I immediately said okay these characters are my family. I am now going to teach them how to dance and create movement on them in this space.
Stacey, I can’t tell you… it has been such a dream. It has been such an honor. Because I know what I am holding on to – I know what has been given to me. It is bigger than anything that I can even describe.
It must have been an exciting challenge to create this. What was your process to prepare the pieces?
It starts off with getting a script and the music for that particular episode. Each episode has a different song that is catered to the narrative, just like watching a Bollywood movie, which you are so good at. As you know, the Bollywood song, at least when you go back about 10 years ago, helps tell the story. That is what Mira has captured. It has captured a true essence that the music, the song, and the lyrics are helping you navigate to what is going to happen next versus it being something completely random – Which I LOVE! Then from there I set the piece. I videotaped my assistant and myself and we give the version of how it should look like when you are dancing full-out. Then we give a breakdown tutorial, of each 8 counts, each 8 bars, all the nuances, the details, the textures, the layers, the formation and what I am envisioning. Then it goes to the artist.
Then the artists do their magic. And I have to say they really, really do their magic. I am in awe of what they do.
It comes back to me as an animatic. I give my notes, and then it comes back to me as animation. Then I am crying all over again because it is so emotional to see what I am looking at and seeing it all come together.
I think, they have gotten the movements so perfectly. When I saw the theme song I thought they have really captured the essence of this!
That is so amazing that you said that Stacey. I am so happy! Because you are a dancer too, so that means a lot. Thank you!
I know in your dances you, of course, use the Bollywood dance style and classical Indian dance technique as well. So for this, what types of dance and moves did you want and feel you should include?
That is a great question. See we want these characters, we want the story telling and we want the overall feel to be something that every demographic can feel connected to.
Unlike other shows that I have been on, the team has really allowed me to tap into sub-genres of Bollywood in terms of the pieces. So, of course you will see some Bollywood inspired-numbers. But these are not just folk driven which is what most of America is used to seeing me do. You will see a little bit of a Bolly-Hop version in some numbers or a little bit of a contemporary feel. There are going to be a lot of different textures, and sub-genres of Bollywood that I am finally able to show on these characters. What I also like a lot is that I was able to showcase, because of the script and its needs, I was able to showcase Ghoomar [traditional folk dance of Rajasthan] and Bhangra [folk dance and music of Punjab] and its forms without it making it look Bollywood. I loved that because I can do all those styles too. It is just there is not a platform to allow it. Now you have this show Mira, Royal Detective, that is not just showcasing Bollywood dancing but is also showcasing other Indian styles of dance. I think it is about time. I am so, so happy this is happening.
There is not only Mira, but also her friends, the animals and the other characters, so for say like the theme song, how many did you have to choreograph for and how did you make each unique? Like an Auntie would move differently than say Mira…
Correct, I can’t take the credit and say that was all me, as much as I would love to. (Laughs) But you know me Stacey, that is not who I am. It was the artists. I did have to keep some things in mind, for example we have Mikku and Chikku, the two mongooses. They are friends of Mira. So, with them I know they have a tail so I now have an extra body part to work with. I know that their expressions are a little bit different and that they are goofy. See, I am not just choreographing the moves, I am also helping with action moves in-between because we all know that Bollywood is also an expression form of dance – where it is just maybe waist-up, maybe it is shoulders-up, it is about the face and what it is doing – so I am very much involved with giving my ideas for that part as well. I know these characters so well that they have become family members for me. So, if I know that there is a character that is a little sassier, that I might give her a little gesture that might fit her character the best, or these mongooses, they are so mischievous and they are so funny, they are the comic relief of the show, so sometimes their movements look goofy. Knowing these characters and knowing their characteristics and their personalities, the movement is set on that. The animators are the ones that tweak it so if it is a 5-year-old child dancing or if it Auntie Pushpa who is dancing, that looks very different. I think that is the brilliance and the detail of this show. All the people behind it are not making it look like this cookie cutter show on Indian culture. It is far beyond that!
How many numbers did you create?
So, when you watch the show, and hope everyone tunes in, you will see 2 11-minute episodes each show. I can share that there is a piece of me in every episode, because I did the opening title. I would say half of season one you will be seeing a lot of my choreography.
What was the most challenging thing about working on this show?
I always feel the most challenging thing for me is the responsibility. We have spoken about this before in our conversations about So You Think You Can Dance. It is just knowing that this is going out to millions of people. I think the added responsibility for me and I think it comes from being an educator as well is that I know this is going out to a certain demographic and a demographic that soaks the information in very quickly. A demographic that can be influenced very quickly and make ideas. Knowing that, I feet added pressure to make sure that I bring my A game every time. I have been a part of season one and now am working on season two and I approach each and every episode as if this is the first time I am doing this. That has just been my work ethic always. That has been challenging – just making sure I am absolutely happy with everything I have given to their team. Then signing off on it from my end, which honestly is very easy to do knowing the support of all the people that all have the same common goal. That common goal is making something that has integrity, authenticity, sending a message and not just sending a message to one demographic but sending a universal message. Mira, Royal Detective is not just an animated series for South Asians, it is an animated series for everybody from any background or age. It is really going to lift everybody up.
I think it is going to educate so many people, not only as a representation of South Asians as we have talked about before, but it is going to educate people around the world, which I think is very exciting. What does that mean to you?
Absolutely! It means a lot. Of course, my angle is just a dance angle right? But there are so many different things that are being introduced in the show, there is clothing, there’s food, customs and traditions. Even the way that we look. People sometimes, unfortunately, when they think of an Indian person, or a person of South Asian descent, they have this one vision of what that is. We all know we look so different within the country itself not with just what we wear but with our skin tones. I have never experienced this before. The show has done such a beautiful job in displaying this array of diversity within the country.
As a young boy growing up, could you ever imagine that this would be a show that would be, and that you would be a part of it? What would it mean to young you?
Wow, without getting heavy, it would mean a lot to a young me. Maybe it would mean, I don’t know, I wouldn’t have been made fun of or teased or bullied at school for just being me in terms of what I look like. Maybe not having to justify why my mother has a dot on her forehead, maybe I wouldn’t had to do that because someone would already have a reference for that and would know if they saw a series like this. If they grew up with a series like this they would know why my lunch box had different items in it – I didn’t have to explain what I was eating. So this is going to do a lot. I didn’t grow up with this as you know, and whatever representation that did come, came much later when I was a teenager was stereotypical, incorrect and not accurate and if anything it endorsed more of the teasing. I think this show is absolutely going to change so much for so many different people. It is going to; it is going to educate everyone. I said this to the team a few times that maybe they don’t know what they are holding – how important and precious this medium is that they are creating. I often get emotional talking about Mira because it is something I wish I had growing up. It is never too late and it is now happening. I am just rejoicing.
We are airing in 160 different countries and I really hope this actually snowballs into other shows and other different programs. My wish is that everyone would be more aware of other people’s cultures, and obviously my biggest wish is that everyone needs a little bit of dance in their life! It makes life much happier.
When you saw the animation of your choreography and then saw it through the season what were your thoughts?
When I first saw the lighting pass for one of the earlier episodes, I think I watched it like 50 times. I just couldn’t believe that there is this character that is moving like me. I haven’t seen anything like this before. Anything that I have seen that resembles Bollywood dancing that is animated – it is a little cliché. It didn’t look authentic to me. So to see this one particular episode, which I was able to choreograph a little bit of a Ghoomar number, a Bhangra number and a Bollywood number all in one episode, it was so great because I couldn’t believe how accurate they were dancing. The characters doing the Bhangra number were doing it better than me. (Smile) I am like wait, this can’t happen! (Laughs) How are the animated characters better than me? (Laughs) These characters are out-dancing me.
Would you love to have an animated version of you in the show?
Oh my gosh! I would love that! Just for kicks, I mean I can’t be greedy right? I have already been given such a beautiful gift… But you know my secret now – I would love to have a character on the show. (Smile) Let’s put that out there.
How has the entire journey been?
I joined summer of 2018 and I have been waiting for March 20, 2020 to happen ever since. Primarily because I just can’t wait for the world to see this! As I have been working on season one and then seeing the final product I have just been getting more and more excited. It is just this beautiful brewing energy that is just waiting to explode in fireworks and glitter. And just Joy! We really have to get the word out about this spectacular show and what it really means. I think once people watch it they will truly understand that this is something extraordinarily special.
To me it is so exciting and important that a show like this will be aired especially for and to young children ages 2-7 and then their parents… your thoughts on that…
I think that that demographic, that age group is the right age to educate them on stuff like this. Kids are so inquisitive, and they are so observant, that’s the age when all these questions come and I think that it is the perfect time to lay that foundation. For someone who will be watching it who doesn’t know anything about this culture, for someone that is watching it that is familiar with it then can be reacquainted to it, or if they feel and see themselves – whatever angle you look at it it is definitely a very inspiring show. I really commend Disney Junior for doing this. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see more from Disney doing these types of shows.
What makes you the most proud about you being a part of it and overall about the show?
It is a great question. This probably one of my proudest projects because it has to do with something I love so much, which is obviously Bollywood but also children. I have always been a Disney person myself so these three components coming together this is just such a gift. I really have no words. I think what makes me the most proud is and this is extracting me out of the equation is how they got this right. I am the most proud of what they created! For me, it’s unheard of. I have never have experienced this. You know I have done jobs and where I come in create a Bollywood number and leave. This is not that, this is different, this is start to finish this is a whole season. There easily could have been areas where the team, the creators, the writers, the artists, could have been lazy. No one is lazy at all. Everything has been done with such authenticity. You know, I am just proud that this thing has been made.
What can audiences and kids – everyone expect from Mira, Royal Detective?
This is not a one-word answer because there is so much that they can expect. See so many people have come to me and said, oh we can’t wait to watch the show. I hope this is going to be good… and that comes from fear because there have been other things that haven’t been good that were representing us. My answer to them is – You are going to be hooked on this! Each story is so different. There is something to learn from culturally. There is something to learn from that anyone can apply, especially a young person, in a life lesson, which is very important. It inspires not just little girls, but also boys as well. It is also reinforcing the idea that music and dance brings us together! That, I think, is absolutely what this world needs more of is each person holding their hands together as a community, as a family, working together, solving our problems and then dancing it out. That is what Mira is for me.
Mira, Royal Detective begins airing on March 20th on Disney Junior so be sure to tune in and get on the case!