In Conversation with So You Think You Can Dance Bollywood Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan

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Before I came to write about the great world of Bollywood, I was a professional ballet dancer for many years. It was my first love. So when I discovered Bollywood, the dance sequences were one of the things that made me fall in love with the genre. Since I am a dancer, one of my all time favorite shows is the reality dance program, So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) on Fox network here in the US. You can imagine how excited I was when I first saw a Bollywood number on the show in Season 4. I was ecstatic and so it seems was the audience. Since then the Bollywood numbers have thrilled audiences and I hear will be seen on the 9th season, which is airing now on Wednesday nights. A couple of weeks ago I got the amazing opportunity to chat with the choreographer behind those great Bollywood numbers, Nakul Dev Mahajan. Forgive the indulgence of my SYTYCD, Dance, Bollywood obsession and read our extensive and in-depth interview about all these things and more!

He was running a little late after a rehearsal and he apologized for the delay. I told him that I completely understood since I was a former ballet dancer.
I love that. I really love speaking to people who are asking about Bollywood who have a dance background. I really feel like they understand the ins and outs of dance.

I just have to say I love SYTYCD and loved when I saw Bollywood as part of the dances. It must just be so amazing to have it on that platform.
Absolutely! The timing of Fox and Nigel bringing Bollywood on the show was just impeccable. It was before Slumdog and all that stuff, so I feel that they were very innovative in bringing that style on the show.

How did the job on SYTYCD come about?
Before So You Think, I was doing small jobs in Hollywood, nothing big, but I had done enough that I had good work on my show reel. I had the opportunity to do small scale programs and concerts in our own community. I was fortunate enough to open the first Bollywood dance school in North America in 2003 and that put me on the map. The producers actually found me online. I think it was the Law of Attraction. I was watching season 4 and just out loud, as I was sitting in my living room, I said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if they did Bollywood on the show?” I kid you not, Stacey, within that week, I got an email from So You Think You Can Dance from one of the AP’s and they had asked me to come in. I met with Jeff Thacker, who is Nigel’s right hand guy. They were very, very inquisitive, and even asked me what direction they should take in doing Indian cultural dance forms. They were contemplating between Bollywood or Bhangra. I said I feel that Bollywood is the current trend. With Bhangra, you have to stick to the step form, however, with Bollywood, you can do many different things. You can have a Bhangra Bollywood routine, a traditional Bollywood routine or a hip-hop Bollywood routine, so the palette is much more vast. They agreed and said, “Yeah, let’s go with Bollywood!” I was hired on the spot and then within a couple of days I was told that Joshua and Katee had drawn Bollywood and that they would be my first routine.

That number is probably considered one of the highlights of all the seasons. I imagine since Katee was a contemporary dancer it might have been a little easier, but Joshua was a hip-hop dancer. What was it like to present this to them for the first time?
I remember from the package, the short video they show before each performance, Katee and Joshua said they had no idea what to expect whatsoever. For me, it was a nerve racking experience, however, it was very fulfilling at the end of course. I had different thoughts going through my head: How am I going to work with a contemporary dancer and a hip-hop dancer? I was very nervous with how stiff they are going to be. To be a Bollywood dancer, you have to be very, very fluid with your body. There are certain muscles that move a certain way. So I was very nervous. Katee just jumped into it, she was very particular and very precise and I think that comes from being a contemporary dancer. Joshua was very open to whatever I threw at him. In particular, what I really liked about Joshua was the fact that he was so concerned and careful of not doing anything that would offend anybody. He had a lot of respect and wanted to make sure whatever hand gesture was given to him, was done correctly. You know, if you hands are even slightly tweaked you are offending a huge population out there. This is because Bollywood dancing, especially my style, is very heavily routed with the classical aspect, which are all temple forms of dance. If you have a hand gesture that you are doing wrong, you are basically bastardizing a dance form and pissing off a lot of classical teachers out in the world, that live, breathe and eat that particular style and are not fans of fusion! I feel a sense of responsibility to show America the root of Bollywood since So You Think is the only dance reality show that is showcasing this dance form. The root of Bollywood is classical dance; the fingers, the hand gestures and the footwork. I think this is the Bollywood that America should see first, before I throw in a hip-hop Bollywood routine; however, I do add some elements of that in my dances to keep my choreography fresh and young. I would never showcase a Bollywood number, nor can I imagine choreographing a Bollywood dance that does not have any classical influence because then, it would not be me doing what I do best.

I was very nervous, because Mia Michaels was one of the guest judges that week and I am huge a fan of hers. I was very pleased when she told me she loved my routine. I remember Tyce running up to me and going, “Dude! That was so good!” Receiving that validation from the other choreographers assured me that I’m doing the right thing and it also made me very proud of being an Indian.

Katee and Joshua really were a dream to work with. I credit the success of the number completely to them because that routine could have gone to someone else who might have butchered it. Whenever I see them, which is quite often, I always say, “Thank you so much for making my career happen.” (Laughs)

How much time do you have with the dancers?
Not that much. The first day that we see them, we are connected to a mic and there are cameras around us as they are taping everything. During this practice, they pull us out at the beginning, the end and sometimes during the middle of the rehearsal, to ask us questions to build the package. It is not the most productive environment, but we understand that it has to be done. Otherwise, America would not know the struggles these dancers go through to get where they are, when they perform on stage. That first rehearsal is usually three hours. Then the next day we get them for three-four hours without any interruptions: no cameras, no mics. Then we get dress rehearsals with blocking and a little half an hour to go over details. I would say we get a total, this is a very exaggerated estimate, of 10 or so hours with them.

It really has become one of the standards on the show now, you know you are going to have a hip hop number, a contemporary, a ballroom and you know you are going to have a Bollywood number somewhere in the season. It is really cool…
Yeah it is. I can’t disclose the date but I am on in a few weeks and as I was rehearsing with my assistant, we were talking about our journey from season four and now, season nine. We were talking about just how grateful and humble we are that they keep inviting me back. They have introduced the other world styles of dance on the show, but nothing has really stuck with America except Bollywood. This fact just makes me feel really, really humble that non-south Asians are accepting this cultural form, which is so close to us Indians. It is a great feeling that they have embraced it. I am just very fortunate that I am the person to be holding the torch of bringing Bollywood to America on this platform.

How do you decide which songs and what do you take into consideration before choreographing a piece?
That is always a tricky process for me because I am very particular about my music. I feel like musicality is everything for me when it comes to choreography, especially for the kind of Bollywood that I do, which as I said earlier, is classical dance as the main basis fused with modern steps.

There has been a trend lately to go back to the classic beats of India, with that underlying Dhol, the beats that get into your soul and make you want to dance. I love that music – that is what Bollywood music is to me.
Yes, I agree. I am so happy that I see eye to eye with the So You Think producers when it comes to music. The Bollywood I like is the Bollywood they want; it has been a real good match.

Since you have been on the show have you seen a change in what the dancers know about Bollywood?
In the case of the show, yes, people do know about Bollywood, it is nothing that I have to explain any more, which is nice. I think this probably changed by season 6, or maybe even season 5. I remember one or two contestants that I got said, “We are not sure what it is, but we think it is what Joshua and Katee did.” To which I responded, “Yeah, that is what I am about to teach you right now.” (Laughs) Then in season 6, 7, and 8 I remember the people that I had the chance to work with telling me, “Oh yea, I know Bollywood.” They either have a friend who does it, or they took a class, so they have some knowledge of Bollywood. Now, it has become like the Quickstep, the dance of death. It is no longer something that the contestants are looking forward to getting because they know I am going to kick their ass in it.

You are not going to do baby Bollywood…
No, there is no more baby Bollywood. I love that term. Last season, it was a first for me but all of my contestants got kicked off. That had never happened before. I remember the producers telling the contestants, “Don’t think because you have Bollywood that you are safe.” This used to be an inside myth from the earlier seasons that I was on, that if you pull Bollywood from the hat, you are totally safe since America is going vote for you and they are going to love it blah, blah, blah. Now that idea is completely gone. We are always up for a challenge and I think America knows that.

Have there been any funny reactions to the steps or the numbers when you first present them to the dancers?
The funniest reaction would be showing the contestants the routine and seeing their jaw dropping expression of “What are you about to teach me? I cannot do that, no way!” Other reactions I have seen happen when we are rehearsing and are already in the third hour and they have already gone full out for me a couple of times and I say “Okay, let’s do it again for the next 30 minutes and all full out please”. Their reaction is “Are you kidding me? Do you even know what our bodies are saying to you right now?” The stamina level required for Bollywood is ridiculous: Bollywood is already starting on a six and they have to hit 10 or 11 forever.

Exactly there is no ten on the scale, it is 15 all the way. (Laughs)

How proud are you after you have gone through that short amount of rehearsal and then you see them on the SYTYCD stage and know that you have taken these dancers who didn’t know anything about Bollywood and made them look that good?
I can’t really find words to describe the feeling because there are a strain of emotions that go through my mind and heart. There is a lot of anxiety that builds up to the day we start taping and till the moment the dance is performed in front of the judges. It’s like roulette. You just never know what they are going to say. There is no pattern. When they do it and succeed and have done the best that they can, the judges are of course happy about it. The feeling is just remarkable.

For me, it just goes back to being thankful to my mom and my dad for allowing their only son to become a dancer, whose parents came here for the American Dream in which you become an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer. I am thankful that they were able to allow me to follow my dreams. Second, just grateful for the opportunity that the show has given me. I feel a lot of gratitude. And of course a lot of love and affection to these kids who make my work look so good.

Out of all the numbers you have done on the show along with Katee and Joshua’s, which I assume is one of your favorites, do you have any others?
Great question. I was just talking to Mala about this. We were talking about all of our routines, because we try our very best to not have the same movement that we have done before. However, sometimes you can’t help it because within the classical dance frame, we do have certain combinations that are standard, just like there are in contemporary and Ballroom. There are elements that you just have to hit. Now, of course we have favorite routines that we came up with that weren’t executed properly (laughs) so those already end up on the cutting room floor. I would say that I really, really liked Robert and Billy. They had done the piece called Ganesh from season 7 and they were just amazing! The dance went on tour which is a compliment right there. The other number I liked a lot was Molly and Nathan, Season 6. It was the one where Nathan had a sword and he was going to war…

Yes, a favorite of mine! That was to Jodhaa Akbar’s music!
Correct that was Jodhaa Akbar’s music! Stacey, you know your music and your Bollywood! I love that movie. I love that music. Rahman is amazing. Out of all the composers, his music is probably what I have used most frequently. I think I have used him four or five times.

Do you think Bollywood is much more out in the world now?
Yes, I really, really feel that more people are embracing Bollywood. I feel that this really is because of the whole phenomena of Bollywood being a part of our media now, whether it is So You Think, or some of the great movies recently released that have introduced Bollywood.

It has also appeared on television sitcoms…
Yeah, yeah it has and you know I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the sitcoms now are finally introducing South Asian characters. When I grew up it was just that Simpson’s character Apu. Apu was like my role model growing up because I had no one else to look too except this cartoon and that was so stereotypical. (Laughs) Now you have characters on Grey’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory, to name a few. Of course when there are Indian characters on sitcoms, next to follow is an episode that has to do with Bollywood.

Also, at the many studios that I run, we have so many more non-south Asians enrolled in our programs now. This may seem to be a small number but it is huge to me, Stacey, 3% of our students are non-Asian. For years it was 100% Asians. I am 37 and I have been dancing and choreographing since I was 13. For me, for this change to happen in the past four years is monumental. To see that there is at least one non-Indian in each class that I teach is great! I love that. It is just absolutely, absolutely wonderful to see the many schools that have opened in the past years and the diversity of the people that are interested in it. It really has become a celebration of dance.

Speaking of Bollywood who are your favorite dancers?
Hrithik Roshan is my favorite Bollywood dancer. I love how he moves. He can do anything! Shahid Kapoor is another one that I like a lot. Shahid is a great animator and when he dances, his expressions are great. My all time, all time, all time favorite female Bollywood dancer is Madhuri Dixit.

How did I know you were going to say that…she is incredible!
She is! I don’t even know. She is incredible. I grew up watching her. Her choreographer, Saroj Khan, is the lady behind the biggest Bollywood numbers ever in Hindi cinema. The combination of Saroj Khan and Madhuri is epic! It’s iconic. It’s classic! That is the Bollywood I love. What is important to point out about Shahid, Hrithik and Madhuri is that they also dance with the face. This is something that I always teach my kids, “With Bollywood dancing you have to remember, these actors are not professional dancers, they are actors. When you do Bollywood, you will definitely look pretty because I will make sure your costume looks nice, the dance technique has to be there and you will get the technique from me. What I don’t do too much in class with you and what you have to do on your own, is copy the faces they make, because Bollywood is acting: it is actors who are dancing, it is not dancers who are acting.”

Favorite dance number in Bollywood of all time?
Can I pick two? One is Devdas’ ‘Dola Re Dola’. You can’t get better than that. It was just filmed so well: the expressions, the costumes, and the set. Second place would be Madhuri’s ‘Choli Ke Peeche’ from Khal Nayak. Then, oh yes, I don’t know if you have seen it but I will give you a third, it is a classic, it is from the movie Jewel Thief called ‘Honton Pe Aisi Baat’. The actress’s name is Vyjayanthimala, she was the reigning dancing queen of the 50s and the 60s and early 70s and then she retired. You must YouTube this. This number’s choreography, Stacey, is fantastic! All of the choreographers in India right now will always refer to this number as their favorite. It definitely stands out for me! What all of these three dances that I have just mentioned have in common, is that their roots are in Indian classical and Indian folk dancing, which is what I breathe!

Who would you love to choreograph?
Madhuri, without even having to breathe before I answer. It would be a dream to work with her and I think someday it will happen. She might be 80 years old but it will happen. (Laughs)

Have you seen India’s version of So You Think You Can Dance: Just Dance hosted by Hrithik Roshan?
I haven’t seen the entire show, just snippets. I love what I saw and the talent in India is incredible.

Also SYTYCD alum and all-star Lauren Gottleib is starring in a Bollywood film ABCD: Anybody Can Dance. What do you think about that?
I had the pleasure of working with Lauren, as an All Star, in a piece with Kent, Season 7. She was fun and very hard working. I think it’s wonderful that she is working with choreographer Remo D’Souza. I love his work and I am sure the dancing will be out of this world.

Is a Bollywood movie in your future?
I have been offered to do a few in the past. I was definitely thankful for the opportunity. However, my first question was, “Who is in the movie?” When I didn’t know who the actors are, I decided to opt out. That has happened a few times. I know it definitely is about getting your foot in the door, but I feel when the right opportunity comes, it will present on its own. I think for me to work in Bollywood and to take the time off to shoot something, it would have to be for a project that is worth it. That project has not come yet, but I am definitely open to it.

Now we don’t know when his first number will be on but we are guessing it will be this week from his recent tweets, like “the craziness begins today!!!”. Let’s see if we are right! I would like to thank Nakul for indulging me by chatting about three of my most favorite things – dance, So You Think You Can Dance and Bollywood! Hope one day we can chat again! Wishing you all the best! I can’t wait to see what you bring to the SYTYCD stage next!

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