Nakul Dev Mahajan On Being Animated for Mira, Royal Detective

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MIRA, ROYAL DETECTIVE – “The Great Kathak Mystery” – Series dance consultant and choreographer *Nakul Dev Mahajan (“So You Think You Can Dance”) Guru Nakul. (Disney)

Many people know Nakul Dev Mahajan as the brilliant Bollywood choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance. Of course, Nakul is known for his successful NDM Bollywood Productions and Studios. Plus, he has worked all over the world on a myriad of fantastic projects. But according to him, a recent project has been something he really is honored to be a part of. Nakul has been the choreographer and dance consultant for the animated show, Disney Junior’s Mira, Royal Detective since its inception. But for an upcoming episode, Nakul got even more involved. 

He recently took part in a very special episode titled “The Great Kathak Mystery,” which premiers on August 9th. What is so cool is that Nakul guest stars as an animated version of himself – Guru Nakul. In the episode, Mira and her friends must track down their missing ghungroos (bells) in order to perform with Kathak dance guru, Nakul. The episode includes some beautiful Kathak dance sequences which were, of course, choreographed by Nakul.

Mira, Royal Detective celebrates authentic Indian music, dance, food, fashion, language, and art by incorporating the diversity of the culture into the mystery-filled storylines. The series voice cast includes Freida Pinto, Kal Penn, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Hannah Simone, Jameela Jamil, Aparna Nancherla, and Aasif Mandvi. Leela Ladnier stars as the voice of Mira. Recurring guest stars include Danny Pudi, Kunal Nayyar, Hari Kondabolu, Karen David, and Aarti Sequeira.

Check out this sneak peek of Guru Nakul:

Stacey was very lucky to catch up with Nakul Dev Mahajan to talk with him again about the show, about seeing animated him and all things “The Great Kathak Mystery”. Read on! 

So when we talked last March I asked you if you would love to see your animated self in the show and you replied. ‘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.’ Apparently, putting it out there worked, how did you feel when they first said okay… Nakul we are going to animate you?
(Laughs) I was floored. I was overwhelmed with this feeling of happiness at being honored that way in the show. Especially because it is under the Disney banner, there is just so much more prestige to that. Plus being the Disney fan that I am – as you know made it even better. Even more, it is connected with the fact that the show means so much to me. It is personal. There is so much heart behind it, integrity, authenticity, and a sense of inclusion – everything that I have been preaching for so many years now. Finally being able to be a part of something that embodies all of that and then to be rewarded and gifted with production saying: ‘We want to do a storyline and it is centered around a dance teacher. You’re that teacher (you can hear the smile) and his name is going to be Nakul. And he is going to be a Kathak teacher…!’ I had no words. I was just overwhelmed with joy.  

I loved the episode and especially the fact that they were going to do an episode featuring the classical form of dance Kathak. What were your thoughts?
I have always been an advocate of classical Indian dancing from the very beginning of my Bollywood career. Primarily because I have always been someone who knows where the roots of Bollywood dance come from. Many of the new generations of Bollywood dancers, influencers… whatever you want to call them, what they don’t understand is that all Bollywood dancing derived from folk and classical movement. I have always endorsed that making sure as we evolve as artists that we don’t forget about the foundation and the roots of where everything comes from. I think that is very important.

I am trained in Kathak. It is the most formal training I have received in the many types of dance I have dabbled in. I have had almost a decade of training in Kathak so now being able to be connected with this style of dance I have so much passion for and having my name being associated with it is a huge honor. I was delighted that the production, the writers, the team decided that they wanted to include classical Indian dancing in an episode and not keep everything Bollywood. That is something that they have done since the very first episode. It is amazing. I am the Bollywood guy in America and as much as I want to keep pushing that I want our audiences and not just here in America but all over the world, I want them to know that India is a treasure chest of other forms as well. Even though Bollywood is the most popular and the most global there is so much more to learn, understand, absorb, appreciate and gain knowledge from knowing that these forms that are Indian classical dance. Plus knowing that these forms are at the root of why you are enjoying Bollywood so much. I want them to get more attention. There are actually 8 classical forms in India. They are ancient, they trace back to being founded around 500 BCE. So you can understand how deeply, deeply rooted these forms are, and unfortunately, they don’t get the attention that they deserve. These forms are considered dying art forms. So, to have this amazing show on Disney Junior, enriching children, and then doing a story on classical Indian dance it speaks volumes to me about how important Mira, Royal Detective has been. I think 10-15-20 years from now people are going to look back and think this was a trail-blazing show that really changed the scope. I really believe that. I think it already is. 

I noticed that you use words like tatkar and then ‘tha tha din tha’, is that a technical name for a step or is it a beat or phrase that is said while dancing or training, and can you expand on why this is used in Kathak? 
Yes, so tatkar is a phrase given for certain kinds of footwork done in Kathak. There are many kinds of tatkar. It is a pattern and it is a phrase. Generally speaking, every Kathak class begins with a warm-up, and that warm-up would be a series of footwork and it is usually tatkar that they do – similarly starting off a ballet class with pliés.

MIRA, ROYAL DETECTIVE – “The Great Kathak Mystery” – Series dance consultant and choreographer *Nakul Dev Mahajan (“So You Think You Can Dance”) Guru Nakul. (Disney)

How did you decide what to choreograph for this piece and what did you make sure to include in the steps of the piece for this episode?
So I definitely need to give a shout-out and credit to my Kathak teacher, my guru, Smita Alves. I need to give her credit because she helped me create and made the composition of the words I was saying which are called Bols. She created that composition because as trained as I am I will not stand on the highest mountain and say I am a professional, professional Kathak dancer. The study of Kathak takes decades to where you actually could have bragging rights. I think for what the show wanted, which was this introduction of these characters that are just beginning in the training of Kathak. I wanted to make sure that, and this is how I have always been it is my work ethic: is that ego does not get in the way. Integrity is everything. So I got blessings, not just obviously on the compositions which was given to me by Smita, but I actually choreographed the other parts of the show and I showed it to her. I asked her if this is fine. She said absolutely and said this is great. She also gave me some pointers. I think it is important to mention that, because obviously when you think of Nakul Dev Mahajan, you don’t think of Kathak dancer, you think of a Bollywood choreographer who is trained in various styles and one of those being Kathak. I think it is important for our viewers to know that integrity and authenticity have never wavered. I wanted to make sure that I was getting everything right by a total pro. I got the blessing and a pat on the back and that is how this all came about.  

It is the mystery of the missing ghungroos, can you explain why those are so important to this style of dance?
All the forms of Indian classical dance revolve around wearing bells around your feet. Kathak has a certain style of bells, the ghurgroos. These bells are strung on a beautiful wrapped long string. It is supposed to enhance the experience for the audience so they can hear the many intricate patterns that the footwork is making.  

I loved that the show included that the inside of the bells comes out and also how she wrapped the ghungroo…
Yes! See I was very involved with everything with this episode, not just the choreography. So, what is interesting is that in the very early stages of my involvement I had done a presentation, pre-pandemic, where many of the board artists, many of the executives, the creative team, were a part of this presentation. I spoke about the different styles of dance in India and I hit all the major ones from folk, to classical, to contemporary to modern, up to the Western influence. When I spoke about Kathak, I actually gave them a little performance. I busted out my personal ghungroos. I wanted them to see me wrap it. What was so beautiful was that at the end of my presentation one of the artists came to me and he handed me this piece of paper. It was a sketch of my foot with the bells being wrapped around… I was blown away!

So, seeing yourself animated, thoughts?
(Laughs) They went by my current picture, right? So, my first thought was man you’re old! (Laughs) My second thought was Oh my, I really need to lose some weight (Laughs again) Jokes aside… There are different stages of how this all works and I remember getting the first sketch, very preliminary, they had no facial hair on me, no hair on my head I was completely clean… much like Mr. Clean! I said so are they going to add any hair? Because he looks like he should be selling a cleaning product (Laughs) They are like That is coming! This is just layer 1. I thought what am I doing, but you know I had to make sure because this is me! It did look like me at the end of course! They did a really great job and anyone who looks at it they are going to say okay, yes, this is Nakul. No question about it. 

So, here’s something… I wanted to ask this certain question, and I thought I knew the answer was but I didn’t want to be that person you know… so, I asked ‘By the way who is voicing this?’ They replied, ‘His name is Guru Nakul so clearly we need to find someone by that name to do it (you can hear his smile)… It is going to be you!’

MIRA, ROYAL DETECTIVE- Nakul Dev Mahajan, Choreographer. (Disney/Nakul Dev Mahajan)

Tell us about the process of recording your lines.
That experience was so fun of doing the voice-over work. You know, I have always seen it in the behind-the-scenes extras for other Disney projects. I always secretly thought and wondered if I could do that and be that person that voices a character. So when that was added to everything I was just on cloud nine. 

So how does that all work… are you in a sound booth and is the scene playing on a big screen or something?
Yes, just what you said. You are definitely in a sound booth, it is pretty large. I actually imagined it to be small like a closet but it is actually fairly large. You are looking at a very large television screen and they are showing scene by scene what you have to basically mouth on top of. They have stand-in voice-overs, the scratch it is called. So I was mouthing what I was supposed to and I was reciting the composition or the bols that were given to me for the episode. It was fun – I loved it! It was a great experience. It was definitely very surreal to see an animated version of you with your voice and your name and doing a performance of a style that you feel so much passion about and have so much respect for.  

Can you see kids at home, doing these steps and saying look at my dancing to whoever is watching?
Absolutely! I think that one of the components of the show is to spark interest in anything about the Indian culture. So whether you watching Mikku and Chikku indulge in a jalebi or samosa – that might spark interest in a child saying to mom and dad, ‘do we have to spaghetti tonight can we have samosa?’ With that right there, you have accomplished opening a new sensory for a child. Even if a child is watching this form and seeing the bells being wrapped about the ankles and doing this foot movement that looks like they are pitter-pattering their feet – even if they are trying it, you have planted a seed in a child’s mind and that seed can only grow into interests that maybe down the line you didn’t even realize. Absolutely, I do see children with anything, especially with movement, trying it and there is no harm in that!  

I think I know, but what is your favorite Bollywood Kathak dance piece?
So my favorite Bollywood Kathak-inspired dance would probably be a Madhuri [Dixit] number. I would say ‘Kaahe Chhed’ from Devdas is probably my favorite. 

Yes, I knew it!

Yay! That is it! Definitely, with Madhuri, she has the most training in Kathak than any other Bollywood actress. Now, of course, these are all semi-classical because they have the Bollywood twist to it. 

MIRA, ROYAL DETECTIVE – “The Great Kathak Mystery” – Series dance consultant and choreographer *Nakul Dev Mahajan (“So You Think You Can Dance”) Guru Nakul. (Disney)

Would you love to spin back to town again?
(Laughs) I totally got your reference! I always want people to keep watching so you will have to watch the entire season to see if I will or not!

 I love that Mira is expanding even more including the art of Indian classic music with the episode featuring tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and now you and the classical form of Kathak dance. Along, of course, with the other South Asian culture that has been showcased on the show…. What does that mean to you that they are bringing this to the world?
For me, being that education has been my major platform, being a choreographer, it allows me to see how far we have come. Being someone who has been working in the industry for over 20 years, you know this is something that wouldn’t have happened 5-10 years ago. And knowing that Disney Junior, in fact just the Disney brand itself as a whole, is taking such bounds and leaps to bring this new level of education it humbles me. So with Mira, Royal Detective, which of course being a show that is centered around the cultures of India, there is so much and there’s no stone unturned. It just makes me feel blessed to be associated with something like this. 

You can watch Nakul’s episode premiere of Mira, Royal Detective “The Great Kathak Mystery/The Mystery of the Missing Parts” on Disney Junior on Monday, Aug. 9th (5:00-5:30 p.m. EDT).

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