by Susan Fry
Over 2,000 fans crowded into sold-out Zellerbach Hall on Saturday night for the largest intercollegiate Bollywood dance competition in the U.S. — eight teams dressed in sparkly costumes competing for more than $4,000 in prizes.
People not familiar with Bollywood might be surprised by the turnout. But “Bollywood Berkeley” is just one of many Indian dance competitions now sweeping the United States, from “The South Asian Showdown” in Boston to “Bollywood America” in San Diego.
The competitions are part of a larger trend: due to a growing immigrant Indian population, Bollywood is running rampant across the U.S. The three-hour subtitled films, such as last year’s hits Dabangg and Three Idiots, often feature song-and-dance segments. The dancers wear glamorous costumes and perform a unique style of choreography that fuses classical Indian dance with moves from hip-hop, Hollywood musicals, and Latin dance.
Bollywood Berkeley offered more than just dance. Each team had eight minutes to perform an entire mini-movie. The plots ranged from UC San Diego’s story about a girl’s conflict with her parents to the University of Southern California’s portrayal of an assassination attempt by the Indian mafia. Each skit was dramatized by a rapidly-shifting medley of Bollywood songs and multiple, ever-more-glittering costume changes.
But the dancing was the real heart of the show. Original takes on the traditional Bhangra and Bollywood steps showcased student dancers who’ve been learning Indian dance since they were children. Other choreography referenced famous dancers and films, such as Hrithik Roshan’s iconic moves in Dhoom 2 and Shahid Kapoor’s energetic “Nagada," from the movie Jab We Met.
Bollywood is an evolving art, and the students also introduced some fantastic new elements. Heart-stopping acrobatics such as handsprings, lifts, and throws were probably inspired by college cheerleading, and were greeted by deafening roars from the audience that made the theater feel like a football stadium. And while UC San Diego’s dance with crutches might have reminded the audience of the wheelchair routine from "Glee", the UCSD team took the props to a new level. The dancers actually stood up on single crutches, balancing precariously before leaping off.
Some of the teams had been practicing twelve hours a day to get ready. But as Shalini Pyapali from UC Davis said, “It was just so much fun to perform!”
Ryan Shetty, a senior at UCLA, agreed. “The adrenaline rush was incredible.”
At best, the skits were an amazing display of dramatic, athletic, and artistic talent. But some of the performances suffered from overly-complex plots and too-frequent music changes, which didn’t let the dancers show what they could truly do. Those portions felt like Bollywood films chopped up for the Twitter generation.
UC Berkeley’s Azaad team, the reigning champion, once again took 1st place and the $2,000 prize.