Last year’s “Kala Chashma” from the Sidharth Malhotra and Katrina Kaif starrer ‘Baar Baar Dekho’ became an instant rage for a variety of reasons. It was a hummable and foot-tapping party number, Katrina’s abs looked the best they ever have, and then there were the dance steps. Flanked by a bevy of female white backup dancers, Katrina gyrated to the trademark steps that became a sort of a permanent presence in almost every wedding thereafter. It was impossible to not want to move to the song the moment the music came on. But, amid the fun and the galore, we missed noticing the one crucial element responsible for making ‘Kala Chashma’ what it was: its backup dancers.
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In the big bad world of Bollywood, the tribe of backup dancers, who form the backbone of any music number, lead not just an invisible life, but also an exploited one. Unlike the star-kid backup dancers like Shahid Kapoor, these dancers lead an unglamorous and overworked life. It’s more so when you’re a white backup dancer trying to make it big in the alien world of Bollywood without any idea of Mumbai’s culture, the language, or its people.
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Twenty-five-year-old Jack* is one such male backup dancer braving odds, long working hours, and dismal exposure to make a living in Mumbai. But, life isn’t as sweet as he had imagined it’d be. “Even after struggling in Bollywood for seven years, I still end up living on a month paycheck basis sometimes,” he tells me. Originally from England, Jack came on a backpacking trip to India almost 10 years ago, on a tourist visa. The plan was to backpack across the country for close to two months, with a last pit stop at Mumbai, the City Of Dreams. “I did odd modelling jobs during college and saved up money to gift myself a graduation trip to India,” he reveals.
It was in the last week of his trip that he stumbled upon the Hindi film industry and its myriad workings travelling to Goregaon’s Film City as part of a Bollywood package tour. “The tour included the usual spots: Mannat, Jalsa and the likes. The last stretch included a tour of Film City and the chance to witness a film shoot at Yash Raj Studios.” As luck would have it, that shoot ended up being Farah Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’, and the song they were shooting that day was the iconic ‘Dard-E-Disco’ that saw SRK, the country’s biggest superstar sporting eight-pack abs.
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For Jack, that was his first tryst with both Bollywood and a dance number. “I had very little background on SRK at that point apart from the fact that he was referred as the King of Bollywood. What amused me more was the 20-odd male backup dancers flanking him. They were all white.” After an hour of shoot, the director called for a break and that’s when Jack bumped into a school senior doubling up as a backup dancer on set. “I met Robyn* after almost 10 years and had no idea she was a backup dancer. Back then, we all thought she’d end up as an actor or some such,” he tells me. It was a chat with Robyn that set the ball rolling for Jack’s long-drawn but hardly rewarding career in Bollywood. “That day, Robyn made it sound like such a dream. She told me how the industry was depending on only white backup dancers and money was therefore easy. I made up my mind the moment she told me how much she would make for these day shoots: Rs 50,000 for a few hours.”
That 20-minute conversation changed Jack’s life. He completed the rest of his trip and in a few months flew back to Mumbai, this time permanently. “Looking back at it, I realise how little I thought about that decision. I was young, a decent dancer and had no idea what I wanted from life, so I figured why not?” After he landed, Jack made the rounds of all the usual offices of various agents and put up with Robyn and her boyfriend Rob, a “veteran back up dancer” seen in Kal Ho Na Ho’s “Pretty Woman”, in a plush Versova apartment.
The first few years were exactly as Jack expected it would be. He was getting ample work, featured in a slew of hit numbers; ‘Chittiyan Kalaiyan’, ‘Bang Bang’ to name a few, and there was no dearth of money. “At that time, I was earning in lakhs every month and so overconfident of that being the case for a long long time,” he laughingly remembers.
But it was only the calm before the storm.
In the last three years, while Bollywood’s fascination with white backup dancers has still maintained a crazy frenzy, what however changed is their preference. Most Bollywood films were choreographing more and more songs with only female backup dancers in mind. “They were of the opinion that relying more on female backup dancers would ensure that their song and film is much more profitable. The girls would add the ample sex appeal needed. And, that’s how we started losing work.”
It started slow, with fewer offers and less screen time. “Take Kala Chashma for instance. There were around 30 female dancers and about half the number of male dancers. Not only did they dominate more screen time, but they were also paid more for the same work,” he tells me. But, now the situation is even more dire. Even as work and pay dwindled, the hours expected from them continued increasing.
Dance isn’t dance any longer; they needed to know a handful of stunts that would invariably lead to unforeseen accidents. But no coverage. Once, during a shoot abroad, Jack and another dancer sustained serious injuries while attempting a stunt and were forced to two months bed-rest. He claims he was more bummed about the fact that he wouldn’t earn money for two months more than the fact that he was injured. “Forget the fact that I’m losing out on work, but now even payments are being processed a month late. It’s a grim situation,” he rues.
On the work front, Jack has two more projects at the moment that require as much as 14-hours a day, and fetch him as much money as a fresher, even though he admits he doesn’t even love dancing anymore. The lack of work in films has forced him to take up more maddening ad film work. “The situation there is even more worse,” he laughs.
As he gets ready to leave for an ad shoot, I prod him on whether he’s contemplated leaving it all and moving back home.
“I don’t even have enough for this month’s rent, forget having enough for a flight ticket,” he replies before waving a goodbye.
*Names changed on request.