Movers and Shakers: how choreographers are being recognised as the brand new hit makers of Indian cinema

We catch up with five popular choreographers from five film industries of the country to see how  choreography can influence the way a film performs in the box office, today
A still from Sami Sami — a song from the film Pushpa (2022)
A still from Sami Sami — a song from the film Pushpa (2022)

If you haven’t heard of Arabic Kuthu, then you must belong to a very small minority of people who have managed to stay off social media. The song, also known as Halamithi Habibo has already garnered 145 million views on YouTube and over a million reels on Instagram. What draws you to the song is definitely the charisma of Tamil actor Vijay and the fact that he’s sharing screen space with Pooja Hegde, considered one of the hottest actresses in India today. That and the amazing choreography in the song, courtesy Shaik Jani Basha aka Jani Master!

Choreographers in Indian films today still play a very important role in the making of a hit or flop, especially when it comes to what we call ‘cinema for the masses.’  A well-choreographed song, or a groovy step that has the potential to draw in a lot of attention, can literally work as the best publicity for a movie way ahead of its release date. Consider the song Sami Sami (742+ million views across five languages and counting — featured on the cover) from the recent hit, Pushpa, starring Allu Arjun and Rashmika Mandanna.

The song was declared a super hit long before the film released and the choreography by JV Sekhar aka Sekhar Master ensured that the film would do very well at the box office too. That and the billion or so reels that the song and the trendy step (in it) inspired! In no time, the song was on everyone’s lips and the step was a ‘must learn, must do’ — creating several covers on social media platforms across the country.

This, however, wasn’t limited to just the South Indian film industries. Up North, in Bollywood, films like Gangubai Kathiawadi and (earlier) Padmaavat (2018) also chose to release their dance numbers ahead of the actual opening of the film and they chose wisely. Dholida from Gangubai Kathiawadi, choreographed by Kruti Mahesh, garnered 75 million views long  before the film released, a  month or so ago, while Ghoomar from Padmaavat (also choreographed by Kruti) garnered 460+ million views and counting.

The age of the choreographer is finally here and it seems like it’s here to stay. Choreographers across the industries are stars in their own right these days and for good reason too. We catch up with five popular film choreographers from five industries across India to catch the trend and figure out, for ourselves, if the trend is here to stay.

Poster of <em>Beast</em> & Jani Master with actor Vijay
Poster of Beast & Jani Master with actor Vijay

“At the end of the day, my only drive is to choreograph a song that makes the viewer feel like they’ve got the full worth of their ticket money,” says Shaik Jani Basha aka Jani Master as we chat about his latest hit Arabic Kuthu. Jani Master works extensively in the Tamil and Telugu film industries and was also one of the choreographers on another song that quite literally sold a film as a hit, way before its release — Rowdy Baby from Tamil movie Maari 2 (which has hit 1.5 billion replays on YouTube and is the most viewed Tamil film song on the same platform).

The new stars

“In the past decade, the drive to create social media oriented content has definitely increased and this is a good thing, because the engagement is so high. All the choreographers who have been working on films since the early ’40s, haven’t been able to enjoy the benefits of the mileage that social media can give them. It feels good to be seen and appreciated. It also works as mileage for the film. I don’t remember songs being released before films in my childhood. We watched a film, and if we liked the song, we bought the cassette and replayed the song till we learnt the choreography. But now with the song, quite literally at your fingertips, you can watch it as many times as you want — making it more connectable and accessible — ensuring many choreographers are now household names in their own right,” explains Bollywood choreographer Kruti Mahesh, who also choreographed Pranavalaya featuring Sai Pallavi, from Telugu film Shyam Singha Roy that garnered close to 20 million views on YouTube and a million or so reels before the film was released on an OTT platform.

Kruti Mahesh & Poster of <em>Shyam Singha Roy</em>
Kruti Mahesh & Poster of Shyam Singha Roy
Brinda Master & Poster of <em>Gandhari</em>
Brinda Master & Poster of Gandhari

Popular Kollywood choreographer and recently-turned director Brinda aka Brinda Master also echoes this sentiment. “We always want to do our best with a song and we can never definitely say if a song will do very well or become viral. What we can ensure is that the song does justice to the mood of the film, the scene requirement and what the director wants. Some songs that we think will work, don’t work at all and some songs that we never imagined to do well, will do very well. I choreographed the song Darling Dambakku (18 million views on YouTube) for Tamil film Maan Karate (2014) very simply and never imagined the choreography to become such a super hit. You can’t really predict these things. We really are still very dependent on good music compositions,” explains the choreographer who recently also choreographed a Telugu single, Gandhari, featuring actress Keerthy Suresh that has already crossed 7 million views on YouTube and is currently also a trending reel on Instagram.

Under pressure

With this over dependence on social media to sell a film before it releases, the pressure to create trendy steps or signature moves, however, eventually falls on the choreographer of the song. Is this too much pressure, we ask?

“There is a pressure these days to create a new trendy step, more than ever before. But it works in our favour. It’s however just never about the one step alone. It’s about the set, how the song is picturised, the colour palette… everything matters. There is a huge joy in creating a cool step and telling yourself: koi bhi kar sakta hain aur mazaa aa jayega (anyone can do this step and they’ll have fun while doing it). I genuinely enjoy creating these steps and take it as a challenge to come up with something different and new,” avers Kruti while Brinda adds, “There’s definitely a pressure to find a signature move. And you never know what works. Recently, I also choreographed the song Tum Tum (184 million views on YouTube and counting) for the Tamil film Enemy and it worked because it instantly became a popular wedding anthem. What this has led to — that makes me very happy — is the recognition that we choreographers are now getting. There was a day when no one knew who we were and this is such a wonderful change from that era.”

Imran Master
Imran Master

Sandalwood choreographer Imran Sardhariya aka Imran Master has a different take. “You get an instant feeling, when you hear the song for the first time, and you know whether you can create a deep impact by choreographing it properly. And I seem to have a talent for recognising songs that will work well. 99.9 per cent of the time, a song that I have been excited about while choreographing it, has always worked with audiences too. Once you are convinced about a song, doing something magical with it is quite easy,” says the choreographer who is known for Kannada hits like Stylo Stylo (2.3 million views on YouTube) from Hudugaata (2007), Jinke Marina (1.1 million views on YouTube) from Nanda Loves Nanditha (2008) and more recently Hands Up (58 million views on YouTube) from Avane Srimannarayana (2019).

The other side

But, with choreographers across Bollywood and most South Indian film industries enjoying this new found popularity, elsewhere in the country the situation cuts a sorry picture.

“In Kolkata, choreographers are still not given the credit they truly deserve. My song, Neel Digante (12 million views on YouTube) from Gotro (2019), became quite the trend online and the popularity did help sell the film, but as choreographers we’re not given as much recognition in the industry in comparison to Bollywood and the other film industries. Yes, these days, we are at least being called as judges on some competitive dance shows, but they are few and far apart. Hopefully things will change soon,” says popular choreographer Varsha Bardhan, the only female choreographer working in the Bengali film industry right now.

Varsha Bardhan & a still from <em>Neel Digante</em>
Varsha Bardhan & a still from Neel Digante

And while we celebrate the new found popularity that some choreographers are enjoying, film pundits are still wary of giving these songs full credit for their role in selling a film or making it a hit. “I think we are consuming a lot of content on Instagram as reels and memes and these make a song viral quite easily but does this translate into any box office inclination, I highly doubt,” avers Amul Mohan, Bollywood trade analyst.

That said, is this trend here to stay, we ask? “As Indians, singing and dancing is something that we begin to fall in love with even during our childhood. This is a given. We, as a culture, celebrate music and dance subconsciously on many levels. So, how we choose to use and view this music and dance might change over a period of time, but they will always continue to be a part of our films and an advantage to the filmmaking craft. There will never be a film without representations of these cultures,” Kruti concludes.

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