Bollywood Rewind | Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje: V Shantaram’s ode to classical dance

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In this weekly column, we revisit the nuggets of the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week, we revisit the 1955 version of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje.

The song and dance routine has been a staple of Hindi movies since the early days, but watching films from the 1950s and early 1960s, you realize that song and dance don’t just play a part. supporting role. In fact, it gives the film an identity and, ultimately, its success. And although the commercialized form of music and dance always found takers, audiences in the 1950s were keen to accept the classical form. What is the 1952 film Baiju Bawra made for classical music, the 1955 film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje made for Kathak, and revisiting this V Shantaram classic is an ethereal experience.

Starring Sandhya and Gopi Krishna in the lead roles, this film by V Shantaram among the first to be shot in technicolor and one can see how the sets and costumes must have provided an overwhelming sensory experience to the viewers who at this time- there were only used to see black and white visuals.

Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje focuses on the love story of Neela (Sandhya) and Giridhar (Gopi Krishna) who both learn dance under the same guru, Mangal Maharaj (Keshavrao Date). Their life is dedicated to their art, but when they fall in love it is considered a sin against their sacred art form as they have now compromised their dedication. The plot of the film revolves around Neela’s guilt over falling in love with Girdhar, who is destined to be a great dancer, and Girdhar, who can’t quite make up her mind about her.

Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje questions the debate on art in its pure form vs. when it is simplified for commercial purposes. At the start of the film, when Neela is told that what she practices day and night is nothing more than “Naach bazaar”, she is heartbroken. When she questions her teacher, he gives her a rational excuse: “I was asked to teach you in six months, in addition to preparing a troop. What else was I supposed to do? At this point, the film makes it clear that in this universe, art should not be sold for money but should be practiced for respect, dignity. Yet, as the film progresses, you learn that Mangal Maharaj, who condemns commercial dance, is preparing Girdhar for another dance competition, which he deems worthy. His art also seeks validation, but with a crowd he considers his peers.

Through various dance and music montages you see the hard work Neela and Girdhar have put into becoming the best dancers as Mangal makes it clear that greatness can only be achieved through sacrifice. The two fall in love, but in this world it is forbidden. Watching him in 2021, it’s interesting to watch a scene where a character points out that Neela and Girdhar might fall in love because they’re spending too much time together. To this Mangal responds and says: “The men of our gharana do not think about marriage until they have reached the highest rank in the dance, and when they marry after that, it is only so that they can continue the family line. Not for love. This particular dialogue stays with you because it talks about the perception of love in this society. For a character like Mangal who enjoys the creative arts and understands the nuances of emotions more than an average layman, romantic love is a sin, but loving their art form is the greatest blessing.

Sandhya in a poster by Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje from V Shantaram.

Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is full of jaw-dropping dance sequences, all choreographed by Gopi Krishna. As her Girdhar jumps from one corner of the screen to the other, you are in awe of her delicate dancing style. His movements, exemplary expressions and attention to detail prevent you from looking elsewhere. And Sandhya’s Neela fits him step by step. Gopi Krishna was a renowned dancer at the time who eventually became a popular choreographer in Bollywood, but Sandhya was still a beginner in dance at the time. When it comes to their acting, it sometimes feels like a play, which makes this fantasy world even more artificial.

As Neela and Girdhar dance in each other’s hearts, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje’s conflict erupts, as does sexism. The conflict in the film is blamed entirely on Neela, as the film cleverly makes her the Meneka to Vishwamitra from Girdhar (there is even a dance sequence where she plays Meneka). Mangal accuses Neela of having destroyed the concentration of Girdhar. Neela blames herself and tries to kill herself. At this point, the film portrays Neela as the one who is fully responsible for the havoc in Mangal and Girdhar’s lives. To absolve herself of her guilt, she claims to have never loved her dance partner which annoys her, and he insults her with the harshest words. At one point, he even tries to hit his head with a large rock but is stopped by Mangal just so he doesn’t end up in jail. At this point in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, you are wondering if Girdhar ever loved Neela when he is ready to give up on her in the blink of an eye.

Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje keeps, and more, his promise to create a stunning visual masterpiece by presenting one breathtaking dance performance after another. The climax has a silly match-fixing angle that can only be forgiven because director V Shantaram features a dance number worthy of the finale. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has often credited V Shantaram as one of his inspirations and after watching Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje one can see the seed of Bhansali’s expansive ideas.

Shantaram couldn’t have made a dance film without a bit of classical music, and composer Vasant Desai with lyricist Hasrat Jaipuri excelled on this front. If you have ever taken Kathak lessons for beginners, you know that songs like “Murli Manohar”, “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje” are still practiced. “Jo Tum Todo Piya”, “Kaisi Yeh Mohabbat” are some of the other popular songs on the album.

Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is a classic in the sense that it represents a certain era of Indian cinema. While it hasn’t aged so well in terms of acting and storytelling, the film still impresses with its dance numbers which are certainly timeless.

Bollywood rewind | Jagte Raho | Baazi | Saal Baad bees | Dosti | Mughal-e-Azam | Mother India | Anari | Chaudhvin Ka Chand | Boot Polish | Make Bigha Zamin | Devdas | Baiju Bawra | Shree 420 | Pyasa | CID | Madhumati | Naya Daur | Awara | Sharada | Do Aankhen Barah Haath | Bandini | Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam

Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is streaming on ZEE5 and YouTube.


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