Culture in Sync

Eddie Rosenbaum/Staff

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Eight teams competing in front of a packed audience to put on the best dance routine-sounds like an MTV reality show, right? Except these eight teams from around the country are performing Hindi Film Dance (HFD), an eclectic dance style drawn from Bollywood film, and the venue is Zellerbach Hall. Last Saturday's ninth annual Bollywood Berkeley was one of the biggest cultural nights of the year for UC Berkeley's South Asian community, and the largest competition of its kind anywhere in the country.

With over 2000 fans in attendance and an afterparty at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, Bollywood Berkeley is a "subtle but integral part of the South Asian community social life," says Ketki Warudkar, president of UC Berkeley Indus, the student group responsible for organizing the event. But it's first and foremost a showcase for the dancing and choreography of the exuberant students on the eight competing HFD teams.

Besides a few basic parameters for sets and costumes, the competition was governed by a single rule: The music must come from Hindi film. Beyond that, the participants devise brief narrative-driven dance performances, complete with pre-recorded English dialogue, featuring complex choreography to suit their own strengths and interests. Much of the dancing was synchronized and gesture-based, often with interplay between separated groups of male and female dancers. The numbers usually featured flips, tosses and other acrobatic feats. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Fizaa featured fencing in the climax of its act, while both UC Irvine's Zamana and Stanford's Dil Se performed with lights on a dark stage for a striking effect.

Amlu Natesan, one of the captains of UC Berkeley's team, Azaad, and winner of Best Female Lead, says, "There's two primary things that we use when we decide music. One is making sure that it fits our storyline It was also really important for us to make sure that [the songs] were crowd-pleasers. We've always been a team [that wants] to make sure that the crowd is extremely entertained to get a reaction from them, from the start of the song, of like, 'Wow, we love that song.'"

Each team's performance was preceded by a filmed introduction setting up the plot of the ensuing dance. UCSD's Zor took home a Best Concept award for their heist-centered narrative of love and betrayal. Others incorporated magic or time travel as plot devices.

Natesan spoke about Azaad's choice, first suggested by her co-captain Nickesh Viswanathan, to present an updated "Romeo and Juliet," substituting a happier ending in its tale of the feuding Punjabis and Tamilians. "It just sparked because it hasn't been done at all in the scene of Hindi Film Dance."

The teams' sets and costumes were diverse and inventive, and sometimes their complex set-up led to delays. Two-dimensional cars, a gargantuan light-up remote control, giant masks and numerous printed backdrops populated the stage over the course of the night.

Every school had fans in attendance, though Berkeley seemed to have a monopoly on audience support. Several chants could be heard before the show and between numbers, including the standard Berkeley "Bear Territory" chant. Stanford, unsurprisingly if unfairly, received some boos before coming onstage as the last competing team of the night, but overall the audience seemed supportive but sporting.

"Our generation of South Asians, we are somewhat familiar with our culture," says Warudkar, "and at the same time we've been growing up in America, so we're really able to fuse the two together. And I think Bollywood Berkeley is a perfect example of how we incorporate our culture into our college lives." She indicates that HFD is "relatively a college-age phenomenon," an inroad for people who have grown up with Bollywood films as their main tie to South Asian culture. Indeed, not all the dancers are South Asians, and Warudkar expresses excitement at the diversity of the participants.

The evening was emceed by Berkeley alum Sammy Obeid, a comedian of Lebanese descent who introduced the groups and performed two blocks of jokes. Also appearing out of competition were Berkeley's a cappella group Dil Se (not to be confused with the Stanford HFD team) and Zahanat, a newly formed all-male fusion dance group also from Berkeley.

When the results came in, Berkeley's Azaad snagged first place, with University of Arizona's Om Shanti and UC Irvine's Zamana in second and third. Berkeley will go on to compete in Bollywood America, and all three received monetary rewards.

At the end of the night, it was hard not to be pleased with the rigorously rehearsed and joyfully executed performances. All the participants did their part to make the evening a success; Indus's dedication to offering such a rich cultural event right on campus is to be applauded. Hardly an exclusive group event, Bollywood Berkeley was an open celebration of at least three cultures: South Asian, American and Berkeleyan.


Sam Stander is the lead music critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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