The 1985 Telugu film Mayuri directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao and produced by newspaper baron and studio owner Ramoji Rao, narrated the story of a budding dancer who loses a leg in a car accident. She has a Jaipur Foot fitted on her and pursues her career as a dancer and wins laurels galore.
Sudha Chandran, on whose life the film was based, hogged the limelight in the heroine’s role and the felicity and grace with which she executed the dance numbers in the film had the audience rooting for her all the way.
The film, which was a huge hit, was later remade in Hindi as Naache Mayuri by T Rama Rao. Sudha reprised her role, re-living once again the trauma of her life.
Dances, incidentally have always been an integral part of Telugu cinema and even stalwarts like A Nageswara Rao and NT Rama Rao were not averse to shaking a leg with their heroines, some of whom were young enough to be their daughters.
Dance sequences in Tollywood, however, touched a nadir with the advent of "item" numbers. The gyrations of the women who performed these dances were meant to elicit more wolf whistles than acclaim. The irony, however, was that these women were no mean dancers and Jothilakshmi, Jayamalini, Silk Smitha, Disco Shanti down to the present day performers like Mumaith Khan were/are all trained classical dancers who could give the best in the business a run for their money.
Telugu cinema boasts of a number of top notch heroines who had a background in the classical dances like Bharathanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Odissi etc. and brought to bear their brilliance in the dance numbers that they performed in their films.
For instance, a cult film like Shankarabharanam directed by K Vishwanath had for its theme the reverence shown by a dancer towards a vocalist she considered her guru. The film had several highlights, including the music, but Manju Bhargavi’s consummate artistry in the dance sequences, brilliantly picturised by the late Balu Mahendra still remains green in memory, decades after the film hit the screens.
Almost all the dances were shot in outdoor locations with temples and their architecture as a backdrop. The film was as much a tribute to dance as it was to music and it was the dancer’s talent that made all the difference.
One heroine who has danced her way into the hearts of the audience was Jayaprada. Hailed as the most beautiful woman in India by no less a person than Lifetime Oscar winning director Satyajit Ray, Jayaprada’s dancing abilities were manifest in films like Siri Siri Muvva and Sagara Sangamam, both directed by Vishwanath.
In Siri Siri Muvva, she played a speech impaired woman with an abiding passion for dance. She finds her perfect foil in an orphan who shares her love for dance. The film had several notable dance sequences, all meticulously choreographed and both Jayaprada and Chandramohan who were cast as the main leads did full justice to their roles.
When Vishwanath re-made the film in Hindi as Sargam he picked Jayaprada again for the main role with Rishi Kapoor and she made optimum use of the opportunity to impress Hindi audience. The film launched her career in Bollywood in a big way.
Sagara Sangamam was another film that showcased her dancing talents and this time, Jayaprada had to contend with Kamal Haasan, a highly rated dancer himself. Jayaprada was cast as a wealthy patron of dance who acts as a benefactress to Kamal, whose character was that of a dance master living in penury and addicted to alcohol.
The surprise package in the film, incidentally, was an up and coming playback singer SP Sailaja, sister of SP Balasubrahmanyam. She played Jayparada’s daughter and Kamal’s ward and came up with a good performance, executing various classical numbers with elan.
Bhanupriya, who once ruled the roost in South Indian cinema, was another actor whose dancing talents came to the fore in many of her films in Telugu. In Swarnakamalam where she was paired with Venkatesh, Bhanupriya played a young woman besotted with dance, bemoaning the lack of opportunities for a classical dancer like her.
The film, directed by Vishwanath, offered the actor free rein to reveal her mastery in various disciplines of classical dance. The sequences choreographed by a doyen of classical dance, Kelucharan Mohapatra, were canned at various picturesque and panoramic locations across the country.
Bhanupriya also shared a few frames with the accomplished Odissi exponent, Sharon Lowen who played herself in the film.
Other Telugu film heroines who also achieved popularity through their dance were Sridevi, Shobhana, Madhavi. Amala and the late Soundarya.
Of the present lot, Shriya Saran is a proficient Kathak dancer and the other heroines like Tamannaah and Anushka, too, have not been found wanting whenever they have been saddled with roles that required them to dance a few steps.
Films purely based on dance eventually became passé and even celebrated dancers like Shobhana, a reputed choreographer, and Amala, a trained dancer from the prestigious Kalakshetra in Chennai, had to be content with dancing with their heroes in dream sequences or in romantic numbers.