I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow there is a dance film that doesn’t bring me happiness.
Whole insane plot:
Sooraj Pancholi is a dance flash mob organizer/waiter. Isabelle Kaif is the new partner of the top ballroom dancer in London? England? The World? Sooraj has a crush on Isabelle. She comes to his restaurant and dances and falls off a table, injuring her leg. Her white dance partner dumps her, which means she won’t win the competition, which means her family dance school is in trouble. Also, she can’t teach dance classes. Sooraj offers to teach her classes for her so the school can stay open. Isabelle’s big sister starts teaching Sooraj ballroom dancing so he can compete with Isabelle in the Big Thing. But Sooraj struggles, because of the Tragic Dance Accident in his past. He was in love with a white dancer lady, they used to perform together, but she talked him into trying a difficult lift, and during rehearsals, he dropped her and KILLED HER. They also struggle because the Dance Council, lead by the mother of Isabelle’s old partner, is trying not to allow them into the competition. They finally make it to the competition, but Isabelle’s old partner cheats and makes them have a lower score. Thanks to a viral video campaign, the public forces the Dance Council to let them go to the finals after all. Just before the finals, the evil white lady reminds Sooraj of his girlfriend’s death so he almost doesn’t show up. But at the last minute, he does. And they do the super super hard lift and he DOESN’T kill Isabelle. And then the win and the movie is over.
This is one of those movies when I can’t figure out who the white people are for. Because this isn’t how white people really are? Like, there is so much aggressive racism just because they are “Indian”. We white people are absolutely racist!!!! But, not like this. It’s way more subtle and passive and hard to pin down. Also, racism against Indians because they don’t know ballroom dance is NOT A THING!!!!! This movie seems to propose that in all areas of life, white people won’t allow Indian people to do stuff. No grasp of the whole “model minority” dynamic and the complex structures of prejudice.
All of that makes me think it is for people who don’t live in white-majority countries, an inaccurate fantasy of how racism works in that situation. BUT! There is SO MUCH ENGLISH!!! And it’s a short film, and it released direct to Netflix, and it is set overseas, there are so many other factors that say it IS aimed at the diaspora.
So what I have landed on is that it is for dumb people in the diaspora. Or, I suppose, dumb elite folks back home who like English language films but have no concept of actual social functioning. The people who think there really is an across the board vendetta against all “Indians” everywhere in all walks of life in the West. Who equate horrible hate crimes in which people are actually killed for their perceived ethnicity with not being allowed into a dance contest. If I think of this one way, in terms of the various paranoid upperclass desi folks I have talked to who are all “that waitress was possibly rude to me and it is WORSE THAN SLAVERY” kind of people, it infuriates me. But if I think of it as just a bunch of bad white actors being insanely sneeringly evil, it delights me. Who doesn’t love to boo the rich old white people?
The other thing I can’t figure out is what the ballroom dancing is for. Because, like, it’s really bad dancing! And ballroom dance isn’t THAT hard to learn. Not saying it’s easy, but if I were, for instance, a professional actor cast in a dance film, I could probably get pretty good at it through 2 months of dedicated work. And, they didn’t. It’s no good. And the whole concept of the ballroom dance concept doesn’t quite make sense either. First, that it is this Huge Deal. Which it really isn’t. And second, that it is somehow controlled by an All Powerful Governing Body. And third, that it all comes down to one super quick contest.
There’s a way to do this where you make it clear that the characters think it is a Huge Deal, but in the real world it isn’t. There’s a way to do this where you are clearly tipping a wink to the audience that this whole world is a spoof and fake. And then there’s the way this film did it, where they seem to actually believe this is how ballroom dance works? And that the audience will believe it too?
The greatest ballroom dance film of all time, and one of the best dance films of all time, is Strictly Ballroom. What makes it great is that it says “this doesn’t really matter, but the characters think it matters”. And then it goes a step further and says “and it does matter, BECAUSE they think it matters. If it gives them dignity, purpose, and most of all if they try their very best, then it matters”. This film goes another way. It says “Ballroom dancing Really Really Matters. And because it matters in the Real World, that is why the characters care about it.”
This gets at the heart of what I want in a dance film and what is missing here. Dance films are about people doing what makes them happy as best they can just because it makes them happy. Dance is a uniquely filmic medium. You could tell the same story, and people have, about folks who paint, or write, or sing, or anything else that has no intrinsic value but makes them happy. But it’s not the same as watching someone joyfully leap across the screen when they finally let loose and give in to the music. And I never ever get that feeling in this film.
It’s not just that the dances are bad (badly danced, badly filmed, badly choreographed), it’s that the plot surrounding them doesn’t give that feeling. These are people who are dancing to win a competition. They aren’t dancing because they “love to dance”, there is no explanation around that. Sooraj is dancing to help Isabelle win, Isabelle is dancing to show up her mean white former partner and also to win. It can be the stupidest plot in the world, so long as you have that message of “I dance for joy, to challenge myself, to bring happiness to others” it still works. If the message is “I dance to show up the white folks”, it isn’t really a dance film at all.