AnyBodyCanDance, but not everybody can make a Dance Movie
What is the appeal of a 'Dance Movie' in a movie culture already full of song and dance?
Most Bollywood movies have people dancing every half-hour, so you wouldn't think we'd really need or want a 'dance movie'.
But Any Body Can Dance 2 just had the biggest opening weekend of 2015. So either the film's PR agency has managed some kind of mass hypnosis, or Indian moviegoers have an appetite for something a Dance Movie has that a Bollywood movie doesn't.
What is that thing?
Dance Movie 101
A Dance Movie isn't so much about dance as it is an excuse for it. It's mostly a series of cool, well-choreographed music videos, held together by a thin plot. Narrative is about as important here as it is in porn. The dancing is what you're there to see; a decent story is a bonus, but it's not the point.
In Hollywood, the Dance Movie exists as a sub-genre because it has different rules from the bulk of Western cinema.
It has no truck with realism. (See: Street Dance.)
It gives you license to insert polished, coordinated dance sequences where none should plausibly exist. (See: Honey. Remember Honey?)
It permits virtuosic dancing erupting in the streets, or in clubs. Indeed, it allows you to believe in an alternative universe full of dance clubs, which are full of great dancers, who also happen to be really good looking. (See: Step Up, Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 4 Revolution.)
Hollywood needs the Dance Movie as a discrete place to showcase and revel in dance, all disbelief suspended.
More than running around trees
Bollywood doesn't have those problems - it's already built around copious dancing and suspension of disbelief. But a film like ABCD2 is still exciting, because it promises to show you really good, 'serious' dancing.
And what you get in most Bollywood films is, well, not serious dancing.
For starters, dancing in Bollywood - in the sense of choreographed dancing - is usually part of a song-and-dance interlude. You know it's a break from the story. You can slip safely off to the loo and not miss much. It's more pleasant than a commercial break, even fun, but non-essential.
It's also usually code, used to represent or communicate something: flirtation, seduction, romance, love, angst, worship, ritual, community, a raucously fun party or a wholesome good time with the family.
Most of all, even when it demands you pay attention, it's an aesthetic rather than athletic spectacle.
The dancing in a Dance Movie should produce the thrill of watching something exceptional, and a twinge of envy
But the dancing in a Dance Movie is - or is supposed to be - both a physical and aesthetic feat. It should produce the thrill of watching something beautiful and exceptional, and a twinge of envy. The dancing should come across as both cool and visibly hard. (This combination may be why most Dance Movies in the west centre on hip-hop.) It cannot be just pretty and pleasant, or sexy and skill-less. It cannot be something you can replicate at your second cousin's wedding sangeet.
Serious, but not self-serious
Remo D'Souza, the director-choreographer of Any Body Can Dance and Any Body Can Dance 2 (henceforth: ABCDs) seems to recognise this difference.
He even acknowledges it in the new film - in a slant way - when a judge at the 'World Hip-Hop Championship' qualifiers, talking to our troupe of dancer-protagonists, sneers: "Yeh koi TRP pe chalne wala reality show nahin hai. This is serious hip-hop."
But I wish he hadn't done that. It just gets you thinking about whether or not the dancing that follows is, in fact, 'serious'. If you're someone who's familiar with cutting-edge hip-hop styles or competitive dancing, it's an invitation to scrutiny. And even if you're not, you start to think about it - and in a film like this, that's never good.
Does ABCD2 measure up?
Some of the dancing in ABCD2 was fun to watch, especially the defiant Bangalore qualifier performance that follows the 'This is Sparta' moment mentioned earlier. But not enough of it was.
It's not that the dancers are bad, far from it. Most of them are actually great, and stand out even as non-star members of the troupe. And the fact that Varun Dhawan isn't the best dancer of the lot isn't really a big deal.
The heroes of Dance Movies are rarely the best dancers - they're usually just the best package in terms of looks, charm, dancing skills and acting talent of the whole ensemble. Dhawan more than meets this criteria. His dancing is actually quite impressive, his energy convincing. (Shraddha Kapoor's not bad either but is ill-suited to the kind of movement demanded of her here, and so sticks out.)
If the dancing leaves something to be desired, it's largely because of choreographic choices.
When Bollywood goes dancing
Part of the joy of Dance Movies is behind-the-scenes - scenes where all these excellent dancers are either practising or fooling around or dancing socially. ABCD2 has none of that - the dancing is too choreographed, and it starts to become apparent that the camera and slow-motion effects are making up for something.
This choreographed-ness is very Bollywood. It quickly becomes apparent that D'Souza can't decide whether he's making a Dance Movie or a Bollywood movie with slightly amped up song-and-dance. The correct answer is probably 'both', which is why it doesn't work.
What does a Dance Movie have that a Bollywood movie doesn't? Get the lowdown here
The film does itself a disservice by giving us both run-of-the-mill Bollywood song-and-dance sequences, and its version of serious competitive hip hop. You can really tell the difference here, and the mix doesn't quite make sense. In one song-length gallivant around Las Vegas, the film's protagonists - some of them genuinely talented - come across as your garden-variety backup dancers.
Over the course of the film (too long by an hour), the dancing gets less and less athletic, and becomes, despite the gauntlet thrown at the qualifiers, very much like a reality TV spectacle - gimmicky, tech-heavy and schlocky. Toward the end, especially, it isn't clear whether you're watching a dance competition or a lavish patriotic opening ceremony for the IPL.
What are the stakes?
This is the film's other key flaw: it can't quite convince us of the stakes. And you can't make a film full of dance without the dancing having some visible ones.
The first ABCD was about a group of scrappy upstarts making a break for the bigtime so they could do what they love and get to a better life. The second takes this narrative for granted. Both are based, to varying degrees, on real-life stories. They're populated with dancers who've made it through reality dance competitions. But neither is really convincing as a success-through-sheer-talent story.
It's not the absence of realism - we've already established the Dance Movie isn't about that. The problem is that the textures and backstories are so canned, the stakes fail to come through. Besides, if we can't care about the dancing, how will we care about the dancers?
Both of the film's big failures ultimately have to do with the fact that it doesn't know whether it's a Dance Movie or a Bollywood movie, and ends up neither. This is clearest around the climax: we should get a kickass routine and exuberant love of dance; we get stale melodrama and overblown love of country.
Is a good combination of Bollywood and Dance Movie possible? I think so - but this one is not it. I'm a fan of both genres, so I hope it'll come to pass.