If you’re a Netflix fan, you probably know that Never Have I Ever is no longer just the name of a game. It’s also a television series, created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, that follows an American girl with Indian roots through the complexities of growing up – and navigating different aspects of her identity. The third Never Have I Ever episode incorporates Indian dance to depict protagonist Devi’s reticence to fully embrace Indian culture. We caught up with the choreographer and dancer from this scene, Joya Kazi, who tells us more about Indian dance, misrepresentations of Indian culture and choreographing for television in this interview.
Joya Kazi: LA-based Choreographer
Although currently in Los Angeles, Joya Kazi was born in Mumbai and raised in California’s Bay Area. At the age of 16, she launched Joya Kazi Unlimited before studying Theater & Dance (as well as Political Science) at the University of California – Davis. Her dance career includes teaching at the Orange County School for Arts, placing Top 8 on reality TV show Dance Plus and training Bollywood stars, such as Priyanka Chopra Jones, Jaqueline Fernandez and Madhuri Dixit. You may have spotted her in Fox’s New Girl show – and, more recently, in Never Have I Ever on Netflix.
“Production originally contacted me to choreograph, cast, and work wardrobe [for ‘Never Have I Ever’], but then a few weeks into the process I got a call saying that they actually wanted me in the scene, playing the lead dancer, Preeti. Obviously, I said ‘yes!’”– Joya Kazi
Interview with Dancer, Joya Kazi
Hello, Joya! First of all, congratulations on your latest gig with Never Have I Ever. It’s really wonderful that you were able to participate in a show that delivers more nuanced, accurate representations of Asian Americans.
Can you explain how some other mainstream representations of Bollywood outside of India are inaccurate?
The inauthentic and inaccurate representations of Bollywood dance in American culture is a result of centuries of appropriation of the Indian styles of dance and culture based on the convenience and ease of accessibility for westerners. The expectation of something “eastern” and “exotic” is based in what the West wants to see. The problem is that we end up seeing a complete mish-mosh of different aspects from various cultures as a representation of one.
For example, costuming often mixes eastern looking silks with middle eastern jewelry and belly dance scarves – or garments of different states and countries are thrown together with a lot of sequins, which doesn’t match the type of song or choreography. This in no way paints an accurate picture of any culture.
Choreographically, we are presented with dances that are created by choreographers who have never trained in any styles of Indian classical, folk or commercial dance and have even confessed in interviews that they simply referred to YouTube videos to grab movements for their own use. You have choreographers who have never stepped foot into an Indian classical or Bollywood dance class, who are using the filtered aesthetics and cultural devices that fit their template without ever consulting the knowledge of trained and accomplished choreographers in the industry, and even worse, not even hiring those trained in the style and of the culture.
They will take gestures and “recreate” or just make up movements that don’t make any sense to the culture and that are almost caricature-like. Things like “twisting the lightbulb”, vigorously wobbling the head side to side, and throwing up any hand gesture to make it look like it is Indian dance are all misrepresentations.
Yep, I can definitely picture the dance moves that you’ve just described. I’m positive I have been exposed to misrepresentations of Bollywood dancing, too…
What are common misconceptions of Bollywood dance?
The first misconception of Bollywood dance is that it’s an actual dance form. Spoiler alert: it’s not. We don’t train in Bollywood dance, but in traditional, folk and classical dances that are at least 9000 years old, dating back to the 2nd century. What the West calls Bollywood dance is really just referring to the choreography of the songs in our films, which are often musicals.
The other misconception is that Bollywood dance or the types of dances you see in Indian films is the only dance style that exists… and Bollywood dance is just energetic, simple and fun. Yes, [it] can be energetic and fun, but [it is] so much more. These choreographies often pull from modern, contemporary and commercial styles, and are also heavily influenced by the seven classical dances of India that are rich in tradition, training, and technique or folk dances that have their own rhythms, stylizations, and techniques.
Oh, that’s something I didn’t know. I was just about to ask if you felt that practicing other Indian dance forms helps dancers to better embody Bollywood choreography!
Anyone can learn choreography and memorize moves, but to fully embody a dance style you have to build a strong foundation of the technique that can only be found in classical dances. I grew up as a student of Indian classical dance, primarily focusing on Kathak, Odissi & Bharatnatyam, and only began exploring other styles of dance and Hindi Film/Bollywood dance over a decade into my classical training. I always advise my students to study and train in Indian classical dances to help build the technique and precision that takes the execution of any Bollywood choreography to the next level.
“I was especially excited to [represent South Asian culture] as a dance creative in ‘Never Have I Ever’ because so often we find that inexperienced choreographers are hired, even though they have never trained in [Indian] dance styles… The outpouring of love from dancers and South Asians around the world has been overwhelming!”– Joya Kazi
Do you personally agree with the term ‘Bollywood,’ and are there any alternative terms to describe this popular Indian dance?
The term Bollywood is coined by the West to refer to every single type of art that comes out of India, be it song, music, dance, theater, or film. The more interesting part is that we are also expected to define the term imposed on us by the West, for the West. I like to draw the parallel of Broadway and how many different types of dance styles you can see on the Broadway stage. It can vary from jazz to classical to tap to theatrical and will be influenced based on the time and place that the musical takes place, what the demographic and background of the characters are, and will often be more contemporary than pure classical.
Similarly, the types of dance styles used in Indian films will take on shape based on these factors. Just like we can’t simply group all the dance styles seen on the Broadway stage together and say that there is only one dance style that exists in the West and refer to all performance art out of the West as “Broadway” – we can’t do that with the art from India, either.
Before the term “Bollywood” was coined, we used to refer to the songs we danced to from Hindi films as, simply Hindi Film Dance. I used to always say that I’m an Indian Classical dancer and one of my specialties is Hindi Film Dance. These days it’s pretty tough to get away from the term “Bollywood” and is one of those battles I’ve chosen not to fight anymore. Instead, I do what I can to share the knowledge of Indian technical dances and how Bollywood dance or choreographies to songs from Indian films can be based in classical, urban, folk, or commercial based on the stylings of the song and context in the film.
The analogy of using ‘Bollywood’ and ‘Broadway’ as a blanket term for a variety of dances from one region of the world is really elucidating. But I can see how it is difficult to ‘get away’ from the popular terminology, as you mentioned.
What originally attracted you to Bollywood dance, and what made you decide to pursue it as a professional?
I grew up watching Indian films and dancing to the iconic songs, but I never really equated that to a professional Bollywood career until I went to a show where Indian actors were performing their iconic dances from our favorite films. It was there that my mom pointed out a gentleman in the wings, Shiamak Davar, a famous Indian choreographer known for bringing contemporary and jazz dance to India and its film industry.
I was 12 years old and realized that my passion of dance could, in fact, become a profession and I found my purpose that night. I told my parents on the ride home from the show that I had decided to be a choreographer when I grow up. Being a choreographer still didn’t equate to creating Bollywood dances, but more so to create with Indian classical dance.
When I was 16 years old, I launched my company, Joya Kazi Unlimited, with a first set of classes while continuing my Indian classical dance training, which led me to … a chance to work for a Bollywood dance company. After performing a classical Kathak piece at a community event, I was greeted by a director of a local dance company who wanted to speak to my parents to ask if I could audition. After my audition, I quickly became the youngest choreographer for the company at 16 and began my professional work in Bollywood dance.
Seeing as it would help lead me to my commercial career, I continued working in the space as I went on to study Theatre & Dance with an emphasis in Choreography & Production Management at UC-Davis. After moving to LA nine years ago, my work has been a nice balance of Indian classical and commercial/ Bollywood work ranging from Hollywood to Mumbai.
That’s quite a dance journey – from starting your own dance company as a teenager to sharing your dance across the globe.
Can you tell us how you specifically choreograph for film, like you did for Never Have I Ever, versus a live performance?
Creating choreography for camera is very different from creating for stage. The camera doesn’t need loud and exaggerated movements like the stage does and you’re not having to engage a vast audience, but more so create to direct the eye of the viewer based on how the scene is shot.
Once I have an understanding of ideas for the storyboard and shotlist, I can start choreographing with the camera in mind. Specifically for Never Have I Ever, I started with submitting various samples of choreography that included different Indian classical, folk and more commercial dance styles.
Once I got the go on “Nagada Sang Dhol Baaje” from production, I then had to find a way to authentically represent the South Asian diaspora without knowing whether or not we would ultimately get the rights for the song Mindy had originally chosen. Given that, we couldn’t lip sync in the typical Bollywood fashion [and] the choreography couldn’t be too tightly woven into that particular song in the event that it would be changed out in the final episode… Given those restraints, I’m pretty happy with the final product!
Wow, that sounds really difficult – especially not knowing if the choreography would stand with another song!
Now that we’ve learned a little bit about your Indian dance background and choreography, who are some of your favorite Bollywood performers, choreographers and teachers? And which Hindi dance films do you recommend?
My favorite Indian film actors are also the ones with the best dance skills. Hrithik Roshan is an incredible dancer, and I used to learn all the dances he did in films growing up.
The Queen of “Bollywood” Madhuri Dixit has forever been an inspiration in my dance. She was a dancer before she became an actress, is trained in Kathak classical dance, and always exudes grace, class and beauty in any style that she does. I backed up for her at the International Indian Film Academy awards and found her to be just as amazing in real life as she is in real life!
Last year, I created a dance tribute for her which she featured in the season finale of her dance reality television show “Dance Deewane” and in the same week, the video was a top 5 nominee for “Favorite Concept Video” at the Universal Dance Awards. It was amazing seeing recognition for Indian music, dance and my choreography in both Hollywood & “Bollywood” in the same week!
My favorite Bollywood choreographers are also artists I’ve had the privilege of being able to work with and learn from like Ruel Dausani, Shampa Gopikrishna and Pandit Birju Maharajji.
My favorite movies are Devdas, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and Kaho Na Pyaar Hain. The choreography, execution by the actors, and the stories are all amazing.
I have previously received Devdas as a movie recommendation. I must move it up on my ‘to watch’ list!
Can you tell us about any of your other upcoming projects?
Right now we are in a strange space with the pandemic, which means my upcoming projects have been postponed (at best), but I can say that there will be plenty of exciting projects for you to see some more Kaziography right around the corner. Until then, I’ll be connecting with students and dance lovers through my classes and social media platforms. Details on my online classes, events and projects that I’m working on can be found at www.joyakazi.com and on any of my social media platforms with the handle @joyakazi.
Yes, it is such a strange time, but we look forward to checking out more Kaziography!
Thanks so much for your time and for telling us so much about the Indian dance styles you love, Joya.