The dancing woman in Bollywood cinema, an often-portrayed character who performs for a largely male audience within the film while the actress playing her performs for a diverse set of viewers in real life, is a pillar of Bollywood’s appeal.
Art director Amad Ilyas watched these films with their varied versions of “naach girls” — like the iconic Helen done up like a cabaret girl in countless films, to Meena Kumari as a stately tawaaif in Pakeezah. The strength and beauty he saw in these actresses and their characters, he felt, was not duly acknowledged in the way these films are discussed, remembered, or written about in glossy media magazines. Instead of recognizing in their work a historical tradition of women performers refreshed for the big screen masala film or character drama, Ilyas thought the media “overly sexualized and fetishized” these actresses, thereby devaluing the “naach girl” and her art.
This feeling inspired him to create the online multimedia exhibit NAACH GIRLS, currently viewable on the White Pube and updating regularly. The exhibit combines a history of the diverse identities of women performers in the subcontinent with a visual exploration of how the “naach girl” came back to life in Bollywood after an era of colonial suppression of dancing women’s livelihoods and art.
Ilyas’s images of actresses spanning decades of Bollywood cinema are bright, bold, and a little worshipful. He wants us to see these women, a roster of talent spanning decades, in a new light — perhaps even be dazzled by their brilliance.