'If people accept Chikni Chameli, why not a Launda song?'
Very rarely have we seen the launda dance form in our Hindi films. Anurag Kashyap's Gangs Of Wasseypur 2 does have one, with Prodipto Ray taking on the spotlight.
Ray, interestingly, is a professor at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.
He speaks to Ufaque Paiker about his transition from the class room to the dance floor.
You are a professor at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad and now you have done an item number. What made you say yes?
I've always been a big Helen fan, and wanted to dance on the big screen as a child.
Helen's dance numbers would keep me glued to Hindi films. I would wait for the Sunday film and watch the title sequence carefully to see if Helen's name was there.
Generally, childhood fantasies die out as you grow up, but with me it remained and became stronger as I pursued my career in fine arts followed by PG in animation.
I always knew that I wanted to makes films. So I always knew that it was not too far a destination for me to come on the big screen as a dancer or item girl (as we call them today). But I never knew that this will happen in GOW2.
I had performed Helen numbers at NID during my student days and they were a big hit.
I was probably the first man dressed up in women's garments to walk the ramp at IIM Ahmedabad fashion show in 2002. Later, when I started teaching at NID, people still remembered my 'Helen numbers'.
So for me, this was hardly a transition.
I never had to compromise with my dreams thanks to my supportive parents. Without their support and progressive upbringing, I wouldn't have become the confident individual that I am today.
I never faced questions like why do I want to enact Helen in public in spite of being a man. My mother would proudly show my pictures taken during my performances at NID to relatives. The "unusual combination" is actually quite usual for me.
Image: Prodipto Ray
'A real launda number is a lot of mischief and at times, molestation'
Tell us about the launda number. How is it different from other item numbers?
Launda naach is a very old tradition in UP and Bihar. It's a performance by men dressed up in women's clothes. That's why it's called 'launda' which means 'boy'. It was always performed my men, mostly straight, but over a period of time I suppose the transgender individuals recognised a career opportunity there.
Other item numbers are choreographed and shot in a glam style. A real launda number is a lot of mischief and at times, molestation. And if it's a private show (shows other than weddings) then the degree of this exploitation reaches its peak.
So it's not only a rosy rendition of a girl dancer seducing her audience but suffering the consequences.
How did your family, friends and most importantly, students, react to it?
My family has always been on my side. I wish my mother was alive to see me dancing on the big screen. She would have been the happiest person.
My students actually shot my audition video, which I sent to Anurag. They dressed me up, some of them choreographed, some did cinematography and all that.
My equation with my students is at a different level. It's beyond the obvious. All my students went for the first day, first show of GOW2. And I'm sure the first three days in Ahmedabad were houseful thanks to the NID community, specially the students.
Image: Prodipto Ray
'I'm excited to do more such numbers'
How was the experience of shaking a leg for one of the most talked about films?
Anurag is a brilliant film maker as well as a great person to work with. He is one of the very few who knows what he is talking about.
Creatively we connect a lot. But this time it was a different affair altogether. I was nervous as I was to perform in a film where the film maker has a reputation to keep. The audience has huge expectations from an Anurag Kashyap film.
Anurag immediately made me feel at home and he was okay with whichever way I wanted to dance. There was no choreographer so I did my own jigs. For every take we improvised the moves and the interactions with other actors.
Do you plan to do any more item numbers?
Why not? It has been a tradition of this country. And the world should know that what they are raving about so much today (the culture of cross dressing) we always had in our society.
Hindi films have always showcased the culture and tradition of this country, and have created a language that is universal throughout the nation.
Somehow they have never focused on this amazing form of entertainment. Why not create this different kind of 'item number'?
And, yes, I would be excited to do more such numbers. Who knows, it might start a new language of men dressing up as women and dancing in films, without being a launda performance.
Some day I would love to pay tribute to Helen by organising a huge stage show of her songs. And, of course, the main dancer would be me (laughs).
Image: Prodipto Ray and Anurag Kashyap
'We were at a friend's wedding when Anurag asked me to dance'
Do you think Bollywood is ready for the shift from grand item number to rustic luanda number?
Launda performances are a very integral part of the popular culture of UP and Bihar. If people accept a Chikni Chameli why wouldn't they accept an Electric Piya?
So you think audiences are ready for launda numbers?
People love it. The reactions are great. None of the numbers are out of the world -- they are from our surroundings, so there is no question of the number not being acceptable.
How did you meet Anurag Kashyap?
I used to meet him for work. When I got to know that he is doing a film to be located in Bihar, I spoke to him about the launda number.
It's not that the role fell into my lap. I had to convince him to use the launda number in the film. We were at a friend's wedding when Anurag asked me to dance and that is how I got the role.
Image: Prodipto Ray
'I have no plans to be an actor'
Any plans to be an actor?
Not really. I would like to tell people how to act, in other words, I would like to be a director.
Tell us about your work as a documentary film maker and animator.
I have worked as an animation film maker for nine years now. My work includes visualisation for Rang De Basanti, Heyy Babyy, and Kambakht Ishk.
I have done animation for MTV, Star TV, and AXN, and pre-production for feature films. I have worked with film makers such as Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Ken Ghosh, Habib Faisal, and Sajid Khan.
My first feature as art director was Love Wrinkle Free. My debut short film (live action) Raat Baaki won the prestigious Riyad Wadia Award for the best emerging Indian film maker at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival 2012. It's been screened at the Outfest L.A.
Currently I'm writing a feature, and looking for financers and also directing an animated series for children.
Image: Prodipto Ray