Kuchipudi’s Dancer Sandhya Raju on National Film Awards and Her Choreography Process for ‘Natyam’

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Sandhya Raju, who won the national award for best choreography for “Natyam”, explains how she wanted to make dance compositions appealing to moviegoers

Sandhya Raju, who won the national award for best choreography for “Natyam”, explains how she wanted to make dance compositions appealing to moviegoers

Kuchipudi dancer, actress and producer Sandhya Raju, who won Best Choreography at the 68th National Film Awards, sees the recognition as validation of the work that went into her Telugu film, Natyam. “I don’t come from a family of filmmakers. I was entering new ground and spending a lot of time away from my family and my students at Nishrinkala Dance Academy. There were days when I wondered if all this effort was worth it”, she admits during this interview with Friday Review. Directed by Revanth Korukonda and produced by Sandhya, Natyam also won the National Award for Best Makeup for TV Rambabu.

Sandhya considers it humble to be awarded for her choreography and proudly mentions some of the previous winners – Pandit Birju Maharaj, Prabhudeva, Bosco-Caesar and Saroj Khan – and says it is a proud moment to be part of an elite club.

Natyam takes place in a fictional dance village, almost as a nod to the village of Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh and dance schools such as Kalakshetra. Protagonist Sithara, played by Sandhya, dreams of performing a dance ballet based on the life of Kadambari, a fictional character whose story is steeped in mystery. But fate has different plans for her. The story leaves plenty of room for song and dance situations and Natyam presents classical, folk, contemporary and western compositions.

Target movie audiences

Sandhya Raju

Sandhya Raju | Photo credit: special arrangement

Sandhya asserts that she intended to appeal to the cinephile public: “The classical dance connoisseurs would have their own cues as to what contributes to a pure dance form. Instruments, music, raga, lyrics and how to compose a mangalam, margam or tharangam should conform to the classical context. While planning the choreography, I was reminded of the origin of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Bharatanatyam started as a form of temple dance in which dancers performed in front of the deity, while Kuchipudi started with the idea of ​​making classical dance accessible to people. Groups of traveling artists traveled to perform Bhama Kalapam, Parijatham, Krishna-Rukmini-Satyabhama stories and so on. My Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam was known for his Kuchipudi dance dramas. I saw Natyam as an opportunity to make different dance forms appealing to cinema audiences.

Members of the Aayana Dance Company and western contemporary dancers from Mumbai were part of the Natyam crew; they cast it to train them all for the film and also doubled as background dancers when needed.

One of the songs was a Radha-Krishna themed romance and Sandhya says it was a learning experience since visual effects were involved: “We filmed in a green room; a lot of homework went into the choreography which was a mix of folk and contemporary Indian dance. As a Kuchipudi dancer, I am used to performing on stage. Working on a film with the camera as a third eye and the visual effects added later was new ball game.

The Lepakshi test

Sandhya Raju and Kamal Kamaraju in 'Namah Shivaya' dance number filmed in Lepakshi

Sandhya Raju and Kamal Kamaraju in ‘Namah Shivaya’ dance number filmed in Lepakshi

One of the highlights of the movie was the song “Namah Shivaya” filmed in the temple grounds of Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh. Authorizations were difficult to obtain; Sandhya mentions the help of Brahmani, the daughter of actor-politician Balakrishna who facilitated the process. The song was originally supposed to be shot at night but as permission was refused, we shot it during the day. It was summer and it posed challenges. Sandhya recalls how the film crew would pour water on the surface of the stone and she, co-star Kamal Kamaraju and other dancers would dance for 15-20 seconds in front of the camera and rush into the shade “At the end of the seven-day schedule, many of us had blisters on our feet, which took several days to heal. A kind of insane passion drove us all forward. I took this exercise as a test of Lord Shiva himself.

Dress up the cast

Natyam required careful attention to the composition of its main cast as well as the large number of dancers and junior artists who were part of the dance numbers. Sandhya credits makeup artist Rambabu for making sure his team of makeup artists work with the demanding shooting schedules in mind. “I did my own makeup. For many cast members, Rambabu from garu the team took responsibility,” she says.

Natyam was certified in mid-December 2020, thus qualifying for the 68th National Film Awards which recognized films certified in 2020. Due to pandemic-induced delays, it was not until October 2021 that the film was found a theatrical release.

To get a realistic view of how the audience would perceive Natyam, test screenings were carried out. Rather than being limited to comments from friends, family and film fraternity, Sandhya and director Revanth brought together men and women from different age groups and backgrounds: “We wanted a reality check. Drivers, nurses of a hospital, waiters of a Basti who normally watch masala mass movies…we had a mixed audience including those who didn’t understand Telugu. I subtitled the film and wanted to assess if the emotions translated well. Comments helped us understand how different people view a film.

New land

Dedicating his award to his guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, Sandhya says he was considered a forward-thinking rebel in his time: “I can’t compare myself to him in any way. But with Natyam, I tried to introduce Kuchipudi to new people in the current context. There has been a lot of respect and adulation for the film.

Next, Sandhya is working on a new Telugu movie set in Telangana. She’s not producing it, nor is it a dance-oriented project. She wants to perfect herself as an actress: “I had multiple responsibilities in Natyam, planning costumes and coordinating with the art direction department, in addition to acting, choreography and production. This time, I wanted to give myself up to acting. It will be a new adventure and the production house will reveal the details of the film soon.

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