Most of the time when we see Bollywood dance in movies or on TV, it's a pretty distant appropriation of the real thing.
"It's just fun and lively and energetic and colors and sequins—people are just spinning and making up hand gestures that look kind of Indian," says Bollywood choreographer Joya Kazi, who's trained in the classical Indian dance styles kathak, Odissi and bharatanatyam.
But when the producers of the new Netflix show "Never Have I Ever" were putting together a Bollywood number, they sought out the real thing, and hired Kazi not only to choreograph the number, but also to cast the dancers and consult with the wardrobe department.
"They gave me complete creative control, which rarely happens in Hollywood," says Kazi, 31, who's previously worked on TV shows like "New Girl," and choreographed for commercials, music videos and NBA dance teams, as well as for professional Bollywood projects. "I've had jobs where I'd say, 'Actually, this is incorrect,' and it gets blown over. Here, they listened to everything I said."
"Never Have I Ever," out on Netflix on Monday, April 27, was created by Mindy Kaling (of "The Office" fame) and Lang Fisher. The teen comedy is inspired by Kaling's own experience growing up in suburban Massachusetts as the daughter of South Asian immigrants.
"Dance is a huge staple of Indian culture," says Kazi, "so having a show about a South Asian girl, obviously there's going to be some Indian dancing involved."
During a scene in the third episode, the main character, 15-year-old Devi, comes across a dance performance at a Ganesh puja, a Hindu prayer celebration for Lord Ganesh, remover of obstacles. "It sparks this conflict within her about How much do I want to accept my Indian culture and how much do I want to push it away so I can be seen as American?" explains Kazi. "It's something a lot of immigrant children struggle with. Even me, growing up, I was so into Indian classical dance and it was so much a part of my identity, but I didn't want anyone at school to know I did it."
When producers first reached out to Kazi last year to gauge her interest in the project, she sent multiple samples of choreography, including ideas on what each dance style would mean in a particular setting and Bollywood song options from different decades to see what would best match the needs of the scene.
Then, after getting hired to choreograph, help with casting and wardrobe, she got another call from the producers. "Mindy had seen my headshot," she says, "and was like, 'I like the choreographer.' " Kazi ended up getting cast to perform as the lead dancer, too.
That meant that on the day of the shoot, Kazi was juggling everything from styling each dancer with the wardrobe department to finalizing looks with hair and makeup, while also running rehearsals with the dancers to adjust for changes in the filming space and getting herself camera-ready. She says, "It was so incredibly overwhelming, but this is what I live for."
The resulting dance number opens with movements from bharatanatyam, incorporates chakkars (pirouettes) and paltas (turns) from kathak, and is set to a Bollywood song themed in the garba style of Gujrati folk dance. "It's commercialized, but there are no 'made up' movements," says Kazi. "There's meaning to the movement. It's linked to the lyrics and emotions, what's happening in that time and space and the song."
Being able to bring an authentic Bollywood number to such a mainstream platform feels hugely gratifying for her, especially at a moment when we've been forced to realize the world is a lot smaller and more connected than we might have thought. "Having this narrative of how we accept culture or reject it is a great concept for this time."