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It takes 2 to tango

Published On: 2013-11-25

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It takes 2 to tango

Source: Screen

Date: Feb 18, 2010

 

 

Choreographers Chinni Prakash and Rekha Prakash are so completely in tandem that the real-life couple behaves and interacts more like two best buddies who form a professional duo. A career of over 20 years and their recent National award for Jodhaa Akbar seem like mere steps in their passionate resume, for their latest work includes the spectacular songs of Veer and Ibn-e-batuta in Ishqiya

 

The pre-Jumma phase

 

Their hit Hindi films are legion - from Govinda’s home production Hatya in 1988 to Thanedaar, the cult Jumma chumma from Hum that raised the bar for the audiovisual value of a song, Saajan, Khiladi, Khuda Gawah, Mohra, Vijaypath, Gambler, Karan Arjun, Coolie No.1, Gupt, Ziddi, Dhadkan, Ajnabee, Tere Naam and Yuvvraaj among the creme-de-la-creme.

 

But Rome was not built in a day, and neither did their skills develop overnight. Chinni Prakash is the son of the late Chinni of the popular Chinni-Sampath duo that ruled in the South and also did a lot of Hindi films from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. “My great-grandfather played the tabla. My father’s real name was Chunnilal and his brothers Sohanlal and Hiralal were dancers in the court of the Maharaja. We are Marwadis who migrated to films - my uncles to Mumbai, where they worked more with people like Raj Kapoor, O.P.Ralhan and Manmohan Desai, and my father, who went to Madras, as Chennai was then called,” says Chinni. “However, my uncles worked solo and would sometimes do films down South, while my father joined a South Indian choreographer named Sampath to form Chinni-Sampath, and sometimes worked on Chennai-made Hindi films like Ram Aur Shyam and Haathi Mere Saathi and with Mehmoodsaab in films like Sadhu Aur Shaitan, Do Phool and Sabse Bada Rupaiya. So dance and rhythm were in my blood.”

 

Rekha pipes in, “I hail from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. I was encouraged by my parents - my family has an Army background - to learn Kuchipudi. My guru was the eminent Vempati Chinna Satyam. But I never wanted a career in classical dance, so I joined Chinni’s father as assistant. I was the first to branch out independently.”

 

Chinni smiles, “She was 200 songs old in the South when we teamed up. The South films then were really very tough - they needed fast work, had very tight budgets and the canvas was of course 35 mm. We had to show all our skills within this. Rekha began with Ramudu Parshuramudu in 1979 and I with Mr Vijay in 1980, where we choreographed two songs separately before joining forces with the third song.”

 

The Hindi chapter, for both, took off with the Govinda-Mandakini 1987 film Pyar Karke Dekho. “It was Govinda who recommended us freely. We did his home production Hatya in 1988 and he took us to David Dhawan for Swarg and Mukul S.Anand for Mahasangram wherein we did Madhuri Dixit’s rain song. And that’s how Mukul signed us on for Hum.”

 

The career-defining Jumma chumma

 

Says Chinni, “The primary difference between us and the old-school choreographers was that we did not believe only in dance steps. Facial expressions, camera angles and lighting were all important to boost a song. I used to watch Michael Jackson’s music video cassettes and similar other dance albums and when Mukul took me to Mr Amitabh Bachchan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal and made Rekha and I hear Jumma chumma de de I was so inspired that I suggested the way the song could be done.”

Mukul and Bachchan, says Chinni, were very receptive. “I suggested the mugs of beer and the foam and the backlit silhouettes of the dancers. We rehearsed this song for 4 days and had endless discussions in Mr Bachchan’s vanity van - he was the only star to have one then!”

 

The chart-smashing song unleashed a flood of work for the duo. Khuda Gawah, Mukul’s film based on Pathans, was a real challenge. Did they do research for the Afghanistan-based story? “I think that the combination of a song, its lyrics that are always very important, the director and actors are what really inspire us,” says Chinni. “Research is something we restrict to specific cases, like Jodhaa Akbar. But even there the mood and emotions are more important.”

 

Pushing the envelope

 

Today, Chinni and Rekha Prakash have won several awards, but in the early stage of their careers, purists criticised their work because of the way they used innumerable extras. “We did start the trend of having many dancers, at first in our South Indian movies!” confesses Chinni. “For me, the arrival of the Cinemascope screen made just a lead pair in the field look as if the rest of the frame was empty and dull. My vision was to make the frame look filled in and make a family watching a film enjoy more and make it look different from a serial, some of which also had songs then! But I had to fight for this. They would give us 10 to 20 dancers and I would demand a hundred. It meant a steep escalation in budgets! Later we became the first to actually cart 200 Indian dancers all the way to Russia to shoot songs for Khiladiyon Ke Khiladi!”

 

But when it was Jodhaa Akbar time, it was Ashutosh Gowariker who visualised everything on an epic scale. 500 dancers, three months of rehearsals and 15 days of shooting went into their National award-winning song Azeem-o-shaan shehenshah. “We give him full credit for trusting us and giving us all support and facilities,” says Chinni.

 

 

National honour

 

Says Rekha, “I remember being sad that we were getting a song in which one of the best dancers of today - Hrithik Roshan - was just sitting up there on the throne and 500 dancers were doing the song! But Ashutosh had total faith in us and Chinni did a lot of research.”

 

“The research was somewhat unorthodox - I watched a lot of historical films from the ’50s to the ’70s,” smiles Chinni. “I wrote the full story of the song in a book. I gave the director a complete break-up of the shots with details like cuts, camera angles, costumes and frames. This was the most difficult part of my career, just like giving a final examination!”

 

The duo is thrilled about the recognition despite several earlier awards. Says Chinni, “One award we valued highly before was the Screen trophy for Chhota baccha samajhke from Masoom, which was very difficult as we had to deal with 200 kids! The other awards were not for particularly challenging songs. So both the National and Screen awards came for songs where there was no star on screen, and our work was the star! And it was a great feeling in both cases!”

 

“I was more thrilled than Chinni was when we got the news of our National win from a friend in Bangalore while we were shooting for a film!” says Rekha. “We did not believe it at first, because most awards always go to popular songs with stars!”

 

Credit where due

 

The humble team admits that associates had a major roles in their success - from stars and song-creators to filmmakers and technicians and their own team. “Among today’s lot, A.R.Rahman’s tunes are very inspiring, while others tend to be a bit erratic. Among the older names, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Nadeem-Shravan were very focussed.”

 

Veer, says Chinni, gave them scope once again to compose for a period subject in a retro way and “the music was very good. In Ishqiya, our only song Ibn-e-batuta was the one entertaining item in a basically serious film.”

 

The duo considers Govinda unbeatable at bringing songs on screen alive . “There are so many technically-perfect actors and actresses, but few like him or a Madhuri Dixit who enjoy the song and what they are doing - both these artistes seem to literally forget themselves and just melt into the song - and that makes the difference! Performing from the soul shows clearly in the results!” The couple also rate Rishi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan (“He is like an obedient child who can be moulded any way you wish!”) as fantastic and have lots of praise for Akshay Kumar and Bobby Deol. “Bobby was a complete surprise in Gupt. His father Dharamji (Dharmendra) and Sunny Deol are not known for dancing, so we expected Bobby to be the same. But he is among the best! It is sad that after Gupt he never got a musically-rich film!” says Chinni.

 

Explains Rekha, “A good dancer has ample time to invest something extra within an 8-maatra beat. But our job is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the actor when we get to do a song. Suniel Shetty and Sunny Deol are not great dancers - everyone cannot be a Hrithik! - but we have to work within their abilities.”

 

Wisdom of experience

 

At this stage of their careers, with over 150 Hindi films as well as a thriving career in the South even today (“We have even done a few Marathi and Bengali films”), the duo would rather go selective. “We want to do the best and select work and to work on good songs with good filmmakers,” says Chinni. “My son Sushwanth Prakash is now training with me. So the legacy will continue.” Their other son, Siddharth, is learning the piano and wants to be a music director.

 

What would be their tips to the present choreographers? “To never leave our culture!” thunders Chinni. “Get inspired by anything from abroad, but don’t copy them completely. My father and uncles basically followed and trained in the Kathak format. Rekha is trained in Kuchipudi. For us, doing things like hip-hop et al is child’s play! So do not forget your Indian classical base - if you have that, everything becomes easy!”

 

Seconds Rekha, “And yes, remember one thing - dance is the only human activity that can remove every kind of frustration. It’s far more therapuetic than music, which we choose according to our mood!”

 

And what are the restrictions they follow in their lifestyles? “We have no night-life!” chuckles Chinni. “After 10 p.m., we are dead to the world.” And Rekha laughs and adds, “Unless it is one of those days when money is coming in because we are at work!”