He’s made Zeenat swing, Helen sway and taught Kamala Hasan and Govinda a step or two. Now veteran choreographer Oscar is back to work in Sudhir Mishra’s new film
On a Monday morning at a dance class in Bandra, Oscar Unger watches dispassionately as nimble young feet beat out a rhythm on the floor.“ I am waiting for one of these boys and girls to break into Bollywood. Then maybe I could introduce tap dancing into films,” says the man who made Helen sway her hips to the maddening delight of men in Mungda mungda (Inkaar, 1977) and taught Govinda a thing or two about dancing.
Oscar retired from choreography over 15 years ago but his school, Oscar Creations, remains the best training ground for those trying to make a mark in western dance (Kamala Hasan, Vivek Oberoi, Antara Mali and Onjolee Nair are some of his students).
But thanks to director Sudhir Mishra, some of that flair will be back on the silver screen. “I last choreographed some songs in Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin and I enjoyed working with him. It was quite a surprise when he called me for his new film Khoya Khoya Chand. For one of the songs, he wanted to recreate the 1960s style of dancing,” he says. The song has the lead actor playing a piano with the actress dancing around it. “It’s not a difficult one to choreograph. But it involves dancing on the toes and going backwards instead of forward,” says Oscar, once part of the famous Vijay- Oscar duo that choreographed over 35,000 songs in 10,000 films.
Before his Bollywood career took off in the early 1960s, Oscar was in the navy. “I was an anti-aircraft gunner. But on the sea, you sing and dance a lot as that’s the only way to chill out. Once, I accompanied my rock’n’roll partner for a rehearsal of Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963) involving about 50 boys and girls. They asked me to do an impromptu jig and the film’s choreographer, the veteran Surya Kumar, asked me to join the chorus. I was 22 and that was the start to my Bollywood career.”
In 1974, Oscar teamed up with his partner from the navy,Vijay, to do their first film, Mahesh Bhatt’s Manzilen Aur Bhi Hain (1974). In between, he did a course in jazz and tap dancing from the prestigious Al Gilbert Dance School in LA and learned Bharatanatyam for three years. “We introduced western dance like the tango, salsa, rock’n’roll, break dance, hip-hop, ballroom and Latin American dance to films but with the right technique and flourish,” he says. And Bollywood is the toughest test for a choreographer, Oscar insists. “It is the most difficult form of dance as you have to do different kinds of steps in the same track. The music director often changes from tabla to piano without realising the difficulty for the dance director,” he adds.
Item numbers too called for a lot of research. “For instance, for Rambha ho (Armaan), we shot footage of a carnival in Goa and then recreated it in Mumbai with the same costumes, dance movements and mood. Though we shot it in the stretch between the offices of directors Shakti Samanta and Ramesh Sippy in Mumbai, everybody thought that it was shot on location,” he says.
Oscar rues the surfeit of skin that has come to mark today’s choreography. “Today item numbers have been reduced to isolated inserts with focus on the legs and the bust. You can know what a director is thinking from the way he places his camera.”
If the Eighties marked the exit of Helen and her signature style of cabarets from Hindi film dances, they also ushered in the disco era. You had numbers like Zeenat Aman’s Aap jaisa koi (Qurbani) and Govinda’s I am a street dancer (Ilzaam), both choreographed byOscar.“We were regulars in all Feroze Khan films (Laila mein laila, Ek to kum zindagani…) known for its stylish dance sequences. We also introduced break dance and a mix of rock and jazz to make some foot-tapping disco numbers ,” he says.
By the Nineties, Oscar had withdrawn from the industry, barring a few songs in films like Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin and Khamoshi: The Musical. “I retired from active choreography because there were few good dancers in Bollywood. After Saroj Khan goes, there will be no choreography left in the country. She’s the last of the current crop who carries the sensibilities of the past.” Some things have changed for the better, he admits. “You can consider a career in dance and choreography today. During our days we were paid Rs 26 and four annas for an eight-hour shift. Nowadays good dancers can earnup to Rs 5,000 a shift.”
So, who have been his favourite dancing stars? Helen, Zeenat Aman, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit and Govinda. And his one wish—to make Hrithik Roshan dance. “There aren’t many good dancers in the industry today except him.”