Dancing comes effortlessly to Gayathri Raghuram, as easily as breathing – just that the notes, beats and hums keep changing. “The minute I hear any music, I start dancing. It’s almost hypnotic, my body will reflexively start swaying to beats. I might be in a shop, airport, anywhere – even if I lie down on my bed, my body keeps moving as if a song is on.”
When we call, Gayathri Raguram is on her way to Munnar in Kerala to choreograph a special dance number for “good friend Ammu aka Amala Paul” for a Malayalam film. The name is a tongue twister, she admits sheepishly- “It’s a Fahadh Fazil film, directed by Amal Neerad, some pustaka..?” Wikipedia says Iyobinte Pushtakam.
She has also just finished shooting her part in Aishwarya Dhanush’s Vai Raja Vai in which she plays Gautam Karthik’s sister – “It’s a small role. It was done only at Aishwarya’s insistence – Aishu is a good friend. It was different and nostalgic to be in front of the camera. They are like family anyway,” she shrugs. Acting is tedious business, but working with friends makes it less so.
Gayathri Raguram has always been her appa’s girl. As a six-year old in pigtails, she would keep reminding all and sundry that she was Raghuram Master’s daughter: “Naan yaar theriyuma, Raguram master ponnu.” He used to take her to film shoots, place her on the trolley and she would watch with awe– all the big stars dancing to her appa’s tunes! It’s no surprise then that her dad egged a hesitant Gayathri on when her first movie offer came. “I started acting at 14, and all I remember is being nervous about my lines. I was not too carried away by the fame, it was all in good fun. Offers kept pouring in from high school, even though I never dreamt I’d be an actress.”[quote align=’right’]“It was a quirky mix of attitude, expressions and fun. Shriya Saran’s moves were phenomenal”[/quote]
A cracker of a debut with Prabhu Deva, Charlie Chaplin (2002) was followed by a film each in Kannada (Manasella Neene), Tamil (Style) and Malayalam (Nakshathrakannulla Rajakumaran Avanundoru Rajakumari). But somehow, stardom eluded her.
Her first hero Prabhu Deva was special – she was 17 and impressionable. Prabhu was a strict teacher and she was a willing student. She absorbed everything he taught her, particularly during the making of the Chumma Chumma song. “He will never give up on you, and urges you to keep trying. He has an uncanny knack of making even non-dancers move their feet well, and is very insistent on getting expressions right as he feels they makes a dancer look alive. I incorporated all that he taught me when I started choreographing,” she says.
[quote align=’left’]As a six-year old in pigtails, she would keep reminding all and sundry that she was Raghuram Master’s daughter: “Naan yaar theriyuma, Raguram master ponnu.” [/quote]Four unremarkable films happened in 2003, followed by a long period of dormancy. In 2008, she debuted as a choreographer with Jayam Kondan and Poi Solla Poram. Next year, her career got a big leap with one song – “Excuse me Mr Kanthaswamy” – “It was a quirky mix of attitude, expressions and fun. Shriya Saran’s moves were phenomenal. She pouted, moved her lips from right to left, all while dancing gracefully in the sweltering heat. And she never complained,” she recalls.
Wikipedia tells us she has only choreographed five films. Ask her, and she deadpans. “I don’t know how to update it. Done more than five anyway.” By 2014, she has choreographed around 100 films, including the recently released Vaayai Moodi Pesavum, and the upcoming Vai Raja Vai.
Yet, Gayathri observes, only a few of her films have a lot of conventional song and dance in them. “I have mostly done duets or montages; songs that tell a story and are an integral part of the screenplay. I haven’t done many dream sequences.”
The song she is choreographing for gets sent to her a day or two in advance, with a small note about the theme. Sometimes, she is briefed over the phone. And then, a brainstorming session with the director ensues on the sets before the shoot begins.
[quote align=’left’]AR Rahman’s music is the trickiest to choreograph – “His beats are unlike others, and he uses unusual instruments and percussion. You can either choreograph in tune with the beat or with the lyrics.”[/quote]“Pure dance numbers are easy to compose,” she says, “because all they need are some rehearsals. But a duet or a montage requires a lot of creativity. We have to work to make it real, infuse warmth and romance into each frame to make the audience believe the people on screen are really in love. ” And, she confides, “it’s a struggle sometimes, because we have to work on the chemistry between the lead pair.”
Choreographing an intimate song sequence can be worrying because the instructions have to be carefully worded. “Hold her, get close to her. Sometimes heroines are fidgety, and some confide in me that they are shy, but I try to make them comfortable.” Her experience as an actor helps here, because she knows the difficulty of doing intimate scenes. “My actors know that I can make a song sizzle without making it vulgar,” she laughs.
She does not think she will ever incorporate vulgar steps into her compositions.
Gayathri believes that good music “visually enables you to choreograph it the minute you listen to it.” And that AR Rahman’s music is the trickiest to choreograph – “His beats are unlike others, and he uses unusual instruments and percussion. You can either choreograph in tune with the beat or with the lyrics.”
[quote align=’left’]A duet or a montage requires a lot of creativity. We have to work to make it real, infuse warmth and romance into each frame to make the audience believe the people on screen are really in love. [/quote]She picks the iconic Thakida Thakadimi song from Salangai Oli, which had Kamal Haasan dancing to Raghuram master’s steps atop a well, as the best example of a poetic montage. “I love my dad’s combination with Kamal sir the most. Valai Osai (Sathya) was a master piece too – the subtle expressions, the romance, the terrific chemistry between the lead pair, and the music. Everything came together so perfectly in the song.” And that’s why she thinks her dad is a genius, and her best reference point even now. “I also love the Sandhu Pottu song from Thevar Magan and all of his compositions in Sangamam.”
Raju Sundaram comes closest to her dad as a choreographer, she says, because his dance compositions are edgy and fun to watch.
Gayathri loves Hip-hop and Freestyle; Zumba and Rumba and Jazz, yet reasons that nothing gives more grace and litheness to a dancer than Bharatanatyam. She has been learning it since the age of 12 and explains that it makes for a perfect foundation. “Today I can pick up any dance I want to. I want to learn Kathak now. Learning young is important but grace is inborn, you can’t cultivate it,” she observes.
Having been a judge on dance reality shows, she feels that there is too much emphasis on western dance. Indian classical dance speaks a lot about our culture and traditions – “How many westerners want to do Kuchipudi or Mohiniyattom? If we try Hip-hop in London, we will be laughed at. We should make use of what we have in abundance and not just be pale copycats.” She is not impressed by the trend of online dance classes either.[quote align=’right’]“My actors know that I can make a song sizzle without making it vulgar”[/quote]
Though Gayathri is aware of the exodus of choreographers from South to Bollywood, she admits to have never been influenced by Bollywood dancing. She watches a lot of English movies though, several a day when she gets time. She also does lots of stage shows all over the world, and each show usually has 30 songs she composes for.
Her ideal dancer would be Shriya Saran –“someone who can do Hip-hop and Kathak with equal flair. There are also a few actors who’ve impressed her, though not for their dancing skills. Like Rajinikanth who ate fish for a scene in Ejaman despite being a strict vegetarian. Or Ajith whom she met on the sets of Mughavari and who still calls her “kutti ponnu.” She thinks Jiiva and Dhanush are good dancers.
[quote align=’left’]Valai Osai was a master piece – the subtle expressions, the romance, the terrific chemistry between the lead pair, and the music. Everything came together so perfectly in the song.[/quote]Gayathri would also love to see more novelty in item numbers. “Lines are blurring of late. Sometimes I can’t differentiate between an item number and a heroine’s introduction song. Of course, camera angles don’t help either.”
As a parting shot, we ask her what’s the biggest advantage of being a female choreographer. “We think emotionally. So we can bring tenderness and that extra love to a romantic song.”
“And,” she adds cheekily “it also helps if you have Raguram master for an appa!”
Gayathri’s Top 5 Picks:
[accordion title=’Kanthaswamy: Excuse me Mr Kanthaswamy’]“Fun, madness and Shriya Saran. The grace and sensuality in which she moved, her expressions.” [/accordion]
[accordion title=’Kacheri Arambham- Kaduvule Kadavule’]“It was shot in Agra, in high frames. It was a very hard song to design- poetic and measured. Best part is that we actually shot the song without music. The song was just there in our mind. “[/accordion]
[accordion title=’Samar- Vellai Mayil’]“Shot in Pondicherry, I edited the song. There were fast cuts, a subtle bedroom sequence, very aesthetically shot.”[/accordion]
[accordion title=’Madrasipattanam- Pookkal Pookkum Illaye’]“It’s again a montage song, part of the screenplay. You have a few dialogues in between, lots of romance. I even did those Kalaripayattu bits.”[/accordion]
[accordion title=’Deivathirumakal- Kadha solla Poren’]“It is a song very close to my heart. Kenny sir made me cry. Sara was amazing in it.”[/accordion]
The Gayathri Raguram interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.