Bollywood Berkeley 2009 drew 2,000 students into UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall to cheer for the eight college teams presenting their original choreography to the music of sappy, overacted Bollywood movie love stories.
Classic Bollywood with an American twist
Recorded music from those films blasts from the speakers as the dancers synchronously jump and boogie in acrobatic, gravity-defying moves. They're dancing out 8-minute stories, lip-syncing the lyrics, changing into increasingly exotic costumes. Their themes are classic Bollywood: Boy meets girl; girl avoids boy; boy does something dramatic to win girl over. And then, the required happy ending: They marry.
"Bollywood's a fairy tale. It's not even real life," observes Rohan Vora, a business and administration major at the University of Southern California and a member of the school's dance team. "It's a getaway from reality. That's why it's so popular in India, because Bollywood is an escape. It's song, dance, festivities, perfect love."
He compares it to Shakespeare's classic love story Romeo and Juliet, but as seen through a contemporary - and much larger-than-life - prism.
Purely for fun
Vora and the other dancers competing in these Bollywood competitions are mostly high-achieving Indian-American college students who were born in the United States. He says they don't really believe in these perfect love stories.
"The ideas presented in these Bollywood films come from our parents, and they're well ingrained in us as we grow up. You know, find the perfect girl for you, and so that just comes out when we're planning these Bollywood dances. We know that it's purely for fun."
Northwestern University's team captain, Ronak Vashi, doesn't see the Bollywood films as stereotyping. She says the love story characters come just as much from the European tradition as the South Asian.
"I more kind of see it as that kind of Cinderella story that people here grow up with," she explains.
And that's the story line her team's dance follows. It's about some studious girls who can't get the boys to notice them.
"And then we transform into the hotter versions of ourselves, and then we kind of fall in love, and everyone's excited and happy at the end."
Corny, trite, stereotypically sexist or not - Bollywood produces more than 2,500 songs and dances every year, a fusion of East Indian classical, bhangra, and now hip hop, jazz, salsa and folk. And college teams bring the productions to life at competitions across the United States, from New York, to Philadelphia, to Chicago, to Berkeley… where the winner of Bollywood Berkeley 2009 was UC Irvine.