Boy Meets Twirl, a Bollywood Romance

TEAM ISHAARA: Their debut on NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent to the song “Jai Ho”—made popular by the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire—introduced mainstream America to Bollywood dance. Dancers include Berkeley bioengineers Nickesh Viswanathan (second from right) and Anwesh Thakur (far right). See them dance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gK7rLyDF_ITEAM ISHAARA: Their debut on NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent to the song “Jai Ho”—made popular by the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire—introduced mainstream America to Bollywood dance. Dancers include Berkeley bioengineers Nickesh Viswanathan (second from right) and Anwesh Thakur (far right). (Photo by Ishaara.)
See them dance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gK7rLyDF_I
Bollywood is in the building! Bioengineering undergraduates Nickesh Viswanathan and Anwesh Thakur are two of the male dancers in red who shook up NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent this summer with their showstopping routine to “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire. Their group, Ishaara, was the first Bollywood dance group to advance in the show’s history, making it all the way to the quarterfinals before they were eliminated.

“The people there were extremely talented,” Thakur recalls. “It was a very humbling experience.”

It all started last spring when another Ishaara dancer got the idea to try out for the show. Viswanathan and Thakur joined a small subset of the team who traveled to Los Angeles to audition in May. They were selected to participate in the live TV show and for four weeks in August and September competed against 47 other acts in hopes of impressing the show’s three judges and its TV audience enough to win $1 million and a headline show in Las Vegas.

“At each round, I thought, ‘This is as far as we’ll get,’ and then we got a little farther,” adds Viswanathan, this year’s head captain. “Each round was a gift. Priceless. It was fun.”

Love has a way of being fun, and Viswanathan and Thakur love Bollywood dance, those energetic musical numbers popularized in India’s Bollywood films. In keeping with the genre, almost every dance routine involves a love story with a happy ending. “It’s West Side Story plus High School Musical times a lot of color,” explains Thakur.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Nickesh Viswanathan, BioE junior, dances in second pair from left. PHOTOS COURTESY OF ISHAARAIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Nickesh Viswanathan, BioE junior, dances in second pair from left. (Photo by Ishaara.)Viswanathan and Thakur have been dancing to Bollywood music since age six. “My mom made me do it,” quips Viswanathan, smiling. Thakur nods in agreement; his mom also enrolled him in a local children’s dance group. It was a way to keep American-raised children steeped in Indian culture. By high school, both teens were hooked. “This was my niche, and I instantly wanted to be the best at it,” Viswanathan says.

A group of now-graduated students first formed Cal’s Bollywood dance team in 2001. The most recent iteration, Ishaara (which means symbolic foreshadowing or a glimpse of things to come in Hindi), competes at several collegiate competitions every year; in 2008, the team won Best of the Best and this year took third at Bollywood Berkeley.

Like so many relationships, Ishaara is a time-intensive one. Since joining their freshman year, Viswanathan and Thakur, who first met on the team, spend up to 25 hours a week at dance practice, which often takes place at night in an underground parking lot. That doesn’t include travel to competitions and the day-to-day operations associated with being in a dance troupe.

How do they do it as engineering students?  “It’s tough,” says Viswanathan, who is also involved in insect biology research this semester. “At the end of the day, it’s about balancing academics, extracurricular activities and social stuff. I don’t have much time for relaxation.”

Both men bring an engineering mindset to the group, from using math to help time their choreography to making props, as well as an engineer’s sense of perfection. “You put in all this time and effort for eight happy minutes on stage,” Thakur explains. “When the music starts, you have to perform. The audience has to love what you’re doing. No mistakes.” Dancing is also a welcome break from classes, he says.

So what is Viswanathan and Thakur’s happy ending? Both hope to go to medical school after graduation, they say, but won’t rule out pausing those plans to dance if the opportunity arises. Bollywood, a shameless flirt, beckons.