“What came to my mind was ‘Is this actually happening? Is it something that is real?’ I grew up in America my entire life. I was born in India but grew up here but we have never had this type of representation and we have never been able to see animated characters we see in such a wonderful light celebrating and enriching students and people of all walks of life about Indian culture and customs.”
That was Nakul Dev Mahajan, choreographer of Disney Junior’s “Mira, Royal Detective” and also of a recent short form of the series “Dance with Mira and Friends”. Mahajan was speaking in an exclusive interview with ITV Gold, a Parikh Worldwide Media concern.
Mahajan spoke at length to ITV Gold about how being the choreographer for “Mira” felt. “So when this job came about I was speechless. I actually had tears in my eyes when I went in for my interview for the job. I was looking at sketches that they were sharing with me, sketches of ‘Jalpur’ where ‘Mira, Royal Detective’ takes place and I was just in awe, and, to be completely honest with you, at that point it didn’t even matter if I get the job or no. I sincerely mean that. I just felt privileged that they shared with me and this is happening in our world,” Mahajan said.
Mahajan’s journey to being a choreographer is characteristic of his Indian heritage. Four-year old Mahajan used to dance secretly in his room in California to Indian film songs, trying not to let his parents see him dance as they would not approve. Like most Indian parents, his parents expected him to be a doctor or engineer or lawyer. He grew up to become “Hollywood’s Favorite Bollywood Choreographer” and an “Ambassador of Bollywood Dance”.
Training and Experience
Beginning his formal dance training at sixteen, Mahajan obtained a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Dance in 2002 from the University of California, Riverside. Since then, Mahajan has appeared as a guest dancer and a talent show judge for television productions and has directed a Hollywood Dance instructional session for the Academy Awards in 2009.
Best known for his choreography on “So You Think You Can Dance”, Mahajan is founder and artistic director of “NDM Bollywood Dance Studios”, a Bollywood dance company based in Artesia, CA. Since its establishment in 2003, the school has trained over 3000 students.
Mahajan’s Dance Workshop for First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House 2013 Diwali celebration, was a highlight of the celebration that year. Mahajan has gone on to receive much accolade, honors and awards for his work, including the 2011 “University of California, Riverside Outstanding Young Alumnus Award”, and the World Choreography Award (Digital Media Format) for “Check Yourself”, a choreographed collaboration between Mahajan, Chucky Klapow, Paula Abdul, and Renee Ritchie.
Teaching Bollywood Dance
Mahajan is now set to teach young children how to dance Bolllywood way in “Dance with Mira and Friends”, a short form of Disney Junior’s “Mira, Royal Detective”. Premiering on Disney Channel Monday, August 24 at 8:55 am, the show will engage young kids tired of staying home during Covid 19 into using some unspent energy while learning easy dance steps along with real children and animated characters Mira and her friends. Mahajan is also the choreographer and dance consultant on “Mira, Royal Detective”.
Mahajan began work as the choreographer and Indian Dance Consultant for ‘Mira, Royal Detective’ in 2019, after which he has spoken many times of evolution of Bollywood dance in the last 25 years, with sub categories of traditional Bollywood, Bollywood hip hop, Bollywood Jazz, Bollywood contemporary. Mahajan has incorporated all of these sub categories in “Mira, Royal Detective” with authentic Indian dance forms from different regions of India. The animated mystery-adventure series for preschoolers is inspired by the cultures and customs of India, and features original song and dance in each episode.
Choreography for animated series
However, choreography for an animated series is very different than a real life network show choreography, according to Mahajan. “There are certain movements that don’t translate well when you are looking at it in this medium as versus making something for a reality show,” said Mahajan to ITV Gold. “That has been a learning process. In other words I have to make sure that I do not make the steps too fast sometimes. There is a notion that Bollywood dance can be super super fast and it can be. My approach for this is making sure that the choreography can be animated or translates well….”
Mahajan explained the process of working in an animated series to ITV Gold. “I get the script. Every script is a gift, and we get the music and it comes with the lyrics. I have always been a choreographer who feels that Bollywood dancing should be a story telling form where the movement is telling the story, kind of like from Bollywood films back in the days when you listen to the ‘gana’ and you were watching what is happening in the song and if you miss out then you miss out the story line aspect, and not like the Bollywood films today where they insert these item numbers – ‘na sir, na pair’ and it doesn’t make any sense.”
“My Bollywood background is where the dance tells a story. As soon as I get the script, as soon as I get the lyrics and the song, I am already thinking of how are we going to tell the story of this song through movement. We have a meeting with the story writers and the producers and we brainstorm the ideas and then they obviously get my input and then I go and do my work. My work is just choreographing the dance and I do that for my studio in Los Angeles. And I make videos from my own song and the videos are detailed tutorials on each movement, what the ‘nazar’ should be,” Mahajan said in his interview.
Working with Children
Mahajan speaks of how children have been an integral part of his education and experience. “My audience is pre schoolers and there might be children who are six seven eight so I want these kids to not just embrace the culture and learn from it, I want them to dance. I want them to stand up and do the movement. So if the movement is too intricate, if it is too difficult, it becomes too overwhelming for a child to process it and to enjoy it, ,” Mahajan said to ITV Gold, adding, “I think it is every choreographer’s first and number one rule is (to remember) who is your audience, who is watching. I know who my audience is.”
Working on “Mira” is close to Mahajan’s heart. “But prior to that my education and experience is in child care. So I have been working with children since I was 16 years old…I approach this in a child development and sense at the same time, enrichment at the same time, and education,” he said. Mahajan has said in other interviews how he appreciates how “Mira” inspires critical thinking in young viewers, and how he loves the series’ confident, independent protagonist.
Ultimately, spreading knowledge about Indian culture is also important for Mahajan as emphasized in the ITV Gold interview. “What my platform always has been is sharing Indian culture to demographics that may not be familiar with it. That has always been my platform.”
— Transcribed by and with inputs from Archana Adalja