Pandolin brings in frame; the twist maker of Jai ho on his twist of fate - Longinus Fernandes

Longinus Fernandes

Longinus Fernandes, in short, Longi, has come a long way as far as his career as a Bollywood choreographer is concerned. From the latkas and jhatkas in the eighties to the suave style of dancing today, this man has seen it all. He, truly, is a man of all seas.  Here, are the excerpts of his interview with Pandolin.   

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a simpleton from this city. I am a mechanical draftsman by profession. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer but I didn’t get admission in colleges and my father didn’t have the money to get me admitted by paying donations. This was twenty years ago.  I went ahead and did my Bachelor in Arts (BA) from Mithibai College. While I was there, I was quite the quintessential hero. I was an all rounder and dance was always a part of my life.  My dad, who I feel used to resemble Elvis Presley, was my first teacher and mentor. I learnt social dancing from him. He taught me the Jive, Waltz and Foxtrot. I still remember that he had dressed me up for my first date which also happened to be a dance.  In college, I always participated in some dance gig or the other. I won a couple of dance competitions as well.  I was the Indian solo dance champion from 1989 to 1993 and I was also the Disco Duo all India dance champion in 1987.

How did you get your first movie break?

I got my first movie break as a backup dancer in this movie called Saamri (1985) which was the first 3D horror film in India produced by the Ramsay brothers. I got this break, all thanks to Farah Khan who was also a backup dancer in that film and trying to make it as a choreographer in Bollywood. She was a senior of mine in college. We did the Indian version of Micheal Jackson’s Thriller in that movie with the actor, Jadgdeep. So I kept getting similar offers to dance as a backup dancer in other films like Jaal (1986) which had Jeetendra in it, Sadaa Suhagan (1986), where I again worked with Farah Khan, Aag Se Khelenge (1989) etc. So I did all that in my college years and dance was a way to make quick bucks for me. In the meanwhile, I also met Javed Jaffrey in a dance show in 1987. He was a part of the jury. He was quite impressed with my dance and asked me to work with him. Because of him, I got to travel and perform in various countries all over the world like South Africa, UK, Dubai, etc. We were a part of the artist nights held in these countries.  Along with that, I also used to conduct dance classes at the backyard of my house.

How did you make the transition from a back up dancer to a choreographer?

The low point in my dancing career came with the death of my father in the year 1995. I wasn’t doing much then.  I remember that Farah Khan had come for my father’s funeral and asked me if I was getting by alright. When she found out that I wasn’t doing much work she asked me to help her out with the movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).  Twenty girls from my dance class performed in the song ‘Ruk Jaa Oh Dil Deewane’ and I was Farah’s assistant choreographer. I have a lot to thank her for. She taught me the aesthetics of cinema making.  A year later she gave me the opportunity to choreograph for a South Indian movie which had Nagarjuna and Tabu in it. The movie was a huge hit in South India. That is how my life as a choreographer kicked off.  Then I worked in a number of Hindi films including Ashok Mehta’s Moksh (2001), Deewanapan (2001), Dil Hai Tumhaara(2002), Khushi (2003), etc. Till date, I have choreographed songs in twenty five to thirty main stream films. I have also choreographed no less than three hundred music videos, all thanks to DJ Akhbar Sami.

Any regrets?

Even having worked in movies like Satta (2003), Page 3 (2005) and Corporate (2006), I feel that I haven’t been given my due. Something definitely went wrong.  Some people, who I won’t name because it doesn’t matter, cheated and maligned me. The media didn’t write good things about me for a long time.

How did you come out of that situation?

The turnaround for me was Sony Entertainment’s Jhalak Dikhla Jaa (season 1) in the year 2006 where I was one of the participant choreographers and was appreciated greatly by the audience as they got to see my real potential. I entered the show as a boy and came out like a man and all the people who had ridiculed me and maintained an arm’s distance from me, started appreciating me once again. Because of that show I got to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the song Saawariya with Ranbir Kapoor, from the movie Saawariya (2007). After that there was no turning back. I got to work in an Aaamir Khan production, namely Jaane Tu… Yaa Jaane Naa (2008) and I won a Filmfare award for the best choreographer for the song ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’.

You said that the media didn’t write well about you. Can you give us an instance?

I had once worked with director/producer Avtar Bhogal, who had done an award winning film back in 1988 named Zakhmi Aurat. I worked with him in Dil Ka Doctor (1995) which had Anupam Kher. I had choreographed the title track of the film and I thought that I had arrived. But it was very badly received by the nurses of the nation as in the song they were portrayed as dainty women prancing around the hospital in short skirts. I was quite taken aback by their reaction because it was just for cinematic effect, though from that experience I did learn what not to show to the audience.

What style of dance do you specialise in?

My specialty is modern dance which has a lot of Break dance and Hip Hop in it which, nowadays, is commonly known as B-boying. You know, those days we knew a lot many dance forms but never knew their names unlike today, where you have a name for every step that you do, for example, the Dougie and the Swag.

And have you been trained formally in dance?

My dance education has been mostly through the international music videos which were aired on the television. I never had any formal training. I am one of those lucky few who got a chance to shine in Bollywood as a choreographer without any real education in this field. But it’s all about talent. And I personally feel that I am immensely talented and lady luck happens to come into my life when she feels like. I do not have much business sense, so I don’t know how to sell myself in this industry very well, but over the years, I have tried to gain some business acumen. It is very important to know that in order to survive in Bollywood.

How did Slumdog Millionaire happen?

A friend of mine introduced me to Danny Boyle.  I knew that he was a big name in Hollywood and was known for movies like The Beach (2000), Trainspotting (1996), etc. So when I met him for breakfast at the Marriot in Juhu, I went with a DVD which had all my work as a choreographer. That time I hadn’t heard about the concept of a show reel, so my compilation was about an hour long. Being a thorough gentleman that Mr. Boyle is, he watched an entire song which was pretty long. After that, he told me that he needed me as he wanted someone who would understand Indian dance and movement for his movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008). That’s how I was hired for the film. I was there with him throughout the film, helping him out, though my major choreography in Slumdog Millionaire was the song, ‘Jai Ho’. It was shot at the Victoria Terminus (VT) station. We were given the space from 12 midnight till 4:30 in the morning for four days. That came up to fifteen hours of shooting. At five every morning we had to be out of the premises. I learnt something very important through this experience, and that is how to manage huge number of people for a short span of time. I had to manage over three thousand people, move them around, make them dance, etc. And that’s no ordinary feat.

How was it working with Danny Boyle?

He is very supportive as a director. The only thing that he told me was that his actors need to look the part. He wanted me to make the actors dance as gracefully as I did.  A very important thing that I learnt from him is that the best way to portray something effectively on camera is to keep it short and simple.  It was really great working with him.

Any special moment?

When the movie was screened in India, I realised that my name was not there in the credits. I was really disappointed at that. When Danny Boyle got to know about this error, he was really apologetic and he told me that he would make up for it. When the movie won the Oscar awards, he mentioned me in his acceptance speech. I felt on top of the world. I don’t think any Indian choreographer has reached those heights.

How has life been after your success with Slumdog?

After Slumdog Millionaire, there’s been no looking back for me. I have worked in a number of international projects, be it the Julia Roberts starrer, Eat Pray Love (2010), where I choreographed the Indian wedding, or a three part miniseries for IFC (Independent Film Channel), an American cable channel, called the Bollywood Hero. I went on to do the opening acts for So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) Canada in 2009, 2010 and 2011. I also won the Fred Astaire award in 2009 in New York for best film choreography in Slumdog Millionaire. I have also choreographed a number of international advertisements. I have recently finished working on an international music video with the famous British director, Paul Boyd, who is known to have worked with the likes of INXS, Shania Twain and Backstreet Boys. It’s an A R Rehman music video called Infinite Love and has been shot extensively all over the world.

Let’s talk about Barfi!

I have choreographed all the songs in Barfi! (2012). That’s been my latest Bollywood film. And I hear that it’s going to the Oscars as well. It’s a moment of immense pride for me to have two of the films that I have worked in, showcased at the prestigious Academy awards. And I was recommended for this job to director Anurag Basu by Ranbir Kapoor, who knew me since the Saawariya days. The highlight of working in this film was the fact that we shot all the scenes first and then sort of patched them together and added music to make it look like a musical. My favourite scenes are those where Ranbir Kapoor is entertaining Jhilmil (played by Priyanka Chopra) and also where he dancing at the party with Ileana D’cruz. All the crazy things that you see Ranbir’s character do in the film were practiced to perfection by Ranbir. So hats off to him. I was very inspired by Charlie Chaplin and it is very evident in the movie. I have heard a lot of people say that Anurag (Basu) has lifted off various scenes of this film from different Chaplin movies. But I don’t pay any heed to those people because whatever he (Anurag Basu) has done, he has done with conviction. And everybody gets inspired by great Hollywood movies or actors. And it’s alright to do that. There are people in the West that are inspired by our films as well. So it’s both ways.

So, what next?

As far as my personal goals go, I am looking at opening my own dance studio.  My idea is to create a space where people can come and dance their hearts out without any other agenda. I have been abroad and I know the value of a dance studio here in this country. It will be a space where dancers from all over can come and showcase their work.  It can be used to hold dance seminars and workshops. Dancers can also get themselves shot while dancing as that space will be camera friendly. Very few dance halls in India take of that aspect.

Who are your idols?

I still idolise Micheal Jackson for his dancing and Elvis Presley for his style. My hair style today is still inspired by Presley’s hair-do. Michael Jackson is the best stage performer that the world has ever seen. Amongst Indian artists, I am hugely inspired by Shah Rukh Khan. I feel that he has this immaculate sense of comic timing. I worked with him when I was an assistant choreographer to Farah Khan. I have worked with him in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Duplicate (1998), Dil Se (1998), etc. I have also done a number of commercials with him. He has an elephant’s memory. He remembers everybody from everywhere. I think it’s a great quality to have.

Since you have worked in both Hollywood and Bollywood, what do you have to say about the two?

The major difference that I feel is that in Bollywood, you are respected for your latest release, whereas in Hollywood, you are respected for your greatest film.  Also, here, the people don’t respect a choreographer’s job as much as they do in Hollywood. There everybody gets his/her due. Another important thing is that even the most famous celebrity in Hollywood respects time. Their work ethics are simply phenomenal. This is only possible due to the fact that there is a sense of respect for every kind of work in Hollywood. And in India, as we all know, nobody respects time.

What are the current projects that you are working on?

I am currently working on Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, slated to release sometime this year. I am also working on Jayanta Bai Ki Love Story with Tips and a foreign bilingual film called Unforgettable, being directed by Arshad Yusuf Pathan.

Any suggestions for the new age choreographers?

I think that today’s generation is lucky to be born in a time where people have started to appreciate creative arts as a mainstream career option. I remember that my family used to love it when I used to dance at home because it was entertaining; but when I told them that I wanted to take it up as a career, they weren’t very sure of me. Nowadays, there are so many dance shows being aired on television, which is a great way of creating awareness amongst the masses about the various dance forms.  They also serve as great platforms for the youth to showcase their talent. Nowadays, a larger number of youth is going in for formal training in dance and that’s great news for all dancers.  So, I think it’s a great day and age to be in. My only advice to today’s generation is that I urge everybody to be original. It’s nice to idolise some dancer/choreographer, but don’t forget who you are.

As told to – Trishna Guha

Pandolin brings in frame the twist maker of Jai ho on his twist of fate – Longinus Fernandes

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