The Art of Nautanki and Hindi films

Yes, the ART of Nautanki. This much abused word is actually a folk art form that has been prevalent in our culture for over a thousand years. And in most other cultures in Asia. A folk art form of the theatre. Usually performed by traveling troupes of actors, it comprised the telling of stories using all the nine Rasaa’s of emotions as described in various ancients texts , including in Yoga. Therefore the word – ‘Nau (nine) tanki’…..

Nautanki would intersperse the telling of a moral tale with a heady mixture of melodrama, songs and comic interludes. Almost Brechtian in nature. Watching the Ramlila every year as a child I remember being moved, afraid, entertained and horrified all at the same time. And each year.
No wonder then that our films are so addicted to this art form and so popular. And another reason why Hollywood finds it so difficult to replace our own films. Which other theatrical, dance or cinematic art form will so seamlessly move from on rasa (emotion and genre’) to another ?
And if you understand the art of the nautanki, you will understand the art of performance in Indian films. Just as the film moves seamlessly from one rasa t oanother – so must the actor be able to do so. In this art form the best actors are those that have the ability to seamlessly move from one emotion to another, even one genr’e of emotion to another, sometimes even in the same scene or even in the same dialogue !
So while the rest of the world may call the performances in our films melodramatic, I see them as a traditional and ancient art form. Like the kathak dancer, who’s face constantly transcends between the nne rasa’s – bringing each one of them into the singularity of human existence.
Seen through the prism of the art form of the Nautanki, you can understand the popularity of Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bacchan, and Sharrukh Khan. They are the modern masters of the ancient folk art of the Nautanki.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Nautanki and Hindi films

  1. Oh! Lord I am called nautanki loool gawd!! What a price to pay….the real expressions are stated as natak…ab jeeye tho jeeye kaise…
    Patah nahi kyu before sleeping i popped in…and mew mew…
    Shekhar zara suniye tho….pssst pssst….
    Ab chalti hu …

  2. Dear Shekhar,
    Yes you are 100% right Shekhar.
    This is the merger of an ancient folk art form with the modern media.
    The modern technique has given a better exposure and great distribution to this form of art. Though in the beginning years of cinema, the fathers of cinema could have given a new direction to films, May be they must have tried too, cause in the beginning all the films were made by westerns. But you can’t take away the cultural roots from a nation very easily So here we got this world of bollywood. so…
    Bollywood = Basic structure of mixed and distorted version of Ancient Indian folk arts, distributed at very large scale than to the origional forms.

  3. Dear Shekhar,
    I agree that Indian actors have to be masters of emotions and do lots of things within the same film or scene, and the Indian audience is hooked to it. Both India and the US are extremely polarized entertainment industries where 95% of the product shown at any time is home grown. The Indian audience has been entertained by our art form for so long that they can’t get the same pleasure from English films. Once I was seeing some news report where they were asking street kids if they’d like Hindi films without songs. They said “Gaana nahin rahega to majaa nahin reheega.” Plus the emotions in Hollywood films are quite suttle and they are supposed to meet the audience halfway where as Hindi films have to meet the audience all the way and that’s where they become melodramatic, but at the same time unique and successful. Once at a film festival someone said that only three industries have a future, Hollywood, Indian film industry and the Hong Kong film industry as these have their own stars and loyal audience that pays to see them.
    We do have a very unique industry and should be proud of it but like everything this art form also changing every year. We need to expand Indian cinema, find more internaltional distribution channels, make films for the bigger international (non-Indian) audience, be a part of the digital revolution without losing our core art form, and that’ll give our films the respect and box office that they deserve.
    Best Regards,

  4. wow…..thx for getting back into my memory the ramlilas and krishna lilas that i so much enjoyed during my childhood. The huge crowds, the firing of arrows by ram and laxman and the sundarshan chakra of krishna. It was all so wonderful. Never had the opportunity of witnessing any traditional nautanki but I m sure they must have been just as entertaining. The nautankis must have been the birthplace of our so prolific folk lures.

  5. So true….yet we do tend to use the word ‘nautanki’in the manner in which you have pointed out. infact i used it in the exact same way while in conversation with a friend.
    the subject was : movie stars are given so much media coverage even through their day to day simple activities while the other people who also contribute in very serious ways in building and running the country are not given any coverage or recognition.While its true that the entertainment industry is vital and totally indispensible…..students and school going kids would benefit more by being aware of these individuals who are academically brilliant and the work they do ?

  6.’s funny I always refer to Broadway as the nautanki.
    I remember the ramlilas too and most of all I remember the makeup now, painted expressive faces, and men playing the role of women! Too bad it has dwindled nowadays. Kathakali is somewhat similar that I like too.
    Yes, Indian films are emotion-based and current films are quite successful, but personally I prefer past films like those made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee which had a good balance of light and serious.
    O Kedar, share your opinion on this.. without making Shekhar the subject of your thesis Come back!

  7. what the hell…DQ chill…
    i am too much busy writing…
    it was shear coincidence that i stopped blogging…
    Shekhar is like a teacher…i have said earlier(long time back on this blog) that i got to know about what the film and visual story telling is through two films- Parinda and Bandit Queen…(thanks to my director friend who taught me that with these two films)
    so DQ, its impossible to walk out the way you are feeling i have…and i am not up set or something…hardly anything happened to get upset…it was bit embarrassing for every one i guess…because of the language…hahahaha…FUCK is nice word to make people feel disgusting…Translate it in mother tongue, then the real impact will come…lol…this the reason Britishers hate american english!…
    i am just too busy with my writing…!…
    PS: some interesting blog entries dude…especially this blog entry ‘ art of nautanki and hindi films’…i totally disagree here…Hindi films have become BORING!…Dilip kumar was great…but Bachhan saab should keep his foot down now…he could have demanded SHANTARAM(a film of that scale and stature) to happen much earlier…SHARUKH is a cursed angel…trapped in his won web of fame…may be same thing happened with Bachhan saab in 80s…Saif’s graph is better…HIndi films need a total make over…etc.etc…great blog entry…too polite i guess…! too polite and too much optimistic! etc. etc…gtg now…take care…tata…

  8. the stuff in the ‘films’ section is not enough…we like you as a film-maker first and also like to know more about your perspective on films..please post some other film-related stuff like your favorite films or film personalities and why you like them??

  9. Dear Shekhar,
    I am overwhelmed by your knowledge on the mother of all performing art i.e. NAUTANKI.
    Undoubtely the Nautanki laid down the foundation of the structure of Indian Films – a story telling format with songs to highlight the emotions of the story.
    We with Swarg Repertory are still persuing this traditional folk drama and have performed in many National & International Festivals and still cherish the memories of Amitabh Bachhan, Lalu Pd Yadav, Amar Singh, Azam Khan, Renuka Chaudhary, Mulayam Singh Yadav had boosted our morale by sending us their feelings and best wishes for reviving & re-establishing Nautanki. I am also thankful to Dept. of Culture, Govt. of India in assisting in our endevours.
    I once again express my profound sense of gratitude towards your right knowledge about this endangered art form and hope to perform someday before you.
    We will collectively restore Nautankui its lost Glory.
    Atul Yadvanshi

  10. Shekhar ji Namskar,
    Nautanki ko 60 year dene wali meri mother smt. Kamlesh Lata Arya awarded by UP Governor ‘U.P. Sangeet Natak Akadmi Samman 1991 with Grate Artist Johara Sahgal. she is grate artist from UP folk drama ‘Nautanki’. wo dono shailiyo (Hathras & Kanpur) me kam kar chuki hai.
    For any detail mail ID:

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