Naz Choudhury, Bollywood Dancer
If ever a real-life Bollywood story was to be set in East London, it should be based upon Naz Choudhury’s own life. It has all the ingredients required – a story overcoming real adversity, demanding steely determination, involving dooshoom dooshoom (Bollywood parlance for fisticuffs), plus glamour, music and dance – a generous amount of it.
Naz grew up in Pauline House, the most distinct of the sixties high rise tower blocks off Vallance Rd and – for some – a by-word for misguided, outdated urban development, poverty, crime-ridden dilapidation and social alienation.
From here, the thirty-year-old has become an extremely successful dancer, producer and entrepreneur. He began dancing at family functions and weddings from the age of thirteen and then got involved in local dance events, which he says he never took too seriously. With his mother’s help, he started dancing at annual mela festivals all across east London.
“The dance I do is a form of world dance. It takes its influences from western dance forms and mixes it with that of eastern styles. When you look at what I do, it is urban bollywood, latin bollywood, commercial bollywood which is what most people know, as well as traditional kathak, bharatanatyam and bhangra. I have always enjoyed the freedom of dancing. I enjoy putting on the stage charisma, making people smile, the crowd appreciating what I do, making them go ‘wow’!!
I learnt the language of dance myself. I am full-on self taught. I’ve never had a teacher. What this means is that when I hear a beat, it tells me to move a certain way. It determines whether I go hard, soft, or smooth. I let the beat take me and then I just freestyle, do my own thing.
My biggest influences are Michael Flatley, Coach Carter, the Bollywood actor Salman Khan and Rocky Balboa [the fictional character played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky films]. They are all of my inspirations, Balboa especially because he fights for everything he does. I always think, if I can’t beat myself in order get a step up, what is the point in being here.”
In 2000, Naz attended an audition for a Bollywood dance show in Leicester Sq alongside seven hundred other hopefuls. It was for a place as a backing dancer in a spectacular Bollywood performance at Wembley Arena with celebrities and stars from the Bombay film industry. He was seventeen years of age.
“I kept thinking that I was a normal guy from East London. But for two months, I practiced hard on a routine in my bedroom. My neighbours have never really complained. I don’t practice late and I usually play the music on my headphones. After I performed it, I could hear the clapping and the smiles on the judge’s faces. I knew I had done well. I got a place on the show. I went home and practised the moves that we were to do. I was going to master it and be the best. During the rehearsals that followed, the other dancers, who were all older, would come and ask me to help them with the counts. On the night of the show, I met famous actors, actresses and models. It was all so glamorous.”
This jump from dancing at local events in the East End to performing in front of thousands of people was incredible, Naz says – bigger than what he would go on to achieve later in his life. After this, things just blew up, he says. He did a second show and then another one. There were thousands of people attending them. Soon after, Naz formed his own dance group which toured all across Europe.
But, as quickly as everything took off, the jobs fizzled out. He remembers coming back to Pauline House from Spain where he had been performing and found there was nothing else. “How does one go from such a high of feeling alive, to coming back down to earth,” Naz wondered. He suffered from depression for a while. However this was not going to be the only trial he faced.
Naz found local people turning against him because he danced. “Boys from local religious groups would mock and abuse me. I would have massive groups of them threatening and trying to provoke me. It was never a small group of people. They would call me names, say that I was being gay by dancing and a kafir [a non-believer]. They said dancing was wrong. It was against Islam. Some of the stuff they would say was really insulting. I suppose it is because I am different. I am not the same as everyone else around me.
I won’t forget what they did. I had put my blood, sweat and tears into this and here were people trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do. There was a period when I had to move out of Pauline House because it got really bad. It was becoming a huge challenge to fight these guys whilst at the same time, to fight for work.
But then, being an East London boy, I was never going to back down and let them get away with it. I would also go and throw down with them. I created my own support – I also had people who would take a punch for me or throw one if needs be. Other dancers would come to my support, as would my older brother and his friends. Eventually, I think I won people over. The funny thing is, now some of these guys want to come to my shows and want to shake my hand when they see me.”
Naz picked himself up and started doing small workshops in the borough. Teaching nine to fifteen-year-olds the dance moves he had learnt and mastered. One summer, he trained around forty of them who worked so hard, that he managed to get them a gig at the Millenium Dome. “They killed the performance,” he says, “We all danced our hearts out.”
This proved to be one of the most important moments of his life. From that, he got another booking where he danced with Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Arjun Rampal and Shilpa Shetty. The Pakistani popstar Atif Aslam headlined. From 2007, Naz decided to produce his own show. At his first attempt, he sold out the Albert Hall. He was twenty-three years old. This is what he does now, organising large Bollywood, all-singing, all-dancing super shows.
“I love being from where I am. Having my family, my friends and the drama around me. This is my natural habitat. I live in a world that is surreal, glamorous, but I still live with my family. I love it. I feel accepted here and don’t need to please anyone. My mother has constantly helped me. She has always wanted me to be more than I am. I don’t want to show her the stress, just the glamour. But of course she knows that its not all easy. I have achieved all my dreams. I’m just enjoying everything I do now.”
Naz Choudhury at Pauline House
Portraits copyright © Phil Maxwell