In Desi on the Dancefloor, directed by Mia Zur-Szpiro and shot in 2018, the presumptions and judgments that shadow and undermine the efforts of women in India’s music industries—“Would your husband be okay with you doing this for a living?”—are front and center. The compact but far-ranging doc highlights barriers both patriarchal and political as these women find community and identity through music, with the lens zooming out further to encompass mental health and #MeToo in India.
The film’s short portraits are self-contained but intersect. Aneesha Kotwani is a promoter with a passion for electronic music, organizing tours in India through her company WAVLNGTH. Kotwani, who showed up to her first rave in a grotty Birmingham warehouse wearing high heels, takes that awakening back with her to India as she attempts to undercut the bottles-and-models approach that dominates Indian nightlife. She books a tour for Anu, and it ends up being an awakening for the DJ as she faces feelings of displacement and cultural isolation head-on. “I never wanted to be brown,” Anu says with emotion at one point. Yet, over the course of the tour, the British South Asian DJ reaffirms her identity playing music to—and dancing alongside—people who look more like her.
Anu’s personal journey isn’t the only focus. The striking patterned title cards by Varshini Ramakrishnan include subtle mini-illustrations of each interviewee, including the likes of Dolly Rateshwar, whose Dharavi Project offers classes for people aged six to 21 on the four pillars of hip-hop. But Rateshwar still wishes the program had more young women: There’s only one, a star beatboxer whose parents hit her with the same clucking judgment a promoter like Kotwani experiences from her own.
Moving between fragrant street scenes and shanties to soundsystems, there’s also Delhi Sultanate and Begum, who travel to Assam with their Bass Foundation Roots Sound System, which Sultanate claims is “one of only two sound systems in all of India, maybe South Asia.” Even if the ears they reach know nothing of Jamaican dub, you sense the public service of a crash-course in Babylon shared by the sound system, in rejection of what Sultanate describes as India’s current “fusion of capitalism and Hindu majoritarian fascism.” And a final musical assignment for the rest of us comes during Desi on the Dancefloor‘s credits: The soundtrack is entirely female Indian producers, so get listening.