With a film on the lives and times of burlesque dancers, filmmaker Rama Rao takes a look at ageism and how diversity must be celebrated in every form
Burlesque is sexy. Beautiful women in elaborate costumes who, as they dance, discard their clothing bit by bit, until they are swaying in barely nothing. Hollywood classics have familiarised us with this, but now in Rama Rao’s new documentary, League of Exotique Dancers, there is a delightful twist — the women on stage are all in their 70s and 80s.
“They were the Legends of Burlesque (popular during the Golden Age — from the 40s to the 60s) and are remarkable, confident women who now perform at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas,” says the Canada-based documentary filmmaker, who spent two years researching and one year filming it.
Age no bar
The film evolved out of a feeling that we need more positive stories about women. “The biggest lesson I learnt is that confidence is sexy. Everybody is beautiful, no matter what your age, race, shape or colour. I think burlesque is enjoying a revival because people are beginning to discover its beauty and mystique all over again,” says Rao, who is excited that her film is opening the 2016 Hot Docs Festival (on April 28), the US’ largest documentary conclave.
The director hasn’t tried to sanitise this world, either, as is Hollywood’s wont. While the film traces the history of burlesque — through stories narrated by eight Legends, including names like Lovey Goldmine and Kitten Natividad — it also looks at society’s ideas of beauty, sexuality and ageing, and delves into accounts on the racism and sexism that they faced. “I choose subject matters that move me and its treatment is as important as what I’m saying (in a film). So when I decided to make a film on burlesque, I decided to look at it from a feminist point of view, which is why this film is different,” she says.
Originally from Chennai, Rao had trained to be an assistant director in Mumbai. But when she moved to Canada, she got into a training programme for documentary filmmaking. “Once I learnt how to tell a story, I saw that I could make films that look under the presumed meaning of things. I enjoy making documentaries because they question the status quo,” says Rao, who is a fan of filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan, but feels India is sadly not a vibrant market for documentaries, dominated “by Bollywood, TV serials and overloud so-called news programmes”. In fact, she doesn’t think her film will get released in India.
While she visits the city frequently (she still has family here), she will be spending more time in Mumbai in the near future as she is working on a film on hijras. “My film will not just take a look at being transgendered in one of the most crowded cities in the world, but will also look at class, caste and gender politics,” she concludes.
—Surya Praphulla Kumar