Growing up in France, Babushka Ferenczi had no inclination for dancing or the arts. Her mind was focussed on becoming a high school English teacher. When she took a trip to Australia at the age of 18, it was with the sole purpose of ‘getting rid of her accent’ and improving her English. However, it would lead her to a journey of discovery about India in multicultural Australia. And the rest as they say, is history. Today, Ferenczi who is of Hungarian descent, is a full-time model, dancer and performer, and also the founder of Jalwa Dance Company, with a special focus on Bollywood dancing among others. With her love for India and all things Indian, Ferenczi even has her sights set on the world of acting and Bollywood. In conversation with Babushka Ferenczi whose love for Indian culture knows no bounds.
Elaborate more on how you set up base in Australia?
When I went back to France after my first visit to Australia, I finished my teaching degree and even taught in the French Army to prepare them for their overseas missions. It took three years before I got back here again. I was missing Australia and the multiculturalism that was happening here especially in the field of performing arts. So, I put my high school teaching career on hold and came back in 2011. I had also received training in France in Break Dancing, Hip Hop, Argentin Tango, Salsa and Fire Twirling and Belly Dancing. I started performing full time when I reached here. So here I am.
How did you fall in love with Indian culture?
I fell in love with Indian culture and dancing after performing at a wedding. At that time, I was mostly into belly dancing which I had learnt in France from Egyptian ladies who are very traditional and conservative and very technical about the dance form.
The Indian wedding was my first proper contact with Indian culture and it was absolutely mind-blowing. There were about 700 people beautifully dressed in so much colour and jewellery. But most importantly, it was the family culture that appealed to me strongly. Obviously, there were two families involved but they looked as if they had known each other for long. They were taking the stress together of putting up a great wedding but apart from the rituals to bind two families together, the dance floor and the after-ritual party was probably my favourite. Every generation from young children to adults to even grandparents were just having a great time.
I realised that when certain bits of the songs came up, they would all start doing the same dance moves as well. At the beginning, I thought they all came prepared, but I realised the signature move of every song was coming out. It was a beautiful sight.
Then I looked into the culture and realised it was pretty much a normal Indian wedding, but what a beautiful ‘normal’ that was and that’s when I really fell in love with the culture.
Also, I think the admiration was both ways. They really liked what I did as a belly dancer and invited me to stay for dinner and take part in the celebrations – which is something I hadn’t experienced performing at western style events. It was a good exchange there. They had lots of hopes for me to get into Bollywood, and I did my research.
So how did you take the plunge into Bollywood dancing?
The people at the wedding gave me links and movies such as Devdas to watch. I was appealed by this even more. Madhuri Dixit and all the actors have such strong dancing backgrounds. I started going from one movie to the next especially the ones with ethnic costumes and dancing. I watched a lot of videos and tutorials understanding what hand gestures were, for instance. More recently, I started to learn Hindi. Before that I was basing my choreographing on translations which was a little bit tricky because people translate the whole line and not word by word. That took a lot of time. Thanks to my amazing teacher, I can now read, write and speak a little bit albeit slowly, but I can do a bigger work, say, learning to choreograph based on the words and the meanings. So that’s the good part.
Tell us a bit about your dance company Jalwa?
Jalwa came out of a collaboration with one of my dancers Sahil, who is a Punjabi and, like me, is in love with the whole Bollywood culture. When I opened the business, I told him that I wanted a name that will reflect my love for India and it had to be a Hindi word, of course. After giving him a few concepts of what it should portray, we decided on Jalwa which essentially means charisma or splendour. When he said Jalwa, it instantly sounded beautiful, so that’s how the name came along. It fitted well with our vision – fire being the guideline of all our acts as also the charisma and creation of a whole different atmosphere.
What are some of the highlights of Jalwa since its launch in 2014?
Our company was established in 2014 and few weeks later we had our launch at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne Bollywood dance competition at Federation Square. That was striking because the launch couldn’t have come on a bigger platform. It was intense recruiting the dancers and training everyone, I even made all the costumes myself and ordered jewellery from India. But the response was overwhelming. Right after that show, we were booked out every weekend for the next two months. Since then we have interacted with the festival many times and shared stage with many stars.
We have had many big moments and it is a little hard to choose but doing the grand opening of the Punjabi Film Awards in Melbourne is a memory worth sharing. There were lots of performances, but we were chosen to do the grand opening and all the way through the show we did different performances with the celebrities. There were thousands of people watching and our performance was prominent.
What is it about Bollywood dancing that you love?
The main thing with Bollywood dancing is you get to tell a story and you are not just doing something visual, but there is the whole storyline in the background and you can really emote. That is why I was saying that the idea of translating the songs and understanding them is very important as opposed to belly dancing or hip hop where it is more about the technicality of the body. Bollywood and many other Indian dance styles are about emotions and storytelling, so this is probably my favourite part of the dancing.
Who are the choreographers that inspire you?
I admire Indian dance choreographers Prabhu Deva and Farah Khan and some of the actors such as Madhuri Dixit too. Watching their work and how they create a totally different scene every time, depending on the movie obviously, and what the characters are portraying is really inspiring.
How do you stay in shape?
I don’t go to the gym; my dance training is my only physical training which I think is already so intense that it keeps me fit. I practice every Friday for four hours with a professional troupe practising the shows of that particular weekend and then it’s all individual work. I teach many hours in the studio where I choreograph all the songs beforehand, so there is more dancing. I also spend a lot of time on my own working out different steps and creating different pieces. So it is many hours in a week.
What has been the most challenging dance routine?
I have been choreographing the songs from the film Kalank. Not all the songs from the film are happy songs. For instance, Tabah Ho Gaye has a lot of sadness in it and requires different emotions to go through. And also because there is the crossover with classical Indian dance style, which I have not had the training in unlike most Indian dancers, it was challenging but I also loved it a lot. I can see that my students have positive responses to what I have done, so that encourages me to take on these big challenges even more.
Which Indian actors would you like to work with?
I would like to work with someone like Amitabh Bachchan. I was so privileged to be with him on stage at IFFM 2014 and just feeling his aura and personality as he addressed the audience was magical. He recited a poem and after every word he would pause because of the audience reaction. At that time I didn’t understand Hindi, but the way he was delivering his sentences was probably the most striking aspect.
All my favourite actors are from the older generation, although I do like Shah Rukh Khan too. I think the older films had actual dancing, now it appears less and more simple to me because it seems a little bit westernised. Even the dress code is jeans which is also really good and shows the dynamism but I like movies that have India appeal showcasing ethnic clothing with classical music in the background. That’s probably why I relate to the older generations of actors even more. But then again, I would love a dance-off with talented actors such as Priyanka Chopra.
Does Melbourne satisfy your creativity?
I would fly to Mumbai anytime given a chance. I think Australia is good for the dancing part of things and live shows. In fact, we are very active and working every weekend and there is a lot of love from any culture here for the cultural diversity and for India in particular, so we are lucky to get a lot of work on that front. But for the acting side of things, Australia is a little bit slow. Would love to work in Mumbai and settle down there, that will be the best for sure.
I have plans to join the film industry and I have been offered quite a few projects but it’s difficult to agree on the terms. I am going there and meeting some people face to face to see more deeply what the projects are about. If I am interested, I will definitely take part in some of those projects.
What are some of the unknown or unique things about you that people are unaware of?
I have a big contrast in my life – between being on stage, walking the runways, being very glamorous all the times but there is the opposite side of me where I also do a lot of adventure or extreme sports that are very male-dominated. I like riding motorbikes, flying para gliders and sky surfing. This is a whole different side of my life which I don’t speak about much. My stage profile is what people know me mostly for as I am private about what I do outside, but I really love this contrast of my life as it keeps me balanced and grounded.
It’s mostly thanks to these breaks that I keep my sanity intact. Most of the time I have to interact with people so much that sometimes it can be really draining as I have to keep the energy level up all the time. So, taking these one or two days off to isolate myself with nature helps me replenish and restore my energies. In Australia I am really lucky to be amid so many beautiful places around as having these moments just to myself helps me shine even more on stage.
Now for a question that is offbeat, would you like to marry an Indian?
The idea of marrying an Indian man is totally possible but I don’t know what the future holds for me. I don’t have a specific identity of the person I would like to marry, it’s more about the quality of the person inside. So maybe he will be from India or another country – I have no idea but am definitely open.
(As told to The Indian Weekly)