By LISA TSERING
SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Dancer and actress Joya Kazi is working on what is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious Hollywood-Bollywood projects ever — “Monkeys of Mumbai,” DreamWorks’ animated feature film based on the Ramayana. Featuring a score by A.R. Rahman, the film is expected to take two more years to complete.
Kevin Lima (“Enchanted”) is directing the film. Other names attached, but not confirmed, include Lea Michele (“Glee”) and Indian American child star Rohan Chand (“Bad Words”) performing voice work for leading roles.
Kazi is a multifaceted Indian American artist whose work ranges from Bollywood to hip-hop, jazz and lyrical dance. She also does a mean Moonwalk, for all you Michael Jackson fans.
She has been shooting motion-capture scenes for “Monkeys” dressed in a special form-fitting suit covered with tracking sensors that record her every move. Much later, a monkey’s face will be added to her body, with the lead actress’s voice. “I’m a little dancing monkey,” she explained over the phone to India-West May 9. It is her first time working in the medium, and she says she’s amazed at how many artists and technicians have to collaborate to create a project of this scale. “It’s a long process, but it’s rewarding,” she added.
“Monkeys of Mumbai” is the film’s working title. It has also been referred to as “Bollywood Superstar Monkey,” but neither title is final.
Another high-profile opportunity has presented itself — a leading role in the Broadway-bound show “BollyDoll,” created by musician and artist Amrita Sen, best known for performing “Jai Ho” live at the 2009 Academy Awards with Rahman.
In addition to choreographing for the show, Kazi plays the main character, Princess Bolly, who performs to Timbaland’s “Pass at Me” featuring Pitbull produced by EDM superstar David Guetta.
Kazi has been dreaming of a career in dance ever since she was a little girl, and working toward her goal with an extraordinary amount of passion and drive.
So it was especially meaningful for her to dance onstage last month alongside Siddharth Malhotra, Ranveer Singh, Madhuri Dixit, Hrithik Roshan and other top Bollywood stars at the International Indian Film Awards April 26 in Tampa Bay, Fla. As a member of Shiamak Davar’s elite troupe of international dancers, Kazi danced her heart out for five-and-a-half hours during the extravagant live awards show (I-W, May 2)
“The dancers were sweating, and smiling, and killing it onstage!” she said. “We were dehydrated, sleep-deprived and exhausted after 18-hour rehearsals, doing it for the love of it.
“What I really appreciated about the experience was that everybody there takes dance seriously. They take care of their bodies, and study techniques — I was able to push myself to the limit.”
Sharing a stage with the likes of Dixit and Roshan was intoxicating for the young artist, who was born in Mumbai and came to the U.S. with her parents, Papiha and Tanseer Kazi, when she was a year old. “I learned to count by singing [Dixit’s song] ‘Ek Do Teen,’ so just being onstage with her was incredible. I had so much adrenaline! And rehearsing with Hrithik Roshan, well, I’ve had a crush on him since age 10,” she laughed. “I liked seeing him move, and knowing he’s an incredible hard worker. He took time to speak to all of us, too.”
Kazi is also an established choreographer who created a piece for President Obama’s inaugural ball in early 2009, performed by the Mona Khan Dance Company. This summer, Kazi will work with other international dance directors to add a Bollywood touch to the NFL and NBA cheerleaders’ routines, as a guest teacher at the Choreographer Pros convention in Scottsdale, Ariz.
As any top professional dancer knows, bumps and bruises are part of the game. But no one could expect what would happen when Kazi was getting ready to perform at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
“The day before the Grammys last year, I was headed to a costume fitting — and in the moment that I was actually thanking the universe for blessing me with all the right people, friends, and opportunities in my life, this lady lost control of her car and spun out over four lanes on the freeway and smashed into my car,” she said.
“All my airbags deployed but I was able to walk away with some bloody scrapes, bruises and a deep seatbelt burn. The fact that I could still walk was enough for me and I still went to perform.”
Kazi covered up the bruises with makeup and showed up for the gig.
“It wasn’t until after that I went to the doctor and found that I had completely shattered my toe, had bruised ribs, and had to get three MRIs because of how bad my back injuries were. I ended up having to take the rest of the year off to let my body heal, but if it weren’t for the accident I would not have learned how to take a breather from my 60-hour work schedule and just allow myself to enjoy life,” she told India-West.
Follow her at JoyaKazi.com — if you have the energy!