In February, a seemingly enthralled Jennifer Lopez tossed her shoe on to the stage after a group of 14 young dancers from Maharashtra’s Palghar district put on an electrifying performance in the American dance reality show World of Dance. “When I throw a shoe, you KNOW the performance is hot!” she wrote when retweeting a promo video ahead of the show’s third season television premiere.
The group, Kings United, had grooved to the beats of A.R. Rahman’s ‘Dhakka Laga Bukka’ from Yuva, leaving judges Derek Hough, Ne-Yo and Lopez on the edge of their seats. Competing with dancers from around the world, Kings United rode on their unique choreography, team work and the skill of combining storytelling with hip-hop and desi music, all through the competition. Their act in the World Final, which aired on May 5, won them a perfect score of 100 from the judges and the purse of $1 million.
It was a moment of disbelief and validation in equal measure for the boys. Looking back, 19-year-old Akshay Varavadekar, who left studies after class nine and joined Kings, says: “It was as if our lives became more meaningful at that moment. I was no longer useless in the eyes of my parents. I made a name for myself, if not as a good student then at least as a talented dancer.”
The Kings originally came into being in 2008 under the name Fictitious Group. Suresh Mukund, the lead choreographer, had formed a team by roping in passionate young boys from the Vasai-Virar belt who were keen on making a career in dance and were largely uninterested with studies. Fictitious Group went on to become famous on shows like Boogie Woogie and India’s Got Talent, before the project was shut down in 2015. They later began performing as Kings United and tasted success internationally. Their swanky office in Vasai is called The Kingdom of Art. The property is divided into three big studio spaces, and serves as an incubator for beginners.
The Kings have largely been experimental and their biggest strength has been to infuse a story or theme into their acts. In the World Final, the message was “the battlefield belonged to the Kings,” and they dressed as Spartans going to war. The performance was fused with Indian elements, moves and music. Mukund has chosen his boys smartly, keeping in mind the speed and ease with which they can flip, jump, tumble and somersault.
The victory does not seem to have sunk in yet for the crew. “Let the money come first. That is what we are all waiting for,” quips 28-year-old Karthik Priyadarshan, and the boys burst into laughter. “We look unassuming and casual to you because that is what we are. We have been raised from the ground and we will never forget our roots,” he says.
Kings United became the first Indian group to win a medal at the World Hip-Hop Dance Championships in California, in 2015. The group became famous when Remo D’Souza made ABCD 2 with Varun Dhawan as the lead, based on the life of Mukund. “My family never supported the idea of a guy dancing,” says Mukund. “I began dancing to Hrithik Roshan’s Kaho Na Pyaar Hai steps and became an overnight sensation in my own mohalla.” Mukund recently bought himself a Mercedes. His boys, too, dream of such luxuries, but for now, they have other basic needs to meet. “Each of us will get roughly Rs35 lakh to Rs40 lakh and almost all of us will spend it on buying a house for our families,” says Varavadekar.
Mukund says his biggest achievement has been to keep everyone together all these years. “Many times, it seemed like the team would break up because everyone was in need of money. Most of them were working or doing well in studies and there was pressure from parents, too,” says Mukund. Neeraj Vishwakarma, 19, developed an interest in hip-hop at 11 but it took his father, who is a security guard, almost seven years to acknowledge his talent. “We even lack basic amenities in our house and to talk about dancing the whole day on the roads was considered preposterous,” he says.
“There were times when we did not even have the right shoes to dance and flip,” says Varavadekar. “The tinted glasses on shop shutters served as mirrors to guide us. We used a phone’s speaker for music on the deserted roads, pavements and garages of Vasai. The police and watchmen would chase us away and ridicule us.” Shortly before the 2015 championship, Kings United emerged from the ashes of Fictitious Group and won a bronze medal after preparing for just 20 days. “That was the time money actually began to trickle in. The boys could finally hold their head above water,” says Mukund. After this victory they could afford shoes, costumes, sets and the studio. This was followed by performances in national competitions, corporate shows, college fests and then World of Dance happened.
Hardik Rawat, 20, explains how the title almost slipped away. During the divisional finals, he struggled on stage because he had injured his ankle backstage. Lopez noticed it. As per rules, all members must perform to reach the next stage. “She asked if someone was injured and we denied it,” Rawat says, laughing. “[My teammates] were even nudging me to smile and stand straight. Somehow, we pulled it off.”
The team has its dates blocked for the next two months. “We are flying to the US, then some of us will go to the Philippines, while some head off to Bali. We also have a world tour planned this year,” says Mukund. “This is nothing short of a dream come true for us,” says Chandan Acharya, 23. “Neither we nor our families would have ever imagined that we would reach so far, touch wood!”