Written by Colleen Farrell | Photographed by Shane O'Donnell
While other kids living in Palos Verdes in the 1980s were emulating stars
like Madonna, Duran Duran and Bon Jovi, at age 5, Nakul Dev Mahajan would
take every opportunity to borrow his parents’ cassette player, take
it out in the yard and play their collection of Eastern Indian music.
Dancing around the trees, he would reenact the elaborate scenes from their
collection of Bollywood movies.
“I would copy it and what I didn’t remember, I would make up.
So I was already choreographing before I knew there was a term for it,”
Although they were huge Bollywood movie fans, his parents were concerned
about their young son’s obsession with the films.
“I remember my mother frowning upon it. Because you just didn’t
do that,” he recalls. “Boys didn’t dance.”
At that time Palos Verdes had little diversity. He was frequently teased
in school about his Indian culture. “I was asked questions that
I didn’t know how to answer, like, ‘Why does your mom have
a dot on her forehead?’” he says. “So my Indian culture
was made fun of, yet when I got home, I found solace in it.”
The solace came at the time he was also accused in school of being gay.
“I’m now being teased for being gay without knowing I’m
gay,” he says.
At 16, an invitation to perform in a local variety show in the Indian community
was the catalyst for his parents to accept his passion. He and a friend
created a routine that melded Bollywood with the moves of contemporary
influencers, such as Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. After the show,
his father confessed the performance had brought him to tears.
His performance created a snowball effect, as community members began inviting
Mahajan to give them dance lessons.
“I remember telling my mother—I’m going to be a choreographer.
And she’s like what, a photographer?” he laughs.
His dad supported his dream but insisted he get training, so Mahajan enrolled
in Indian classical dance classes. After high school he attended the University
of California Riverside, with a sociology major and dance minor.
Post college, Mahajan opened up NDM Bollywood Dance Studios—the first
Bollywood dance school in the United States—in Artesia, in an area
known as Little India.
The opening was timed perfectly with the emerging Bollywood dance phenomenon,
just prior to the release of the Oscar-winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire.”
He began getting calls for small jobs in TV and movies, which eventually
led to an interview for the show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“The next week, they booked me for my first episode. It was the third-highest
viewed YouTube clip for that week. It went viral.” He has since
become a regular on the show, choreographing two to three Bollywood-themed
episodes per season.
With his career on the rise at 38, Mahajan decided to get honest with his
parents about another part of his life. He decided to tell them he was gay.
“I shared with them all the pain I had gone through. There were times
when I had contemplated whether I should even live,” he says. “They
were completely supportive. Their main concern was that they had not been
there for me. They wished they could have helped me, so I wouldn’t
have gone through that all by myself.”
“I love how the nurses didn’t just give their attention, love
and guidance to me, but they extended it to the five other people who
showed up At my first appointment.”
In 2014 he married his partner, Kekela Ah Ho, and purchased a home in Cerritos,
just blocks away from his dance studio.
Life was moving at full speed for Mahajan, when he received news that forced
a sudden hard brake. A biopsy revealed Stage II testicular cancer that
had spread to his chest and abdomen.
“My option was to go to Westwood to get treatment, but I didn’t
want to because my parents still lived in Palos Verdes, and I knew I needed
to be somewhere where I knew the community. And there was no question
that it had to be Torrance Memorial,” he explains.
“When I got to Torrance Memorial, I met with the amazing team. I
think my parents were more distraught than I was. I love how the nurses
didn’t just give their attention, love and guidance to me, but they
extended it to the five other people who showed up at my first appointment,”
Mahajan says of the staff and his supportive family.
He credits two of his care team members in particular for making his journey
tolerable—a nurse named Maribel Ramirez and Dr. David Chan, his
oncologist at Torrance Memorial Physician Network Cancer Care.
“She (Ramirez) made every one of those days worth it, just by smiling,
talking and being real,” he says. “Dr. Chan is not just an
oncologist. He is what we aspire to be when it comes to compassion and
love and care. Five years later, when I go for my routine blood work,
he still asks, ‘How is your mom doing? How’s your dad? How’s
your sister?’ It’s genuine and it’s who he is. And that’s
not just Dr. Chan; it’s the entire team.”
Although Mahajan had to pass up a few big Hollywood jobs during his treatment,
today at 42, his life and career are back on track. He is finishing a
documentary about his journey with cancer, called “Live, Love, Dance.”
He also recently keynoted the groundbreaking of Torrance Memorial’s
Hunt Cancer Center, scheduled for completion in fall 2019. He concluded
his speech with words inspired by his culture. “We have a saying
in Hindi. It’s called Jai Ho. It means ‘may victory be yours.’
So to all the cancer patients and survivors out there, Jai Ho to you!
For Mahajan, sharing his story is an integral part of his healing.
“I had the worst experience at the best, amazing place. I think you
have to give back. I think you always have to pay it forward in life,” he says.