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Backstage With Bombay Dreams

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September 2006
Backstage With Bombay Dreams

Backstage With Bombay Dreams

Bollywood comes to Broadway

When it comes to weekend entertainment, have you ever found yourself in that strange but uniquely desi dilemma? The one where you can't decide between easing into a Bollywood movie or tackling some other entertainment that would be a bit more engaging? On the one hand you feel you have had a hard week and would like to indulge in some escapism via a tried-and-true frothy Bollywood flick with a plot that doesn't tax your stressed mind? and in the bargain, also take in the songs and music that is such a part of your desi identity. On the other hand, though, there is a part of you that wants something more substantial, elaborate, classy, artsy and all that?a Broadway show, perhaps?

Bombay Dreams is precisely your answer for such a dilemma. As one friend described it, the experience was like "watching a Hindi movie on Broadway." It was the best of both worlds – the endearing simplicity of a feel-good Bollywood flick and the technical finesse of good theater, all in one exuberant colorful package, made sweeter still by the aura of the venue, the Fabulous Fox Theater.

The sets, the masterful choreography, the finessed dances by ballet-trained performers—the classic elements that are the signature of Broadway—are what made this a joy fest; never mind the chockfull of clich�s, stereotypes, and the painfully predictable plot.

Indeed, if the plot were any more predictable or Pollyannaish, then this would be a Disney-ish kids show. But that's the point. What better way to pay tribute to Bollywood than to lay it bare—the formula of song, dance and happy endings that is both the bane and boon of Bollywood?

Akaash (Sachin Bhatt), a slum-boy with big filmi dreams, encounters Priya (Reshma Shetty), an aristocratic but conscientious filmmaker, who's the daughter of a famous Bollywood director. Through a farcical turn of events, and thanks to some help from Priya, Akaash lands the lead role in her dad's big banner film opposite the feisty Rani (Sandra Allen), the reigning diva of the industry. Now, at the dizzying heights of stardom, will Akaash turn his back on his grandma and his friends from the slum? Will he forget Priya and fall for the seductive Rani?

If you have seen more than one Bollywood film, you know the answers. But it won't matter. This is a riotous celebration of the art and craft of an American institution, the Broadway musical, executed on an Indian institute, Bollywood. Both are about entertainment; one more finessed, the other more hearty and self-deprecating. Merged together as they are here, the resulting fusion is what is endearing to the Indian audiences who can appreciate the subtle nuances of the settings and the script. Hence, where a non-Indian viewer sees a strange procession of elephant heads in one of the scenes, the Indian, and particularly the Mumbaikar, sees a cherished annual tradition with all the reminiscence that goes along with it.

Not surprisingly though, Bombay Dreams failed to have cross-cultural appeal, much less impact. Christopher Manos is the producer of Theater of the Stars, the company that is the co producer of the current national tour of musical. When asked if the show managed to have any mainstream appeal in Atlanta, he said, "To be honest we didn't have it. I think more people didn't quite understand it, or didn't want to understand it."

Perhaps that's why the Broadway version as well was roundly clobbered by New York critics. Though, it is debatable as to what reflection such criticism has on the core quality of the production. It perhaps means that the critics were in the wrong ballpark to begin with. Take, for example, one who found the costumes to be "too garish and colorful." Isn't that like going to Scotland and being offended by the kilt?

According to Manos, most ethnic themed Broadway productions haven't done well. He cited the example of Pacific Overtures, a Japanese play that was very artful, but did not do too well.

Now in its third version (the show premiered in London's West End in 2002 and a Broadway run followed in 2004), the original production was conceived by Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Weber, both masters in their own domains: Indian filmmaking and Broadway musicals, respectively. Add to that the music of the legendary A. R. Rehman, and ‘Dreams couldn't have hoped for better names behind it.

The current North American tour of Bombay Dreams, however, has only remnants of the original production. To begin with, it is a smaller budget show compared to London and Broadway. Most of the star cast is different from the previous versions. Incidentally, a professional union, amongst other things, is what demands that, with few exceptions, an American cast be used in Broadway.

The sets and script were tweaked for American sensibilities. The Mumbai slums, for example, which were shown a lot more realistically in the prior versions, were dressed up a bit for the current tour. There were less Hindi dialogues compared to the other versions. "They made some changes because they were afraid that the Americans wouldn't get the cultural differences," said Manos.

While Americans still didn't get it, for its target audience, the magic of the original seemed to have carried through despite the changes. The elaborate water-fountain set of the shakalaka song was anything but Spartan. Similarly the chiseled choreography of Lisa Stevens, who has to her credits Hollywood blockbusters such as Phantom of the Opera (where she was the assistant choreographer), did not by any means play second fiddle to that of Farah Khan and Anthony Van Laast, choreographers of the original version.

Talking about what went into her preparation, Stevens, who was the assistant choreographer in London as well as New York, said in a phone interview with Khabar: "I took private lessons; I traveled to a bhangra competition in Philadelphia, and took lessons there. I took kathak, I took filmi dancing. So I sort of inundated myself with more and more new steps so that I could create something visually exciting, but different from the London one."

When asked why the dance numbers looked so polished compared to most on the big screen, she said that she took full advantage of the fact that "the dancers on Broadway have such a lot of ballet and jazz training." The resulting performance is what John Garcia of the Dallas region of Talking Broadway calls "superb, with a combination of jazz, hip hop, and of course the dances of India." He adds, "The talented ensemble is terrific in the dancing, singing, and acting requirements for the evening. Their energy and enthusiasm show in their faces and through their bodies."

Sachin Bhatt who played Akaash (and who has appeared in the European tour of West Side Story), is another testament to the technical aspect of the performances. "A young performer with oodles of onstage charisma? . He sings with charm, he dances with verve?,"says Judith Newmark in Bhatt's hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Trained in acting, dancing and singing, Bhatt believes it is the live singing (as opposed to lip-singing) that is responsible for the songs in Bombay Dreams coming alive with a special vigor.

The trashing of Bombay Dreams on Broadway was by no means universal. Amongst those who did give it a nod, there was a common thread that ran through their reviews, which could be summed up as follows: While, critically, ‘Dreams left a lot to be desired, there was something about it that made it endearing and entertaining.

"It's difficult not to smile, laugh, and ultimately be entertained by this mildly spicy tribute to the Indian movie musical," surmised Mathew Murray of Talking Broadway. For the desi, there is that much the more to smile and laugh about.

CHRISTOPHER MANOS on why they took a chance on Bombay Dreams in spite of a lukewarm response on Broadway

"It was beautiful; the costumes were beautiful. The music was interesting. There was presentation of a different culture. One of the things for us is to have as much diversity in our presentations as we can. If all nationalities can see themselves on stage, even if it is rare, then I think you are ahead of the game in America."

Mr. Manos is the producer of Theater of the Stars, a non-profit that has been doing shows in Atlanta for 45-years. The company is the co-producer of the current national tour of Bombay Dreams, which played in Atlanta at the Fabulous Fox Theater.

SACHIN BHATT (Akaash) on the challenge of singing, dancing and acting

Compared to actors in a Broadway musical, Bollywood stars have it easy. Not only are there no playback singers for the Broadway actor, but their dancing is subjected to much more rigorous critique. Asked what he finds most challenging about the three talents that he brings to his performance in Bombay Dreams, Bhatt, a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music, who is also trained in ballet and jazz dancing, says "it's the singing! There's a lot you need to be aware of like ‘what you eat' and ‘how much you talk during the day.' The acting also is a challenge – staying connected to the scene and the audience when doing back to back performances?"

LISA STEVENS on how she prepared for her role as choreographer

"I took private lessons; I traveled to a bhangra competition in Philadelphia, and took lessons there. I took kathak, I took filmi dancing. So I sort of inundated myself with more and more new steps so that I could create something visually exciting, but different from the London one," says Lisa Stevens, an acclaimed choreographer who has to her credits Hollywood blockbusters such as Phantom of the Opera (where she was the assistant choreographer). Stevens' father is British and mother Iraqi, and both of them were born and raised in India. She was the assistant choreographer in the London as well as Broadway version of Bombay Dreams.

By PARTHIV N. PAREKH


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