[ by Ashok Rajamani (email@example.com) ]
A Brief Intro – Ashok grew up commuting by the 12B pallavan. A materials engineer by trade, he is now a rootless wanderer in the States. He believes regional languages have the best in Indian Writing, and that Indian cinema could still stop being so intoxicatingly static. Someday he plans to settle in a South Indian Temple town, and revive the Swatantra party. Though for the near future, he shall remain a ravenous capitalist.
“Chaiya Chaiya” on the Noo Yaak A Train
“Shakalaka baby, Shakalaka baby, don’t Shakalaka with me.” So goes the lines of a song set to AR Rehman‘s music in the Broadway extravaganza Bombay Dreams. The lyrics, if you are care, are by one Don Black. This is not going to be a relentless negative critique of Bombay Dreams. Bombay Dreams is a mixed bag and even after the hindsight of one whole week, a general “yes or no” fatwa cannot be issued.
A musical is basically a story with minimal script and lots of music. A critical difference from Bollywood movies is that the singing tends to move the story along. The Oscar winning movie “Chicago” is based on a musical of the same name. Musicals are released in theatres in Broadway-New York, while there is a parallel musical scene in London too. Not more than 2-3 big budget musicals are released every season. Though some of the longest running musicals like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats” have been running for something like 10+ seasons, most don’t survive the first season.
Bombay Dreams came to the US after two moderately successful seasons in London. It is based on Rahman’s music. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Shekhar Kapur are supposed to have made some vague contributions. Meera Syal (of “Goodness Gracious Me” fame) is credited with the story though she probably wrote it on the back page of a plane ticket on one lazy afternoon. Therein lays the problem with Bombay Dreams. Bombay Dreams is constructed as a parody of a typical Bollywood masala movie but what if the original product itself is perceived (by the regular American) as a parody?
Akaash is a dude in the slums who spends his time singing and dancing with his co-slum dwellers, while dreaming of hitting big time with Bollywood. His best friend is an hijra by name Sweetie. Sweetie is played by Sriram Ganesan who delivers the single most astounding performance of play singing, dancing and even acting, dressed in a single bright blue saree throughout. Through many coincidences and a kind movie director’s help, played rather mediocrely by one Anisha Nagarajan, Akaash becomes a movie star. His favorite movie pairing is with Ayesha Dharker’s Rani. Incidentally the actor who plays Akaash (Manu Narayan) can neither sing nor act, but boy can he dance! The numbers he does with Ayesha Dharker are stunning, and almost made one shout Paisa Vasool. If only the tickets did not cost $ 100 bucks each. As for the story itself, it gets progressively painful as the actors keep making self conscious references: “It is the climax so I have to go get the girl”, “It is time now for a fight so dishoom, dishoom.” etc. Flippant references are made to Akaash being an “Untouchable”, and the villain is a “Brahmin in a suit.” So let us just forget about the story.
The dancing: Ayesha, Akaash and some 20 extras match each other step-for-step in 4-5 gorgeous group dances. The costumes were stunning and sexy. “Shakalaka baby” turned out to have a waterfall-drenching-dancers-scene. While “Chaiya-Chaiya”, the only fully Hindi number, involved all the actors including the back-up dancers changing costumes thrice. Seriously cool. To people familiar with Rahman’s music, there is nothing all that new as he has just rehashed his old tunes. There are a couple of new serviceable melodies (“Salam Bombay, Salam Bombay” gets an A) but it does feel like he deserved a better introduction in the US of A.
Except for Ayesha who is British, most of the actors are American or Canadian. The performance artists union is very strong and outsiders are not easily allowed. Ayesha-drool-drool-Dharker is bound to show up in a Hindi movie. But if a mainstream Hollywood movie needs a brown thespian, you can now count on Sriram Ganesan to go before the lights.
So if you are a lover (or even a hater but desi) of Bollywood, “Bombay Dreams” will add spice to your palate. On the other hand, if you are connoisseur of musicals, you are going to hate this one. Unfortunately for “Bombay Dreams” such people comprise the life sustaining audience for a musical. The musical may wind up after one season, so don’t wait for next year.