Bring on the Bollywood
Bring on the Bollywood (the name for the Hindi film industry was coined in the 1970s) is a splendid and delightful show, and now looks brighter, fresher and more colourful than ever.
The dance element is electrifying. The story is a little bit addled, but enchanting nonetheless. The acting is bright, vivacious and funny. The situations are very human, and touching. All in all, it’s very worth seeing and brings heaps of enjoyment.
This tour opens at the Belgrade, and is headed for another eleven venues reaching right across the country, from York and Oldham to Poole and Truro’s Hall for Cornwall. It describes itself as a dance-theatre extravaganza, and it’s all those three things. The narrative is fanciful, with many side-glances at the differences between India and traditional British culture.
Sâmir Bhamra, the playwright, director and lead figure of Phizzical Productions, who ‘specialise in producing and commissioning contemporary and popular arts influenced by Asian, Arabic and African cultures’, and who present this jamboree in association with the Belgrade and Vivacity Key Theatre, does not flinch to let his characters poke plenty of fun at his own subcontinent, rather as Jewish self-mocking jokes are often among the best jests.
Against that, there’s the more serious: ‘India – a place where you see beauty side by side with poverty;’ or ‘You can’t simply undo the consequence of your actions.’
To give it context, ’Bollywood’, Bhamra explains, ‘is widely perceived to be a low-brow art-form that requires no skill. Not only is it – in my experience – the hardest art form to crack, but it shares more than people realise with the classical Western arts. Bollywood would not exist if it were not for Shakespeare being presented in British India, and soon adapted into local languages for the wider communities. Both traditions teach us valuable lessons about people and life, and that’s why they continue to connect so well.’
As the kind of Arabian Nights story unfolds, to a background of many symbolic, rainbow-sun effects in Richard Evans’ evocative backdrops, Katrina Pawar (Nisha Aaliya) and Ronny Kapoor (Robby Khela: Kapoor is a celebrated Bollywood name), who is carrying an urn of – as it turns out – fake ashes for interment in India, engage in a monosyllabic conversation aboard their British Airways flight (‘Can I have another – third – drink, please?’ ‘You know we haven’t left the ground yet, madam.’). She’s embarked to visit family – at least it centres round her family - in India.
Anthony Sahota as Lucky Pawar. Pictures: Nicola Young
She goes for the wedding of her supposedly dim but actually vivacious and sharp-witted Artful Dodger brother Lucky (Anthony Sahota, an athletic and gymnastic wonder), who tries to live up to his name but doesn’t actually enjoy life much. Once Katrina has settled in with her parents, for longer than she planned, she by amazing coincidence rediscovers Ronny, when he turns up with his Bollywood Director brother Amit (Yanick Ghanty, splendidly characterised).
Complications derive from Amit falling for Rekha (the family’s sweet and lovable niece and ward – the enchanting, ravishingly dressed, poignantly innocent Sophie Kandola), who is the one betrothed to Lucky. The two don’t want this wedding anyway, so Amit is on to a good thing. Meanwhile Dr. Katrina is (very gradually) drawn to shyer brother Ronny. All change.
So much for the saga. But what makes this show so enticing is the costumes, the set, the fine speaking actors, and above all, the riveting dance element (one of the crucial ingredients of the Bollywood film mix). The amazing variety of the dance – it feels as if no idea is reused or recycled, every separate dance is fresh and unexpected – coupled with the amazing quick-change costumes – lots of reds and rainbow colours, much whites and blacks and beiges and who knows what – there must be a considerable cost involved, so beautifully crafted are they, and even the simpler but greatly attractive, sensitively devised set (Richard Evans), that one is simply dazzled by the beauty and flair.
The show is well lit, with just enough change of colour – blue, purple, red, green, amber-white – to give it variety and relevance. The music is utterly charming, not endless ragas, but a nice collation of oriental and quasi-oriental – some of it feels as much Greek or Turkish as Indian sub-continent - with some lovely touches of accompanying or leading obbligato – what sound like mountain flutes, for instance - and not so loud as to distract from the dancers. They all had a wonderful spirit about them, and no one fluffed a single move. Most dances ended it beautifully polished final group blocks.
If one stood out from this energetic ensemble, it was Raheem Mir, whose gestures and moves are splendidly prepared, wide in their reach, always beautifully finished, elegant in the extreme, surely as inspired and expressive as all his partners put together. He exemplifies to perfection the notion of not just external moves, which one absorbs easily, but subtle internal grace, so that each finessed gesticulation acquires further inner meaning - a mesmerising power of enchantment and suggestion that affects an audience without it necessarily rationalising its source or impact.
The father and the mother (Rokit Gokani, Sakuntala Ramanee, reprising their roles from the earlier tour) are two wittily drawn characters, memorably acted, wonderfully droll and funny and witty, and seemingly not miked up. Colonel Pawar, a relic of the Raj, perhaps a veteran of the Indo-Pakistan war (over Bangla Desh), a sort of Ben Kingsley figure, is obliging, kindly, quietly suffering; the mother, proactive, insistent, managing. Both her children come under her vigilant, matchmaking eye. Katrina is quite unfazed: after 14 years in the U.K, she will make her own way; and that way turns out, unexpectedly for both of them, to be Ronny. Lucky too is breaking away. We are at a time of change. The old is reluctantly ceding, ever so timidly, to the new.
Sophie Kandola as Rehka and Yanick Ghanty as Amit Kapoor
Ronny is an assured, presumptuous, slightly spiv character. He sings like a God – all the best numbers are his, and he delivers them to perfection. He has a high tenor that reaches into the mezzo range, so in some of the joint numbers his voice sounded a perfect match for whoever (usually Katrina) he is duetting with. We see him gradually emerging, growing up to a degree, mellowing. Katrina is feisty, experienced, knowledgeable, a bit patronising. Nisha Aaliya’s acting of her is faultless, she has one very amusing moment of funny walks, and as she and Ronny realise their mutual attraction, she too goes through something of a transformation. More might have been made of this, but it’s a minor criticism of two nicely and intelligently presented, free-thinking personalities.
Avita Jay has a lesser role as Ronny’s real but estranged wife Kangna, from England, who turns up unexpectedly and unannounced to seek a reconciliation, and puts a spoke in the pair’s romance and marriage plans. She filled the part fine (‘The Way we Were’ was pure joy). But the actress I most enjoyed was Sophie Kandola, playing the niece: a lovely, demure yet perky performance, as she admits her disenchantment with Sahota’s hyperactive Lucky, only to be lured by Ghanty’s infatuated Bollywood star director Amit to emerge from her cocoon and chrysalis.
So the leads are all fairly high quality, but again it rests on the dancing ensemble to make this show so uniquely fresh and alive. They were such a gifted, zippy, animated, inspired group it’s invidious to pick out, but one could see Mithun Gill putting a lot of effort into his pirouetting role, much to his credit.
The mountain scene is cleverly and simply evoked with black see through peaks, but one criticism of the production might be that it fails to capture the scented feel of the gorgeous Valley of Flowers, in the Nandi Devi National Park, with its ‘unique collections of flora’, to which characters transport themselves for a revival of love and romance.
There are jokes to relish: ‘All these Brits, coming here, taking our jobs’; ‘A billion people in the country, and I run into you again’; ‘Do you know about the man who fell into curry powder? They say he fell into a korma’. ‘I model myself on Victoria.’ ‘Beckham?’ ‘No, Secret’ (the lingerie and beauty care store).
Subhash Viman, who choreographed almost all of Acts I and 2 (Leena Patel provided the strong launch and penultimate number) and to whom surely the most credit must go for a blissfully varied, contrasted and differentiated show - was a skilled and teasingly eye-catching ensemble dancer, but a laugh a minute as the Pawars’ old, confused, shaking, dotty, put-upon servant: pottering around, nervous and servile, with a gift for getting things wrong, being shouted at and unceremoniously dismissed, with a crazy walk worthy of Monty Python, and a hunched look like a dog with its tail between its legs. Wit, like dance, is crucial to make this show work, offsetting the quite serious foreground story of problem-filled betrothal. When Viman rides around the stage on a non-existent horse, it’s hilarious.
All credit to the Programme book editors: the alphabetical listing of Production Credits is not helpful, but they not only list the numbers, but invaluably give the full text of each of them (Ronny’s ‘Lag Ja Gale’ one of the endless treats; ‘Na Jaane’ was another; and ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, from the film of that name, pure delight. ‘Got your Cure’ sounded like pure Sondheim). If only other companies were as thoughtful. To 13-05-17