11 May 2015
Attempts to transfer the glories of the Bollywood musical tradition from Indian celluloid to the British stage have had something of a chequered history. Back in 2002, Andrew Lloyd Webber was instrumental in putting on Bombay Dreams at the Apollo Victoria, and now Beyond Bollywood takes up residence at the London Palladium until the end of June. On the face it the Palladium seems a natural venue for the exuberant and extravagant swagger of Bollywood in full pomp. Outside the theatre on Press Night the paparazzi were in place to snap at the stars we were about to see on stage, and when the curtain went up on the opening number ‘Namaste India’, there seemed a perfect match between the plush and bling of Matcham’s gorgeous theatre and the bounce and verve and colourful costumes of the dancers and drummers on stage. However, from there on it was a downward curve only occasionally arrested by a fine succession of dance sequences in the second half of the evening. In many ways the problems are similar to those that the critics identified back in 2002. Back then Bombay Dreams was criticised for making too much of an effort to adapt story and format to Western conventions and assumptions and thus losing touch with the core strengths of the Bollywood film tradition. The same can be said here.
The basic story-line as such is fine: it follows the usual aspirational, rags-to-riches switchback of challenges – parental, romantic, financial – that take the hero and heroine from dreams to achievement to disappointment and then back to final apotheosis, all punctuated by various spectacular dance sequences. There is nothing wrong with any of that – after all that is as much or more than many high-brow opera plots in the Western classical tradition can boast. Moreover that kind of plotting provides us with the excuse for a variety of exotic locations and a succession of opportunities for dazzling displays of different dance cultures and choreographic traditions from all over India. At its best in the second half this tried and tested formula really delivers, and it was a real feast to see performances of dance from Gujurat and Punjab that needed no story or commentary to accompany them. At intervals throughout the show there were also exquisite examples of Kathak classical dance especially by Pooja Pant, playing the heroine’s mother, indicating that in Bollywood less can also sometimes be more.
However, these core strengths were sadly undermined at so many points by a determination to explain and adapt the materials to a Western audience that would, I think, have been much more enthralled by the unaltered original. After the opening number, we had a wholly unnecessary demonstration of the identity of the key instruments in the Indian tradition. I think you can take it as read that an audience for a Bollywood musical already knows the attributes and sound qualities of the sitar and tabla. Likewise there was no need to burden the heroine, Shaily, with a complicated back-story based in Munich which serves simply to prolong an already extended first half. Shaily aims to revive the ancestral theatre left to her by her mother by returning it to success through shows based on Indian folk dance. She moves to Bombay in order to improve her own dance skills and there meets Raghav, who has had to compromise his own commitment to the folk dance tradition, through working on projects which fused West and East. With her encouragement and example he recovers the truth and authenticity of his choreography once more. They then tour India, and the show could wisely have ended there without an awkward return to Munich and the restoration of the theatre, the perennial Macguffin in the plot. Along the way there are long stretches of clunky dialogue which hold up the action and do nothing for the credibility of the characterisations. At intervals when the plot needs a hefty shove, Shaily’s deceased mother appears and encourages her to ‘follow your heart, where dreams become reality.’ It would have been so much better to have followed the traditional Bollywood formula, kept the dialogue short, in the original language and tied to the rhetorical conventions of the traditional points of the moral and imaginative compass – family, duty, rebellion, self-sacrifice, and melodramatic coincidence. That is authentic and the audience would have respected it. The other way bathos lies….
What of the performances? Again we can make a distinction between the virtues of sticking to the formula and the perils of pandering to a certain view of London expectations. In the more classical Indian dancing there was excellent solo discipline, and great precision in combination routines. In the different folk elements the company of up to 45 dancers showed great team-work and imagination, and gave us a genuine insight into the religious traditions and rituals of which the dances ultimately form a part. However, in the routines where the choreographer tried to fuse Hollywood with Bollywood the technique was uneasy and the result both unconvincing and frankly unhelpful within the framework of the evening. The four leading protagonists, and particularly the two young leads, are all major dance talents. It is a shame there was not more singing and less lip-synching, but both Ana Ilmi and Mohit Mathur took the opportunities given to them with real commitment and once liberated from the book found a freedom and rapport that was affecting, especially in the second half. Composers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant gave us a score that was equal to the colour and energy of the dance routines and Rajeev Goswami’s choreography made full use of the ample resources available to him. All these positives on the creative side only sharpen the regret that this reviewer and clearly many of the audience felt that we were not seeing more of the unmediated original. In transferring great artistic traditions across cultures it is best to take the risk and present them raw and full-on, and invite the audience to rise to the full extent of the challenge, rather than diluting the formula to meet the audience half-way. If we take this view with Shakespeare, and other Western authors where there are perceived difficulties in reception, we should extend the same trust to Bollywood in return. I hope that the next venture of this kind will reveal the courage to do so.