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‘Bombay Dreams’ on Broadway
A Couple of Spices Shy of a Perfect Masala

May 14, 2004

India-West Staff Reporter
NEW YORK — It’s tempting to compare the new Broadway production of “Bombay Dreams” to its highly successful London avataar. But it may be more fitting to compare the new show to that quintessential American cultural phenomenon, the Las Vegas spectacular, instead.
Like the “new,” kid-friendly Vegas, this production of “Bombay Dreams” is as wholesome as a glass of lassi and as glossy as a Disney film. Even its young heroine, Anisha Nagarajan, wouldn’t be out of place in “The Little Mermaid.”
Nagarajan plays Priya Kumar, a fledgling “parallel” filmmaker struggling to break free of the dishoom-dishoom aesthetics and shadowy ethics of her father, legendary movie mogul Madan Kumar (Marvin L. Ishmael).
Madan is looking for a star for his next masala masterpiece, Diamond in the Rough, and when he and Priya stumble across a talented young singer-dancer from the slums, Akaash (Manu Narayan), he is quick to cast Akaash opposite the fiery Rani (Ayesha Dharker), a sexy-yet-fading Bollywood icon who’s desperate for a hit.
Diamond in the Rough is about a slum boy who rises to the top of society, and Madan offers this advice to Akaash: don’t let anyone know the truth about your past, because “The public will never accept a real slum boy playing a slum boy.”
The film is a smash hit, and like Hrithik Roshan, Akaash becomes India’s dream boy overnight, though he’s forced to pretend that his impoverished family and friends (including Madhur Jaffrey as Shanti, his grandmother, and Sriram Ganesan as Sweetie, a hijra) don’t exist. The privileged Priya knows everything about Akaash’s background and falls in love with his pluck and charm, but she is engaged to another man and the two lovers seem destined to stay apart.
Of course, this is the simplified version, as the story — true to Bollywood form — is a bit more complicated with subplots, such as one involving Priya’s fiance, Vikram (Deep Katdare), a pro bono attorney who’s all too willing to help the poor slumdwellers fight some evil land developers set on razing the slums and building a multiplex movie theater.
The show was created by Shekhar Kapur, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber with music by A.R. Rahman, and was written by Meera Syal and Thomas Meehan and directed by Steve Pimlott.
The highlight of “Bombay Dreams” is, of course, Rahman’s gorgeous music, paired with the saucy choreography of Farah Khan and Anthony Van Laast. More than two dozen dancers sizzle in 10 lavish ensemble numbers (in keeping with the genuine Bollywood look, the show has been wisely cast with dancers of all different body sizes, too) based on Rahman’s filmi hits. A wedding qawaali is captivating, the ballads “How Many Stars?” and “The Journey Home” are unforgettable, and the thrill of seeing “Chhaiya Chhaiya” and “Shakalaka Baby” — set amid a 30-foot spray of water — are worth the admission price.
Manu Narayan, too, displays a lithe and energetic grace and expressive singing voice; while Ayesha Dharker creates a charismatic, sexy and hilarious Rani. Madhur Jaffrey, making her Broadway debut as Akaash’s grandmother, turns in an honest and touching performance. Though most of the leads are Indian American — both Narayan and Nagarajan are Tamils from Pittsburgh, Pa. — their Mumbai accents are perfectly tuned. Both singers, too, have had classical Indian music training, which adds an air of Indian authenticity that can’t be faked.
But Nagarajan, as cute and competent as she is in the role of Priya, seems a bit too scrubbed and spunky to play a woman whose ambition in life is to make “serious, black-and-white movies” about the dark side of Indian culture (picture Kajol in a role written for Shabana Azmi). The show underwent a number of changes since its London debut, which were designed to make it more accessible to American audiences. A few of the changes make sense, such as Akaash’s spirited welcome to the world of Bollywood movies, and a quick explanation of the phenomenon of “playback” singing.
But most of the changes don’t add anything to the show. Akaash’s forgettable opening song, “Bollywood,” is no match for “Like an Eagle,” his opener in the original (the soundtrack CD now in stores features only songs from the London production). Likewise, “Lovely, Lovely Ladies,” an English version of “Rang De” that accompanies a beauty contest, adds vocal fireworks but doesn’t really move the action along.
Most disturbingly, the character of Sweetie, the hijra (Sriram Ganesan), has been completely Disney-fied. In London, Raj Ghatak portrayed him as a poignant and tragic character who’s hopelessly in love with Akaash, but this new, rewritten Sweetie is squeaky-clean, campy and “Queer Eye” — leading one to wonder if the show’s creators thought an American audience couldn’t handle a meaty and challenging gay character in love with another man.
Despite a few gripes, though, what’s far more important to remember is that not only does the show offer a wealth of brilliant music with a genuine Bollywood pedigree, it’s a major achievement that this all-Indian show has even made it to Broadway in the first place.
Manu Narayan explains it passionately in an interview with India-West which will run next week: “For the first time in America, for eight shows a week in a huge city, you’re seeing a leading man and a leading woman who are South Asian ... and it’s not odd at all.”
If you get a chance to see the show, see it. And if you’re faced with a choice between “Bombay Dreams” and yet another bloated four-hour “real” Bollywood star show padded out with bad comedy and squealing teenaged girls being hauled up onstage (the tickets cost about the same), then your choice is an easy one.
(copyright India-West)