Bombay on Broadway: Review of Bombay Dreams

On Saturday afternoon four of us went to go see Bombay Dreams.

Ok, so it's not 'serious' theater. But we all enjoyed it nonetheless -- and I think it might end up a hit despite the harsh review in the Times (temporary link here; no permanent free link available). Word of mouth in the Indian community will draw Indians to New York to see it -- everyone I spoke to afterwards was really excited. And the non-Indians who were there (the Indo/Anglo mix was 50/50 at the Saturday matinee show) also seemed to be enjoying themselves very much.

In case anyone was sleeping, Broadway has been bland, sometimes a little but generally a lot, since Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals took over in the 1980s. It's a genre where the biggest hit in recent years was actually a theatrical version of a perfectly good, perfectly rentable movie (The Producers). Why go when everything in the story is well known to you from the 'original'? One goes to see the tamasha, the spectacle, the illusion. That is what people go to Broadway to see, so Bombay Dreams fits into Broadway.

Hindi films have a distinct approach to syrupy/spectacular, and the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/A.R. Rahman mix translates it effectively to the Broadway space, and even make some improvements along the way. For one thing, all the script-editing and condensation of the story have resulted in a play that is nice and short -- two and a half hours, counting intermission. Also the song-and-dance sequences are really the core of the show. These are what a non-Hindi film crowd will probably be really surprised by -- especially the songs that are actually in Hindi ("Chaiya Chaiya"). And even those of us who have seen many Hindi films have actually never seen dance sequences this big. Through editing and careful shot positioning, Hindi films can often avoid having to choregraph anything very precisely, or train actors/dancers to do really demanding things. But on a stage it's all there -- there's no place to hide. In Bombay Dreams, the big numbers fill up and overflow the stage with movement and color.

The final improvement I noticed is the live music, a 19-piece orchestra (including two Dhol players!), and the live vocals. So even if Manu Narayan isn't especially compelling as the hero -- really, this part was made for Shah Rukh Khan -- he does something that Shah Rukh Khan never does, which is actually sing, live. Strong voices and strong vocal training are what separate unknown ABCD actors like Manu Narayan and Anisha Nagarajan from the big stars in India (who may be able to sing, but we'll never be given the opportunity to find out). The demonstrable presence of this specific skill answers Prashant Agarwal's complaint in his recent New York Times Op-Ed, that the show has no actual Bollywood stars (though I would argue that Ayesha Dharkar, who plays Rani, is in fact a proper film star).

Bombay Dreams was a hit in London despite poor reviews there. Even though demographics here are harder, I think it will be a hit on Broadway too.

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