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June 2002

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WINDOW ON UK/EUROPE

Bombay Dreams comes alive

By Subroto Mukherjee

GlobalomNet Media Service

 

Ayesha  AR Rahman  Shekhar Kapur  Lloyd Webber Preeya - Raza

This is history being made in English theatre. Two worlds came together when Andrew Lloyd Weber met Shekhar Kapur in 1999.

  “It’s the first ever West End show produced by Webber that has a predominantly Asian caste playing the lead.”

The curtain lifts, what must be a train rolls on to stage, and they’re singing “chhaiyan-chhaiyan”. So begins a Bombay cinema story onstage in London. And the West End at that, under Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man behind London’s most famous musicals for decades.
 
The “chhaiyan-chhaiyan” from Dil Se inspired Webber into doing a musical on Bombay films. With Shekhar Kapur at his side, it happened. That scene sets the musical rolling. And it starts history unfolding in London’s famed theatreland. 
 
Bombay Dreams is coming true this June at the Apollo Victoria theatre. Quite a change for Webber, even from that varied journey from Jesus Christ Superstar to Cats, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Webber is producing this one, with his Really Useful Theatre Company, with music of course from A.R.Rahman.
 
Some of that music has been heard before, some is new. After “chhaiyaan-chhaiyan” comes a version in English of a duet from Taal, then another with the line “yaai re, yaai re” before it takes off into English lyric sand another tune. There are about 20 songs, many of them to all new music. In Bombay style, they’re there as songs to be listened to, and to push the story along.
 
And the story? Don’t worry about guessing the end. Rich film producer Madan Kumar accidentally spots Akash, a poor slum dweller, and picks him for a role in his films. But Kumar is arrested because he takes on the Bombay mafia who want to control his company. Madan’s daughter Priya then takes up her father’s business. The poor Akash falls in love with rich Priya, but not with sweet Sweetie who loves him. Priya too loves Akash secretly but she is engaged to Vikram. On the day of her wedding she learns that Vikram was behind the killing of her father. She turns to a happy destiny with Akash. And so the subtitle of the musical comes true: Two Hearts, Two Worlds, One Dream.

 
Two worlds came together when Andrew Lloyd Weber met Shekhar Kapur in 1999. The men seemed to have been of one mind. “I have waited for years for the culture of the Bombay film industry to be presented professionally to international audiences,” says Kapur. Meera Syal who gave British audiences Goodness Gracious Me, a take-off on South Asian life in Britain was called in to do the script. Oscar winner Don Black famous for his Bond songs and for Phantom of the Opera has written the lyrics.
 
Worlds came together also for Preeya Kalidas, who auditioned four times in 2000 and again last year before she landed the star role. She was told of her Bombay Dreams the day she finished shooting for the film Bollywood Queen where she plays an Indian girl from East End in London who has dreams of Bollywood, and a white guy to go, or not go, with them.
 
Bombay Dreams is about Bombay, a good deal in it is from Bombay, but it is very much a West End musical. Preeya Kalidas who plays Priya sings most of the songs, with Raza who plays Akash. The father sings a song, so does Sweetie. But not in the Bombay style of singing. A little more of the opera here than of Lata Mangeshkar. Farah Khan along with Anthony Van Laast who choreographs dancing for West End musicals is choreographing the dances. The musical has a cast of 42, and is being produced at a cost of 4.5 million pounds (Rs 31 crore).
 
In the hard world of West End, Bombay Dreams is a big gamble for a producer to take. Audiences for the West End theatre have fallen 15 percent over the past few months, largely because American tourists have kept away. None have lost more than audiences than the musicals. London might just have had too much of them; a critic remarked that their presence is giving the West End “a dismally constipated look.” The cynics among the critics are asking how many takers there will be for a musical of another culture that has the sights and sounds of the Indian entertainment business, but perhaps lacks substance.
 
Bombay Dreams is being targeted with hostile criticism before it’s happened. Not for English audiences, said one critic, those “Amazons on roller skates, pretending to be singing trains.” London now knows of Bollywood, but not everyone is a Bollywood fan. A critic in The Guardian spoke of the “unfeasibly garish world of Bollywood and all its attendant laughter, tears, trilling, twirling and navel-wobbling.”
 
Webber’s last play at the Apollo Victoria, Starlight Express, ran to 7,406 performances over 18 years. Bombay Dreams has been booked for a year. The box office is open but theatre-goers haven’t exactly been rushing in with reservations yet. The Really Useful Theatre Company will be looking to plenty of the “brown pound”. Indians in Britain, and visitors from the US, rarely go to the West End. Now is the time for them to show money and, it is hoped, taste.   
 
This is history being made in English theatre. “It’s the first ever West End show produced by Webber that has a predominantly Asian caste playing the lead,” says Preeya Kalidas. “And I am the first Asian female in the world to be playing the lead in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. It’s phenomenal, and that in itself will make history.” But to pay for itself and more, that history will have to run and run.