The Merchants of Bollywood
14 July 2009
Article and Photography by Visithra Manikam
A 50 Rupee Ticket to a Perfect Dream - Bollywood
“I will not get off the stage without getting the audience to dance,” vowed Carol Furtando, the lead actress during the media sneak preview of The Merchants of Bollywood.
She did exactly that at the premier show on 14 July 2009. By the end of the show, the audience, were up on their feet clapping and moving to the beat of the songs.
Bursting with colours, vibrant costumes and energetic moves, the cast of The Merchants of Bollywood dazzled the audience with their showmanship. The five-year internationally acclaimed show made its debut in Asia, performing for the first time to an audience that was familiar with the world of Bollywood.
Based on the true story of the Merchant family, it tells the tale of the late Shri Hiralal, the legendary choreographer of classic Bollywood films in the 50s and 60s, having differences in opinion with his granddaughter, Vaibhavi Merchant who is currently one of the top young choreographers in Bollywood.
Vaibhavi, who lent her family story to producer Mark Brady and Writer/Director Toby Gaugh, is also the choreographer of the dazzling dance pieces. She has won the Indian national award for her choreography for Hum Dil De CHuke Sanam as well as the American Chereographer award for Oscar nominated movie Lagaan. She has also choreographed for Swades, Devdas and Dhoom 2.
The story of Ayesha Merchant (played by Carol Furtado), whose family are the custodians of the ancient Kathak dance, begins in the deserts of Rajashtan. The grandaughter of Shantilal (Chander Khanna), the once famous choreographer of Bollywood’s golden era, rebels and leaves home to pursue her dream in Bollywood against the wishes of Shantilal who forbids Ayesha as he feels that “Bollywood is no place for decent woman!”
Soon Ayesha is crowned the Queen of romance in Bollywood but the hollowness of Masala movies leaves her earning for her roots and her grandfather. A flashback of her grandfathers’ golden dancing era further pushes her towards the golden dunes of Rajashtan. She returns home to make peace with her grandfather. She reconciles with her childhood sweetheart Uday (Dipender Singh) and resolves to continue their family tradition but in her own way. Ayesha soon returns to Bollywood to present the industry with dance that is true to her heart and wins the industry over.
Earlier in the day Carol had dubbed the musical “like watching a Hindi Film on stage.”
True to her words, about 40 dancers and actors and 20 behind the scene crew magically went through 1200 costume and 2500 jewellery changes in the 90 minute musical. The cast provided little bits of comedy, dance, grandeur, joy, love, sorrow and more. Each dance item had at least 12 dancers not including the leads,
The dancers were in a class of their own, every step and formation was done with such precision it was hard to spot mistakes. Their effortless dancing may have seemed easy, but trust me they aren’t. Each movement and step had been choreographed to fit the era of its music and yet breathe a fresh perspective to the song. Every time the dancers returned they would be decked in grand costumes that were so different from the previous presentations, you wondered what magic was happening in the backstage. Bangles, necklace, medallions, earrings, anklets, footwear, you name it and they changed it.
My one gripe with the choreography would be the adding of turntable moves by Uday in the first dance which was supposed to be an authentic showcase of Kathak. While it created interest it doesn’t gel with the story and Shantilal’s insistence of keeping Kathak true to its original moves.
The depiction of Bollywood Masala movies had the audience splitting in laughter with their antics. The injunction of comedy at several points of the musical were a welcome addition and break between the dances.
Ayesha’s return to Rajashtan in the second half provides a glimpse of traditional dances to the audience. Bharathanatyam, Manipuri, Kathak, traditional folk dance, Horse dance (Ghode Modni or Kuthurai Atham) are some of the dance forms shown.
Just before the wedding dance, the audience is introduced to the Serendip Drummers. The director has definitely taken a poetic license here as the dance form is native of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless they were a welcome addition to the numerous dance repertoires’ of the evening and proved that traditional dance can still enchant audiences. The twirling drummers and dancer enchanted the audience with their moves. They took turns somersaulting across the stage bringing us to wonder, were they the inspiration behind hip hop dancers?
The wedding dance performance had the stage blazing in traditional Rajasthan costumes in red and blue. The dancers again proved their mettle and strength when in a seemingly effortless move; the male dancers lifted the female dancers in a circle and danced away.
Like all Bollywood movies, there seemed to be a believable chemistry between the two lead characters. At one point during their wedding dance, Uday holds Ayesha for a second longer sending hearts fluttering across the room.
Ayesha’s winning dance choreography in the story, seemed a perfect marriage between Kathak and modern dance. The musical ends with a repeat of Sabha Sabha and the ever famous It’s Time to Disco which has the audience up on their feet.
Including various hit songs from the 50’s to the 2000’s the musical’s music selection was carefully thought out. In addition, brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant (not related to Vaibhavi) provided tantalising songs and background music to the musical’s score. Some of the composers’ previous works include the scores for Bhoot and Dhoom.
Chander Khanna who plays the grandfather Shantilal, had the unique privilege of working with both Hiralal and Vaibhavi in his career that spanned over 50 years. An interesting note on Chander, his directorial debut Hum Bachche Hindustan Ke became India’s official entry to the Moscow film festival for the children’s film category. Chander’s years of experience were evident in his portrayal of the determined and stubborn Shantilal. The show is narrated by Denzil Smith who has played an important role in the development of theatre in English in Mumbai.
Ayesha’s love interest Uday was played by Dipender Singh. Having trained in Jazz and street style hip-hop in Los Angeles, the dancer and choreographer has appeared in films like Dhoom, Musafir and Hum Tum. Throughout the performance, he astonished the audience with his jumps, turntables and dance moves. The energetic star was akin to the energizer bunny, always on his feet.
Shruthi Merchant, the sister of Vaibhavi and the assistant choreographer for the production was available to answer our questions. Bubbly in personality, she is trained in the traditional Indian dances Kathak, Bharathanatyam and Odissi.
“The Merchants of Bollywood reflects the continuous growth of Bollywood, hence the show is regularly updated with new songs and choreography so that new audiences can truly understand Bollywood.”
“I cannot imagine a life without dance or music. Having family in the troupe has definitely added to the experience of travelling with the production for the last three years. It’s thrilling to watch the audience who has never been exposed to Bollywood films get on their chairs and dance with us.”
Shruthi is currently working on a second musical where she hopes to introduce traditional dances and music with a touch of modern spice. If the stars are aligned right and she heeds her sister’s words, we may even see the emergence of an academy in the near future.
“My addition to the musical is a strange story,” began Carol Furtando the vivacious lead actress when I quizzed her on how she had joined the production.
“I had been contemplating moving into a costume designer role away from dancing when a friend tells me he had recommended me for this musical and I was due for an audition. I was shocked and didn’t want to accept but decided to humour him. At the audition they spoke to me and then handed me a script to recite. I was unprepared and the next thing I know we were discussing my salary!”
Carol has toured around the world for Asha Boshle, Adnan Sami, AR Rahman, Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik among others. Carol’s performance in the musical was top notch, expressive and vibrant, her lively personality beamed on stage.
“Though I had been dancing for various productions, I was initially worried as I had no formal dance training and I was to dance Kathak! Thanks to the training I’ve now performed the role more than 700 times.”
“It’s been an exciting ride I’ve been privileged to partake. I view myself as an ambassador to India, educating people on India through the musical. It’s an exhilarating cultural exchange.”
“Dance is very much a part of me and it’s as natural as breathing. Had I not humoured my friend that day, I would still be in some part of the industry breathing music and dance.”
As Carol points out in her dialogue “Movies’ are a mere 50 rupee ticket to a perfect dream!” and indeed the fantasy dream world of Bollywood movies were brought to life on the stages of Istana Budaya.