Bombay Dreams: Big Dud

I was in London recently and one of the expected things to do there was to take a look at Andrew Lloyd Webber and AR Rahman's musical Bombay Dreams. The way we got the tickets for the show is a story in itself. Our London contact had booked the tickets on his credit card and when my colleague and I went to the ticket counter at Apollo Victoria, the English gentleman on the counter refused to give us the tickets even after we produced the booking number. He said tickets were given only to the credit card holder in person, which seemed like an absolutely ludicrous idea to us. Anyway, we put our foot down and he yielded.

The first thing that struck me when we entered the theatre was that it wasn't full. A lot of seats at the sides and back were cordoned off and hidden with, what looked like, red curtain covers. Also, the predominantly ethnic profile of the audience, which generally is not a sucker for West End plays, was not really surprising.

The musical opened with the visual of a slum in Mumbai, a highly predictable and stereotypical beginning, and refused to live down that image as it unfolded. May be it was meant for consumption by Western audiences only. Instead of celebrating the inherent power, youthfulness and expansive abandon of Bollywood, it turned it into a sordid cliché!

It was kitsch twice over that refused to do justice to the power of dreams and the eventual fulfilment that Bollywood seems to symbolise. Not only did it not do justice to Bollywood's sweep and dynamism, it also reduced it to a mere caricature of a ranting mob led by slum dwellers. May be AR Rahman and Farah Khan are not good at rehashes or may be they were in a daze when they lent their creative energies to this production. To top it all, the script by Meera Syal is banal and so much cliché ridden that it is almost revolting. It was a usual poor-boy-meets-rich-girl-parental-disapproval-and-final-triumph story. The dialogues were pedestrian, unimaginative and the script so inane that the insipid moong dal served to sick people in our country is more delectable.

It was touted by BBC as a part of the Celebration of Indian Summer, but is not a patch on the vibrant, resurgent India. Besides, the poor cast selection is something that needs to be seen to be believed. While Preeya Kalidas is passable, Raza Jaffrey is faltering and just doesn't manage to find his feet. As a twosome, they failed to take off. The only saving grace is the performance by Raj Ghatak, essaying powerfully the role of Sweetie, the eunuch.

Music is mostly overdone. The softness, the mellifluous strains that characterise Rahman's offering and the sheer hedonism, which is vibrant in a dignified way, is missing. What comes across is a loud, garish rendition of pulp that even Bollywood has forsaken now. In 1991, I saw Webbers' magnum opus Jesus Christ Superstar, which was truly an elevating experience. Aspects of Love also built on his reputation and now we have this medley that is neither here nor there.

It was also interesting to see how the West still sees us with blinkers on. There was the repulsive slum, the mandatory leper and the black tyre soot and filth all around. Director Steven Pimlott needs to be given a crash course in new India.

While the production value had the trademark Webber touch, it felt flat in most cases. The repeated use of a fountain in the middle of the stage was bizarre. Webber must give credit to the imagination of Hindi film directors who do scenes like these with much more finesse and class. Also, the lady getting wet with her full clothes on didn't seem to serve the purpose. If it was meant to seduce visually, it was a far cry from it. Forget the titillation, it was a turn off!

Those of you who have seen Malaika Arora perform Chaiyya Chaiyya would be appalled at what Ayesha Dharkar did with the eroticism of the song and dance. Though BBC hailed Dharkar's wet sari frolic in the fountain to Shakalaka Baby 'the most memorable West End scene in years', for me she simply switched the tap off.

I saw some British folks lapping up Bombay Dreams, but as an Indian I felt it was an opportunity lost to showcase the brilliant creative restlessness of Bollywood. Big disappointment!

(27 December 2002)