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Bombay Dreaming and the Class Configurations of Home: A Review and Interview

Rahul Gairola
Photos by Joan Marcus © 2006

The first South Asian musical to be produced in English -- a musical project that germinated from an idea shared between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Shekhar Kapur --Bombay Dreams offers a vibrant and energetic panorama of the Indian popular cinema world, as well as an important critique of corporate capitalism.

With over 900 films produced in Bombay (re-named Mumbai in 1995), India, and a movie-going population of four billion per year, it seems an anachronism that 'Bollywood', the moniker of the country’s massive popular film industry, should only now be gaining attention in the United States. Despite Bollywood’s longstanding popularity in countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, China, and Pakistan, this somewhat recent development is partially due to the success of a handful of films in the American market. The 2002 Oscar nomination of Aamir Khan’s Lagaan for "Best Foreign Film" brought the Indian film industry into the limelight of American audiences, with some visibility also afforded Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s The Gurustarring Jimi Mistry and Heather Graham in the same year. The industry garnered additional attention when Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice seduced American audiences with its sanitized song and dance numbers featuring Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai in 2004.

It is against this backdrop of emergent American recognition that Bombay Dreams migrated across the Atlantic Ocean from its 2002 London debut at the Apollo Victoria Theatre to its 2004 Broadway debut. A musical project that germinated from an idea shared between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Shekhar Kapur (filmmaker of Bandit Queen, Elizabeth, and The Four Feathers), the former was so compelled by a Bollywood film song that he happened to see on television one day that he set about trying to discover who wrote it. His search into the annals of Indian film music led him to Bollywood music legend A.R. Rahman, and Webber promptly arranged a meeting with him. After Rahman conceded to writing a Bollywood stage musical, Bombay Dreams appeared on the British stage. Having toured the US for the last 10 months, the current American production is now in its closing week in Seattle, Washington. Bringing together a cast of stage professionals from all around the country and from myriad ethnic backgrounds, the musical offers a critique of corporate capitalism set in the slums of Bombay that thus forges a thematic solidarity with Seattle, a city which has itself resisted corporate exploitation to the point of riots during the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting.

Faithfully adhering to the sentimental formulas of Bollywood screenplays, Bombay Dreams adds an additional twist: what audiences witness on stage is the making of a film within the making of a film. In this sense, the narratives in the musical are multi-layered, and document parallel lives both lived and 'real' in the slums of Bombay, on the one hand, and in the star struck glitz of Bollywood film stars on the other hand. Thus from the moment it begins, the musical is unequivocal about keeping the audience aware that it is watching a love story that is occurring while a production company is filming Diamond in the Rough, within the making of yet another movie, Bombay Dreams. The musical opens with the aspiring dreams of a slum-dwelling youth named Akaash, played by Sachin Bhatt. Inspired to make it big in Bollywood and leave behind his day job as a 'tour guide', the young man is galvanized to pursue his dreams when news reaches the slum that a developer intends to bulldoze the untouchables (very low caste) off the land to make way for a multiplex cinema house. In this manner, the plot again invokes cinema as a conscious, circulating a theme upon which the plot of the musical is staged.

As per traditional Bollywood cinema, Akaash resolves to take on the corporate developers by singing and dancing his way to fame. He is indeed lucky, for a hotshot lawyer named Vikram, played by Deep Katdare, and his lovely fiancé Priya, played by Reshma Shetty, arrive on the scene with some good news. Vikram’s concern for the Bombay slum untouchables has guided him to defend the slum’s destitute denizens against the corporate multiplex-builders free of charge. Mulling over the decision with a neighborhood eunuch named Sweetie, played by Aneesh Sheth, the pair conclude that Paradise, the name of the slum, must collectively accept the lawyer’s help in the immediate interest of saving it from corporate demolition. Yet in the process of negotiating with Vikram and stumbling over the beautiful Priya, Akaash finds he has slipped into the downward slopes of a melodramatic love at first sight. At this point, the musical indeed seems to embrace Bollywood’s penchant for instantaneous love relationships on the silver screen despite the presence of an American audience. In reflecting on performing his lead character, Bhatt says, "Akaash is actually quite difficult to emulate because he is so energetic and naïve that it took me a while to feel comfortable in his shoes. He is a hard character because the whole audience must fall in love with him to enjoy the show fully, and making that happen every night has been a great but hard challenge."

A mischievous accomplice and childhood friend of Akaash, Sweetie is a strong (wo)man, fierce in a blue sari and distinct with a spark of optimism. Upon learning from Priya, who is also the daughter of a renowned filmmaker who is trying to resuscitate a now-failing career, that she is directing the Miss India Pageant the following day, Sweetie convinces Akaash to infiltrate the show in the interest of Indian women’s liberation from oppressive gender roles and televised humiliation. As a queer persona of color who is simultaneously a member of the lowest caste, Sheth’s character is further complicated by the real history of eunuchs in India. "Knowing the culture I come from and the history of hijras [Indian eunuchs] and the treatment of them in India, I know they are not looked at as more than clowns for entertainment, therefore the idea of one having an emotional arc is found to be humorous to American audiences…She [Sweetie] is constantly told she is a 'lady-boy' and is entrusted with information on the notion that she is a nobody and no one will believe what she says. Yet, she is written as a strong character who rises above her mistreatment and who is still a human being, and this is key to playing her on stage."

If the fortitude of Sheth’s queer character is in doubt, it becomes the prominent catalyst for a chain of events that places Akaash center-stage on national television: when Sweetie and her hijra comrades break into the backstage area of the pageant and disrupt it while it is live on air, Akaash addresses the whole of India live on television and raps and dances while the startled television crew and beauty contestants look on. This disruption also surfaces at a moment of the plot in which we learn that Priya has honorably rejected her father’s bidding to bribe the contestant judges in favor of Miss Calcutta’s win. Akaash ends up sweeping Bollywood star Rani off her feet, singing and dancing his way into her heart while an admiring Priya looks on. Under threat of losing Rani as the female lead in Diamond in the Rough, Priya’s father agrees to hire Akaash as her co-star. The plot of his film, incidentally, is about a poor slum boy who rises to riches and fame in Bollywood. Despite the musical’s overzealous adherence to Bollywood formulas, Akaash’s disruption of the pageant and eventual 'shout out' to the audience again breaks the fourth wall while also transforming the theater venue into the living room of the Indian television audience.

Mounting tensions in Priya and Vikram’s engagement, on the one hand and personality clashes with Akaash and Rani on the other, push Priya and Akaash towards one another. While Rani is fine with abandoning both Akaash and the set of Diamond in the Rough, Vikram is all but happy with the working relationship his fiancé and Akaash have conceded to. Indeed, it is within the throes of his dark jealousy and duplicitous dealings with corporate magnates as lawyer for the Paradise untouchables that the audience feels a malaise with him. This discomfort with Vikram’s character is one that Katdare observes is needed for conveying his character. Of his character, Katdare says, "Vikram is a Machiavellian antagonist. For him, the ends clearly justify the means. He might say that the good of the many outweighs the rights of the few…To operate as a lawyer in Bombay, one has to make similar compromises and the more compromises Vikram makes over his career, the more he loses his sense of what is right and wrong. One can argue that before the musical even starts, Vikram has compromised his ethical values to the point where he no longer even considers the slum dwellers human beings."

Vikram’s drive to profit from the destruction of Paradise and the displacement of its inhabitants is again disrupted when Sweetie learns from a drunken slum landlord that Vikram has betrayed the slum dwellers. In confronting him on the very night of his wedding, Sweetie becomes the target of what resembles homophobic violence. A fuming Vikram slaps her to the ground, attesting that no one will believe a lowly hijra. But when Sweetie discloses that she will expose Vikram to Priya and thus foil the marriage, Vikram removes his handgun from his holster and Sweetie pays with her life. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the writing in the musical: that the queer of color untouchable is the sacrificial lamb that guarantees the reunion of Akaash and Priya. Yet for Sheth, the plot in some ways reveals very real violence and discrimination that under-class people, regardless of race and gender expression, encounter everyday. Sheth reflects that, "This show does touch on the exploitation of globalization, how low-income families and communities are being evicted to bring in McDonalds, Dominos, and other such global businesses. In terms of people of color, it is very hard to say that the musical directly touches on that subject because the segregation here is between classes and castes, not races."

Sweetie’s death is not in vain, for Priya explodes into action when she discovers Vikram’s betrayal to Paradise and the cold-blooded murder of Sweetie. Though she repeats throughout the musical that she does not believe in violence, a few swift kicks to Vikram soon renders him in custody of the police. For Shetty, Priya’s transformation into an action-heroine at the end of the musical reflects her resolve throughout the musical to do right by the poor people living in Paradise while maintaining a solidarity with other women, including Sweetie and Akaash’s grandmother. Shetty says, "Priya is a feminist in a certain way. I say that because although she is doing what she wants to, she is also aware that she has the means to make career choices as she has money. But at the same time, she does not shy away from helping other women." For Shetty, this aspect has been especially important in her character given the limited roles for South Asian actors on the stage. "I act because I can be anyone I want to be. We live in a world where there are so many boundaries, and though in my career I come up against a lot of typecasting issues, I have still had the opportunity to play roles that help me understand other people." Bhatt also credits the musical with offering him an opportunity that is not much afforded to South Asians on the stage: Bombay Dreams attracted me instantly because I have been involved with theater all of my life. Finally, a show where I did not have to worry if my race and ethnicity would limit me from getting the role I wanted."

Given the fact that Bombay Dreams is the first South Asian musical to be produced in English, it has indeed opened the path for desi [colloquial Hindi for 'South Asian'] actors to have a hand at the stage. In doing so, it also allows young, aspiring desi actors to imagine themselves in nontraditional professions. "For my community, I am proud that I am not a typical Indian doctor or lawyer or engineer, and that I am successful in a field that is not the norm for South Asians", says Shetty. Sheth echoes such pride of his chosen career in stating "As an actor, I hope my work shows other South Asians that we can be something more than doctors, engineers, and scientists. Many of us have the same history, that our parents are immigrants who came to the US to provide themselves and us with better opportunities. We are told that we have a gigantic platter of opportunities, but then told we can only chose from two or three different things on that platter." If the cast members of Bombay Dreams hope to combat the ailments of typecasting in the showbiz industry and also mandated by their families, it seems ironic that they would do so in a musical that is so faithful to Bollywood formulas that it risks affirming Indian stereotypes.

Yet this potential weakness of the script is countered by stellar performances by the actors and ensembles, whose painstaking attention to detail shines through when they perform as an artistic collective. Read with the political stakes of the narrative in mind, the musical self-consciously draws attention to its own artifice, constantly reminding the audience that they are watching a movie within a movie within a musical. With its theme of resistance against capitalist exploitation and the centering of Sweetie, an untouchable eunuch, the musical likewise provides a political agency on the stage for queer and underprivileged Indians in Bombay. Perhaps most significant for our times, in an era where the very materiality of home has been washed away by natural disasters like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, Bombay Dreams best quality is that it insistently refuses to allow the demolition of lower-class homes at the hands of callous corporatism -- a quality that we have much more to emulate in class struggles that each of us daily encounter. As such, Bombay Dreams offers not only a vibrant and energetic panorama of the Indian popular cinema world, but also a class critique of corporate capitalism that Hollywood has much more to learn from.

Bombay Dreams includes high-energy and colorful numbers including its trademark "Shakalaka Baby" and "Chaiyya Chaiyya" (from the hit Bollywood film "Dilse"). To view excerpts of these and other numbers in WMV format from this production, please click here on Theater of the and click on the desired song.

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Rahul Gairola teaches in the Humanities & Sciences Department at Cornish College of the Arts, and is a PhD candidate in English & Critical Theory at the University of Washington (UW), both in Seattle. He has an MA in English from Rhode Island College (with Distinction) and a BA in English and Film & Media Studies from George Mason University. He has held fellowships at Pembroke College, Cambridge University (UK); Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany); the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University; and the UW. In addition to a number of edited collections, his work has been published in Jouvert, Comparative Literature, Amerasia, Philament, South Asian Review, Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, and Literature & Psychology. He has been writing for PopMatters since 2000.

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