The Merchants of Bollywood: Live review
“This is not the time to disco,” dance teacher/guru Shantilal (Chander Khanna) tells his granddaughter Ayesha (Carol Furtado, pictured above) in The Merchants of Bollywood.
The line drew scattered laughs but, like many at the Auditorium Theatre October 2, I didn’t get the reference. The Merchants of Bollywood had its North American premiere there the night before and hits 18 U.S. and Canadian cities over the coming months. This ambitious, delirious spectacular has its work cut out for it on a continent where the story it tells—that of Shri Hiralal, a famous choreographer of classic Bollywood films, and his granddaughter Vaibhavi Merchant, choreographer of The Merchants of Bollywood and contemporary films—and the movies supplying nearly all of its songs and references aren’t widely known. (This isn’t because they’re piddling productions: As we’re told in the jukebox dansical’s opening moments, over 1,000 major films are produced each year by Mumbai’s billion-dollar-plus film industry. Oddly, despite being developed there, The Merchants of Bollywood hasn’t been seen yet in India. It debuted in Australia in 2005; dates in China/Southeast Asia, Dubai, Europe and South Africa have followed.)
It’s not an intellectual exercise, but The Merchants of Bollywood is strangely meta at times, as if Charlie Kaufman decided to try his hand on Broadway with a musical about Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. And there’s no live singing. (Aaand the performers go in and out of lipsynching seemingly at will.) Of six central characters, one (Uday, played by Dipender Singh) has no dialogue at all, just a grin when he’s doing the hip-hop and breaking he’s good at, and furrowed brow during sequences more closely tied to classical Indian dance styles that come less easily. Genre-wise, it’s in limbo, neither dance concert nor musical nor play. Some might find it frustrating. I thought it enjoyable, if uneven.
Its cast of 25 showed no signs of fatigue at the end of Act II, despite having burned through 500-some costumes and thousands of Vaibhavi Merchant’s dance steps—and it’s in those steps that The Merchants of Bollywood’s juiciest content is buried. Although the Shantilal character is a master of kathak, a tradition Ayesha shuns (“These bells around my feet are like chains!”) then re-embraces, Bharatanatyam and Odissi references appear in the whirlwind, too. Kareem Khubchandani, a Northwestern University Ph.D. candidate in performance studies whose research is in Bollywood dance, tells me one medley collected a variety of Northern Indian dances, another dances from Gujarat. “It’s distracting, because the show is about this idea of preserving tradition, and yet this ‘tradition’ is all over the place,” he says. To wit, early in the first act, when we’re given a tour of classic Bollywood dance numbers, the men referenced include Raj Kapoor, his brother Shammi, his son Rishi, and Rajesh Khanna, actor/dancers famous for emulating Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley and other Western stars.
Every lyric during that sequence, Khubchandani explains, is the title of a film, or sequence from one. (Click here for an interesting making-of the hit, “Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte,” from the 2008 film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.) The score is credited to brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant—no relation—a team credited with reinvigorating Bollywood scores over the last decade following their slide, in the ’80s and ’90s, into thinly veiled rehashes of American pop and global memes like Los del Rio’s “Macarena.” Changes they make to songs in The Merchants of Bollywood from films they didn’t score, like “Kajra Re” from Bunty Aur Babli (2005), consist of things like replacing the original pop beat with more classical rhythms, according to Khubchandani. It’s details like these that make The Merchants of Bollywood an intriguing hall of mirrors—but only if you know the source material, and the languages it’s in.
Granted, there’s enough excellent dancing and flashy stagecraft to drench you if you don’t; the script, by director Toby Gough, is bare-bones, driving the predictable plot point-by-point, pausing only for the occasional easy laugh. Khubchandani points me toward the thesis A Hall of Mirrors: Repetition and Recycling in Hindi Commercial Cinema by Aditi N. Menon-Broker which, he says, posits that “the song and dance sequences might be the most original part of any Hindi film because the rest is so formulaic.” He reminds me of a funny bit in Act I when three men, one in drag, pantomime the template narrative of Bollywood cinema. “It’s more like epic theater,” he adds, “where the pleasure comes from the experience of these episodes, as opposed to the journey from beginning to end.”
Gough, Salim-Sulaiman and Vaibhavi Merchant have produced a spectacle that replicates a Bollywood film while it comments on the industry that generated those films. It’s not the only way their show could’ve been done—and offers little to the uninitiated—but at least it’s entertaining.