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Bombay Dreams

The Perfect Recipe

by Preeti Vasudevan

May 6, 2004 -- Broadway Theater, New York

Ever wonder why the silver-screen of Bollywood is like a never-ending story? The protagonists of the shows have familial traits easily recognizable to their viewer. The hero, heroine, father, mother, uncle, aunt…the list goes on. The hero is a poor boy, in the army, a rich youth etc., each with a fire of individualism burning within, waiting for the right moment… the right heroine to forge it out of them. Ah! The heroine! Tomboy with a love for tradition or a conservative dresser with the heart of a modern and dynamic urban working woman. And then you have the ever-emotional society that forms pieces of the puzzle that the hero and heroine have to resolve to arrive at the perfect picture- the complete fantasy formula!

Neither edits nor musical sequences have much to do with linear narrative progression or situational demands in the storyline. Each movie frame has its own complete story and eventually all the frames converge quite organically to form the ideal complex society! Really, by the sounds of it, we haven’t progressed much from the ancient and famous scribe Vyasa’s Mahabharatam . Why then does this silver-screen formula work so superbly for the masses while its live rendition in the west, Bombay Dreams stays very mundane?

How can a three-hour melodramatic formulae of a native film industry be presented to an uninitiated western audience? Do we need an original formula to access an exotic culture still viewed through its immigrant minority populations? Can a larger-than-life persona of made-for–film Bollywood be compressed to a two hour musical theatre? Can the script retain the vibrancy of the organized chaotic life of 1.2 billion people of India ? Or should it be summarized into a straight jacketed, two-dimensional interpretation for easy analysis and access? The questioning is endless.

Eastern aesthetics and art have influenced the west for many centuries. From Classical Ballet and fashion in the 16th century to Madonna Shivas and Body Shop ‘Bhindis’ in the 21 st century, Indian art has always appealed to the amatory affairs of the western mind. If the public can acquire such dilettantish delectation, I wonder what ever happened to the director’s oriental delirium!

Bollywood’s survival story depends heavily on its clichés: its mundane storyboard, its E#-pitched playback singers who are far more emotional than the on screen actors and the color-enriched designers who come from the broad spectrum of a dream-like living. It is this very prudent collection of clichés that determine its box office hits and misses. The mastery of the original cliché is a hard and discriminating task. It requires the tireless perseverance of a fantasy dimension in everyday reality. This calls for a director who is respected as the master chef of cinematic culinary arts.

As in creating the perfect recipe out of mundane ingredients, the director’s cut in the creation of such a masterful musical lies not in choosing how to please his audience according to their tastes, but in skillfully extracting the cinematic essences to arouse his “eastern-eyed” audience with a live tasting of Bollywood India. Primarily, for a musical such as Bombay Dreams, this means, “lets throw the streamlining out of the window, and let's get serious with the musical chimera.” This approach allows for the inclusion of your mainstream producers as well as the cutting-edge reviewers. The world loves a reverie – give it to them with an unabashed imaginativeness. Given the chance to reinvent the world of musicals, one would have hoped to see not Broadway but Bollywoodway, a world that is like a yellow brick road leading through the Looking Glass and entering the distilled universal family language - melodrama. While some spectators did cross the boundaries to enter the momentary mirage, the remaining onlookers were thirsting for the promised “Dreams.” Where were the improbable super dialogues, the never-ending dying speech, the sensual water scenes (unfortunately the only fountain scene remained very self-conscious for the cast except for a very extroverted Ayesha Dharker, who tragically was not used to her full potential as a wonderful actor), the many scene changes in a singular song, the heart breaking love dialogues that every audience member knows before the show even starts…?

If Bollywood emulates the vibrancy of Indians in a compact 3-hour package, then Bombay Dreams should have been an international Bollywood in an explosive wrapping. As in Monsoon Wedding, the London script for Bombay Dreams allowed for a complex love triangle (between the Hero, Heroine and the Eunuch) that left its audience guessing in the first half. Unfortunately, the glances of a relationship in New York’s Broadway version gave us only one story to grasp onto – the rather boring same boy- same girl love plateau without its rollercoaster acmes. Neither were the subplots strong enough to allow the emergence of multiple paradoxes to challenge the main storyline.

The complexity of a story within a story is a collaborative effort, a storytellers' gathering. The involvement of the script writer, director, choreographer, composer and producer at all levels tests the strength of the story web, exercised at every point never to break but to leave the audience with a tasty morsel in the center and a labyrinth to access it.

Bombay Dreams can be viewed doubtlessly as a gateway to more world languages in the mainstream culture in the west. It is America ’s discovery of the new Orient, paving way to more positive exchanges in the face of growing religious fundamentalism. But as we cross international pathways, we should also become increasingly sensitive to avoid uncritical understandings of world cultures. Bombay Dreams in London reflected the South Asian attitude in Britain with a craze for its sub-continental heritage. However, the American version of Bombay Dreams, through its changes, revealed an ambiguity of thought and relationship with its own South Asian diaspora, placing them as a single flavored community not unveiling their multi layered ethnicity which is redefining the face of America today.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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