18 September 2006

Monday's mp3: Bollywood Nights

Ah, Bollywood. Even if you've never seen one, you probably know by now that the musical extravaganza films of India are big business. India has the most productive film industry in the world, as well as the most film-goers. Having a domestic population of more than a billion, and many of them poor, certainly feeds the hunger for escapist entertainment. And Bollywood musicals have found fans well beyond India.

"Our films have reached half the world," declares director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). "The Middle East, all of Africa, all of Russia, the Far East, and the Indian diaspora everywhere — the half of the world that Hollywood has not yet recognized." I've seen a Bollywood music on a long-haul bus in Malaysia, heard tributes to Bollywood from singers in Africa and Singapore.

And this singing, dancing chicken is coming home to roost. On its journey from Hollywood to Bombay and back again, the musical has changed in some interesting ways. And the currently touring Bombay Dreams has it all in a nutshell. The plot: a boy from the slums plans to become a Bollywood star to earn the money to help his neighbors. But on his way up the ladder, he forgets about them. Or does he?

Bombay Dreams (curiously known in the UK as Salaam Bombay Dreams) has what you'd expect from a Bollywood movie: lots of music (composed by the legendary AR Rahman), acrobatic dancing, jokes, drama, betrayal, murder, dazzling costumes, and love triangles. Something like Wagner's Ring on fast-forward.

The two-act, 18-scene drama encompasses at least 16 musical numbers. On the introspective side, there's the biting "Famous"
The public want their stars to be
Part hero and part fantasy
A poet who can play the clown
A leader who will not back down
A role model for everyone
A man who still finds time to pray
And never goes astray
Are you quite sure you want to be famous?

On the other end of the spectrum is the over-the-top spectacle of "Shakalaka Baby," an unabashed dance number that includes on-the-fly costume changes, explosive dancing, and yes, the obligatory wet-sari scene.

The full house at Seattle's ornate 5th Avenue Theater gave Bombay Dreams an enthusiastic endorsement, though some of the jokes went over the audience's heads. And the production was marred by poor sound. The diva Rani has a dramatic entrance, descending on a crescent moon in the number "Lovely, Lovely, Ladies," but her voice was at first inaudible, then unintelligible.

Two percussionists occupy lofts on either side of the stage above the audience, but I frequently found that while I could see their fingers tripping on the tabla and other instruments, I couldn't pick these sounds out of the muddy mess emerging from the speakers. At one point, it actually became dangerous as of the percussionist's cymbals came crashing down from above (or perhaps this was his commentary on the sound quality?).

Other critics have found more at fault with the production in its previous run in Toronto. Under the headline "Bombay Nightmare, more like it" the Globe and Mail pans the music ("A. R. Rahman's score feels like the worst of both worlds: all the mind-numbing hooks of Indian music and all the saccharine tunes of Andrew Lloyd Webber at his more derivative moments."), the humor ("If lines like "Sari, Wrong Number" or the "Oscars with Chutney" strike you as funny, this may well be the show that speaks to your immigrant experience or nostalgia for homeland culture."), even the very concept ("It's both a celebration of the silly melodramatic conventions that guide the Indian film industry and ... a spoof of them. But since the spoof bleeds into the real show and vice versa, the musical never establishes an identity or creates a credible emotional arc..."). Apparently the Toronto run was unmarred, however, by errant flying percussion.

Assuming the small wrinkles are ironed out, Bombay Dreams gets our full recommendation as an entertaining romp for Bollywood beginners and long-time fans alike. The Seattle run continues through Oct. 1.

Salaam Bombay Dreams a DVD about the making of Salaam Bombay, is just $12.75 at CDUniverse.com)

For your listening pleasure, some Bollywood music:
[mp3]"Shakalaka Baby (clip)" from Bombay Dreams
[mp3] "Balle Balle" from Bride and Prejudice
[mp3] "Taralentaga Meriseno" from Akbar Salim Anarkali
[mp3] " Lets Play Holi" from Waqt

Bollywood/Hindi music resources, with mp3s of varying audio quality:
Old Classic Hindi Songs

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