Review: The Merchants of Bollywood

How a cheesy, Indian dance-fest re-awakened my unrelenting desire to travel to the world’s most fascinatingly seductive subcontinent   

Impossibly colourful, breathtakingly vibrant, relentlessly entertaining and hilariously cheesy, my evening in the company of the Merchants of Bollywood was the best fun I’ve had at the theatre for a very, very long time. Imagine sequins, colour, light shows, ridiculous overacting, satire and simply fantastic, infectiously energetic Bollywood dancing and musical rhythms, and you’ll only have captured half of the riotous evening that was had by all present. There was, truly, dancing in the aisles, and although my friend and I (just) stayed in our (highly-discounted, £10, yes!) seats, I absolutely loved it.


Colourful and chaotic: India

For reasons unknown, since I’ve never been to India and, as far as I’m aware, have no personal connections with the country, its culture, colours, languages, architecture and traditions fascinate me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with the fabulous array of fabrics, jewellery, pottery, flavours, spirituality, landscape, architecture and near-overwhelming bustle of humanity that emanate from all photographs and accounts of the region like the pulse from a raging, dancing heart. The more I find out about it, the more images, travel guides, travelogues, memoirs and magazine editorials that I see and read about the place, even the heart-wrenching accounts of the devastatingly unassailable levels of poverty, sexism, racism and innumerable other corruptions and injustices that sweep the subcontinent, only serve to make my yearning to travel and explore the faintly terrifying but completely irresistible maelstrom of the world’s largest democracy ‒ home to over 1 billion people, more complex, more confusing, more contradictory and more intoxicatingly fabulous than I can even fathom ‒ stronger.

Like I say, I haven’t been. And while visiting the place, even if only for two short weeks, volunteering or teaching, is near-top of my to-do list, and has been for years, lack of money and time, and the small matter of a full-time job that pays the rent have made it harder than it might otherwise appear for me to execute a quick pop over to the country I have such an urge to discover. In my more maudlin and self-indulgent moments, I often feel like the only person of my age and background left in London who hasn’t been. It’s hardly an original choice, but in recent months I’ve found myself becoming more and more interested in devouring all that I can about the place, in the hope that when I manage to go over there, I will already know the basics, and can plunge headfirst into whatever I’m doing, wherever I am, and truly appreciate the magnitude of the region. I love it – everything about it screams beauty, colour, passion, humanity, spirituality and excitement.

Last night’s show was no exception. The rule, it seems, is: there is no such thing as too colourful, too loud, too cheesy, too silly, too sad, too atmospheric, too much. Less, when it comes to India, is definitely not more. Dancing around with umbrellas? Yes, but only if they’ve had a truckload of silver sequins thrown at them. Wearing bangles? Add another one, plus a nose ring and possibly another set of bells on your ankles. Dancing in a temple? Of course, but only with real fire lanterns and a spinning LSD-trip inspired light show in the background. Everyone loved it – I was enraptured, and reminded of why I hold India in such high esteem in the first place.

It must be said, however, that the story was absurd, and not all the songs hit quite the right notes. Loosely concocted around a family called ‘Merchant’ who guard an ancient temple, it follows a daughter who runs away to modern, mad Bollywood and returns, disillusioned, to her dying grandfather, and, with renewed enthusiasm, understands how to marry the seemingly incompatible virtues of classical dance with the demands and flair of new Bollywood, ending with the frankly teeth-grinding song ‘It’s The Time For Disco’, supposedly uniting old and new music, but really showing the (admittedly still-appreciative audience) why the grandfather took such umbrage at the idea in the first place. Give me traditional Bollywood clothing and beats over 70s disco lurex and electronic drums any day.

Bollywood films often follow a formulaic pattern (Jab We Met

Bollywood films often follow a formulaic pattern (Jab We Met, starring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor)

Such ridiculousness aside, the evening was a veritable rickshaw ride through the bustling history of Bollywood. With a narrator popping up every now and again to explain the background of the genre, from black and white silent movies, which helped unite a multilingual, multi-cultured country as one, to today’s riot of colour and movement, and a hilariously satirical exposé of the usual Bollywood ‘formula’, which sees boy meet girl amid family disapproval, followed by one running away, or being torn, from the other, whereupon something seismic happens and all parties return to approval from hitherto disgusted relatives, to marry and be happy forever in a whirl of singing, dancing and over-sequinned fabric.

In short, camp, touching, emotional, fantastic fun, with a sprinkling of life-lessons about the importance of culture, family and romance on top. And so it was with the Merchants of Bollywood. A set featuring fire-lanterns, incredible light displays and a never-ending, tantalising array of garish costume after sequinned outfit after traditional dress after shiny costume provided the backdrop to some truly astounding, acrobatic, enthusiastic and very-competently choreographed dance sequences, extremely funny and tongue-in-cheek comic scenes, and a peppering of religious devotion to contextualise everything, to boot. Merchants of Bollywood grabbed the audience, flung it around, and demanded that it embrace the dancefloor as much as the show itself embraces the bosom of Mother India and her many conflicting, modern and ancient cultural traditions. It left me desperate to experience the country anew, and revived my interest, which had hitherto been lagging slightly amid the continued apparent elusiveness of my travel to the sub-continent, and despite periodic forays into autobiographical stories about the country, from an English teacher’s trip to teach slum orphans, to an Australian wife’s reluctant sejour and travel around all things spiritual, to the much-maligned but nonetheless still-attractive  book (and now film) of self-discovery of one American journalist.

India - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture

India - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture

In a bid to surround myself with all things Indian, and provide a much-needed tempering of my unabashed longing to simply up and leave, I went to Waterstone’s in Trafalgar Square, and, having mooched my way around the entire shop (as usual) looking like a dog without a bone, selected and bought ‘India – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture’. Despite knowing that a book will only ever provide a potted, truncated half -story at best, I am happily working my way through it, feeling closer to the country as a result. I’m also, as yet in vain, trying to find the time to give proper and full attention to the Bollywood movie Veer-Zaara, lent to me by a Punjabi-in-origin colleague. The little amount of it I’ve seen so far looks excitingly epic and promising, with a sprinkling of fascinating historical culture about the aftermath of the 1947 Partition, which I  studied in great depth at University, and has only helped cement my wish to travel to, as the characters (and many Indians today, apparently) call it, ‘Hindustan’. I’ll get there – I don’t know when, or exactly doing what, but I will. For its part, the Merchants of Bollywood certainly added fuel to the flame of my desire to go, and see it all, in its contradictory, terrifying, overwhelming, fabulous, sequinned, colourful, spiritual and seething glory, for myself.

Merchants of Bollywood is playing for the fifth-year running at the Sadlers Wells Peacock Theatre, Holborn, until July 3rd 2011

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