The writer goes on a world tour with her group for her musical comedy, and returns with loads of happy and a few not-so-happy memories
It isn't easy to travel with a group of 19 people, all from different socio-economic backgrounds and some of them wayward and eccentric. So when the ICCR decided to send my musical comedy “Mahim Junction” on an international tour, I knew I was in for a novel experience.
With the mind boggling logistics worked out, we boarded our first flight on what we began calling our ‘World Tour', which included performances in Kuala Lumpur, Muscat, Dubai, Toronto, Vancouver, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Abu Dhabi. Three continents over four weeks. Most of the men in the group had never been abroad and some had never flown either, and so, for them, it was like stepping into the Great Unknown. Little Haresh, our three-ft-tall actor, quite a celebrity in his native Agra, organised a puja and was swamped with interview requests from the local press who promised to give him a hero's welcome, as soon as he returned from ‘Bides'.
Kuala Lumpur was the first international city and they devoured it with their eyes on the way to the hotel, a four-star establishment. The non-vegetarians had a field day sampling the fabulous street (read sea) food while the veggies realised that free water and good vegetarian food was a rarity outside India. But the adulation they got during the shows cushioned the shock. Posing for pictures, signing autographs, getting monetary offers for their stage props that were viewed as exotic souvenirs, and passionate propositions (one Panamian girl wanted one of our actors to sire her love child!), were all novel experiences for my From KL we flew to Muscat, where handsome young Arabs wanted to be photographed with little Haresh. Our host organised night-long parties and chartered buses that took us around the lovely coastal city, during our free time.
From Muscat we headed to Dubai to perform at the DUCTAC festival. Dubai turned out to be expensive, and many in the group were carrying very little money. A local friend provided us with bottles of mineral water and the addresses of inexpensive Indian restaurants.
Night life was resplendent in Dubai. A local contact took us to the Mughal Durbar, a classy dance bar run by an ex- Bollywood actor. The girls performed specifically for my delighted but broke male actors, and were firmly asked to re-focus their attention on the older and richer clients.
Off to Canada
North America was experiencing an extended Fall when we reached Canada. The golden-brown trees whipped past us as the flight landed at Pearson Airport in Toronto. Unfortunately, the city had a series of disasters awaiting us before our very first show. Three actors fell seriously ill one after the other, before the opening night. One had to be hospitalised. As though that wasn't enough, the area had an electricity outage, a rarity in Toronto, and the auditorium could not provide us with the lights and sounds as per our contract. But the team spirit, which was growing from strength to strength, prevailed, and the unwell actors swallowed pain killers to give some of their best performances.
Later, we travelled to the Niagara Falls, a mini Las Vegas.
Vancouver fairly took our breath away with its autumn beauty.
The U.K. tour was magical. We stayed in the quaintest of hotels and inns, some of them resembling Victorian ‘haunted' houses, with labyrinthine passageways. The hosts at Manchester hadn't the faintest idea about staging plays and had booked a seedy community hall with poor lighting and whose fire alarm went off in the middle of the show. It was a surprise to discover such non professionalism amidst affluent expatriates. But an evening visit to a traditional British pub, with its signature dish of fish and chips and a trip to the Manchester United building, saved the day for many of us.
A jolly bus driver, whom we regaled with Bollywood numbers, drove us to Birmingham, where we performed at the lovely Drum Theatre and were looked after by efficient, no-nonsense Gujarati hosts. The shows there were a success and later we partied on the streets of the city teeming with inebriated youth in Christmas revelry.
By now, the group members were comfortable with their hectic routine. Sleep was a commodity they could ill afford, placed, as it was, between back-to-back performances and sightseeing trips. In London, we were hosted by the Nehru Centre, where the upper crust audience, used, as they were, to West End performances, enjoyed the originality of the show. It was a gratifying experience for the cast. For many in the cast, it was the realisation of a dream to perform in London. Later, they again partied on the streets, that looked stunning in their bridal gear of fairy lights, put up in preparation for Christmas.
The last stop
The last port of call was Abu Dhabi. The beauty of the city, with its perfect blend of the East and West, enraptured us. A few homesick members rejoiced that they were nearly home. The show was highly appreciated in Abu Dhabi; despite the local host being nervous about the presence of the moral police. They kept coming backstage, disorienting my actors, with their demands to cut offending dialogues and gestures and also to remove alcohol bottles from the stage, while the show was in progress. When I threatened to stop the performance, they backed off. And we were rewarded a standing ovation at the end of the show!
It was the end of a charmed tour, where we had enjoyed the best of weather and sights. We had performed successful shows before all types of audience — from the Bollywood-loving lower and middle class immigrant to the Shakespeare- and West End-oriented upper crust viewer, and it had been an exhilarating and humbling experience. A trip that changed the lives and outlook of some of us, forever!