Musical rekindles China’s Bollywood love affair

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Dancers during the opening show of “Merchants of Bollywood” in Yantai, Shandong province.
Dancers during the opening show of “Merchants of Bollywood” in Yantai, Shandong province.

Ananth Krishnan

BEIJING: For the first time in decades, hundreds of theatregoers across China are swaying again to the beats of Bollywood.

In the biggest attempt yet to bring Bollywood to the Chinese public, the ‘Merchants of Bollywood,’ a musical that chronicles the film industry’s history, has been making its way across China’s interiors to rave reviews.

Billing itself as the first “authentic” Bollywood musical, it was conceived by Australian Tony Gough and choreographed by Mumbai-based Vaibhavi Merchant. The show has already travelled across Europe and Australia, but its current foray into 10 cities in China promises to be the most engaging, given the unique history of the country’s experience with Indian cinema.

Indian films from the 1950s were among the first foreign films to be shown in Communist China after the country’s “opening up” in the late 1970s, and were wildly popular. But subsequent Chinese censorship laws restricting the number of foreign films that could enter the country has seen the interest wane to what, at present, can best be described as mild curiosity among young Chinese and fading nostalgia in their parents’ generation.

The success of this musical could change all that. ‘Merchants’ is touring 10 cities, from remote Yantai in northern Shandong province to Beijing and Shanghai, and for the first time in decades is again providing Bollywood a mainstream platform in China.

“We are in an unchartered territory as the first ever Bollywood show in China,” the show’s Australian producer Mark Brady told The Hindu before the show’s Beijing debut on Friday. “More than in other markets, we were very curious to see how the Chinese public would react to it. And we have been amazed by the response. Even in small cities like Yantai [in Shandong province] and Wuhan, we have been getting standing ovations, which we are told is not common in Chinese theatres.”

The musical presents the history of Bollywood through the story of Hiralalji Merchant, a well-known choreographer in the 1950s, and his granddaughter Vaibhavi, who choreographs this show. The show is heavy on spectacle, with grand dance sequences and over-the-top costumes.

A few alterations have been made for Chinese audiences. Since a lot of the spoken dialogues are in English, electronic screens displaying Chinese subtitles have been set up beside the stage. A few Chinese dialogues have also been thrown in for good measure and received the loudest applause of all the show’s segments in showings so far.

In the 1980s, Indian films were huge hits with their easy-to-relate themes, colour and catchy songs, which were, for a Chinese audience, a welcome change from the dreariness of Communist propaganda films.

Raj Kapoor’s Awaara left such a big impact that for many older Chinese it continues to almost entirely define their imagination of India. Indian tourists to China are often serenaded by taxi-drivers with strangely pronounced renditions of Awara Hoon. “It left a big mark, so much so that so many Chinese people today feel that every Indian can dance and sing,” said Shoeb Samad, director of India Tourism in Beijing, which is now promoting Bollywood in China to use its appeal to support tourism. Following the success of Slumdog Millionaire, there have been signs of a slowly growing revival of interest in Bollywood among young Chinese. In the last year, India Tourism has begun working with Chinese tour operators to put together ‘Bollywood tours’ to studios in Hyderabad and Mumbai.

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