Dream Merchants

BUILDING CULTURAL BRIDGES From ‘The Merchants of Bollywood'  

An Australian musical, showcasing the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, is making waves on the world stage. NEENA BHANDARI reports

As all things Indian permeate the global consciousness, ‘The Merchants of Bollywood', a musical drenched in quintessential Bollywood glitz and glitter, has caught the fancy of audiences from Sydney to London and Paris, making it a hit, with over 900 performances, watched by two million people across 20 countries in the last five years.

Bollywood history

An Australian production with an Indian cast and a British director, it traces the history of Bollywood, and tells a story that's based on the life of acclaimed choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant. It brings alive dance numbers from yesteryear to recent blockbusters with 40 Indian performers on stage.

“This show has converted stereotypes — song and dance, loud costumes, boy meets girl, happy ending — and created, undoubtedly, the biggest Indian cultural export," says Arif Zakaria, who plays the narrator, grandfather and a flamboyantly evil “but loveable” film director Tony Bakshi. “Shows such as this build cultural bridges. During our 10 weeks in Australia, I found the community friendly, cheerful and happy-go-lucky,” he adds. “This production has given me the opportunity to play different roles. However, live theatre can be daunting. The challenge is to keep the performance spontaneous, consistent and alive. I am scared before every performance.” Arif is a Mumbai-based actor.

The success of this production is credited to the initial overwhelming response from the Australian audiences in 2005 that propelled its extensive journey. Produced by Australian father and son, Tony and Mark Brady, written and directed by Toby Gough, and choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant along with her sister Shruti, the show is resplendent with colour, movement and melodrama, bringing the exuberance of Indian cinema to the world.

Model and dancer Carol Furtado plays Ayesha Merchant, the ambitious young woman who upsets her grandfather by making her career in the film industry. She says: “A year after ‘Slumdog Millionaire' won eight Oscars, interest in all things Indian is still going strong.While performing to a different audience each day, the challenge is to infuse new life every time, and break away from the monotony. Dancing is so fluid, its energy gives you the adrenalin. I do yoga before each performance to remain focussed.”

While Carol had been dancing professionally since her college days at St. Xavier's in Mumbai, she has never been trained; and has polished the art on the job. “Dancing is still not accepted as a profession in India, but my parents were supportive. In 2006, the show's director was in Mumbai looking for a leading woman. I went for the audition, and before I knew it, we were discussing dates and finances, and I had signed the contract.”

East meets West

Draped in vibrant costumes adorned with sequins, beads and Indian jewellery, the show begins in traditional style, seamlessly fusing folk and classical with modern Western and Indian dance forms, performed with gusto. “Being a dancer in a musical, the more energy and passion we put on stage, the more the audience get pepped up, creating an infectious enthusiasm,” says Rajit Easwardas, assistant choreographer. The show has audiences dancing in the aisles, tapping and swaying till the last beat submerges in the din of applause.

Despite its worldwide success, ‘The Merchants of Bollywood' has never been staged in India. As Rajit says: “My parents would love to see the show live. I think it will work in India, but the script will have to be modified.”