"Bombay Dreams" is not a unique fusion of Indian and western genresby Herb Greer / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
The appearance of a Bollywood musical is a surprise only because it has been so long in coming. Bombay Dreams masquerades as exotically multicultural, but is really the latest work in a tradition of purely western musical theatre. The idea for the show came from Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was taken with some Bollywood music by AR Rahman and thought it might make an interesting ingredient for a show. He and Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur worked out a one-page scenario, developed into a book by the comedienne and writer, Meera Syal. A score was commissioned from Rahman. Given these ingredients, it is tempting to regard Bombay Dreams as a quasi-alien piece of work, something unprecedented. But, in terms of genre, Bollywood is itself a confection of heavily westernised artists, playing very successfully through a western-sourced medium to the kitschy taste of a non-western mass audience, and employing certain Asian conventions (dance, cardboard heroes and villains) which have exact parallels in western countries. No one who has ever seen the German musical films of the 1930s can help but be struck by their uncanny similarities in mood and structure to Bollywood movies, despite superficial differences in local cultural decor. With Bombay Dreams, it is these shallow aspects that have been imported to decorate a plot that comes straight out of European tradition: a young poor boy wants to be a Bollywood star, and meets the beautiful daughter of a hard-nosed Bollywood producer. Result, love; but will his innocence survive the corrupting environment of Bollywood, if he becomes a star? This entertaining fluff-as familiar in structure to the western punter as it is to the post-imperial audience in the subcontinent-is hung with a d?cor borrowed from Bollywood; and, curiously, that aspect is the most western ingredient of the whole proceeding. Spectacles that exploit the costumery and dances of eastern cultures have been standard fare in our theatre for hundreds of years. In the 18th century, the fashion focused on the Ottoman Turks who had so nearly overwhelmed Europe. Probably for reasons that had to do with imperial politics, western theatre borrowed primarily from the Islamic and far eastern cultures. India, by contrast, was usually perceived as a congeries of inferior subject peoples, with a quaint culture that-bar a poet or two and a few gurus-was strictly for the specialists Most people here have heard of The Mikado, and Madama Butterfly. These examples of mandarin musical theatre-opera-still engage and amuse audiences after more than a century. The lighter tradition has cut its own slice of this peculiar pseudo-multicultural cake and The Desert Song has not been forgotten. America enthusiastically embraced this mongrel genre, with shows like the play and film, Teahouse of the August Moon, and the musicals, Kismet and Flower Drum Song. Is Bombay Dreams different? In a way. In the earlier shows the writers and composers drew from a selection of somewhat stereotyped cultural conventions that reflected social custom and law; it rarely included entertainment specific to Islam or the orient. Lloyd-Webber and his colleagues, on the contrary, borrow from a subcontinental convention of entertainment, but one that is western at its roots. The composer is Asian, to be sure. But the powerful western influence in the songs is startling. The show’s self-styled hit expresses this perfectly in the title: “Shakalaka Baby.” The lyrics-by the non-Asian Don Black, sound like those hybrids one used to hear in MGM musical films of the 1940s and 1950s, including the obligatory nudge-wink reference to sex (come and shakalaka with me…). The familiar flavour is most obvious in the title number, Bombay Dreams, a good tune which fits the story, but sounds like a western composer writing oriental pastiche: Hunger, burning heat, Nothing is as crowded as a Bombay Street, Contradiction, city of extremes, Anything is possible in Bombay Dreams- Is that bad? Why should it be? The object is not cultural authenticity; it is meant to provide a musical show that will entertain the paying customers in a large London or New York theatre. The taste played to here is simply that of the western masses who associate the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber with novel, pleasant musical theatre. On this level Bombay Dreams appears as a shrewdly-crafted and well-marketed product; if the show proves to be a hit, then Sir Andrew and his collaborators deserve the credit. God knows a talent to amuse is something rare, something to cherish, if not treasure.