Guest Blog: When Theatre Married Bollywood

Guest Blog: When Theatre Married Bollywood

Theatre in India borrows heavily from folk stories and legends, which are given a contemporary twist. The messages contained in these classics are considered timeless and universal, just as Shakespear's works are regarded in the west. But there is another source from which our theatre borrows... particularly theatre in North India, and that is Bollywood. It is common practice today to include original songs and dances from popular cinema or a slightly changed version to dodge the copyright act. Adding to this melee are the Indianised versions of Shakespear's plays, some of them commissioned by The Globe Theatre, Britain, that narrate the story through a Bollywood-style song and dance routine.

I remember about 20 years ago, this marriage between theatre and Bollywood was unheard of. I must have written the first contemporary play that wove the Bollywood format into a stage production. Titled Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan ( `This Is Mumbai My Darling'!), it was literally a Bollywood film of the late 60s and early 70s that unravelled on a traditional proscenium stage, the actors emulating the stylised acting of the stars of that decade. It was hilarious and the audience had a blast recognising the stars being mimicked. In fact, I could barely stop laughing when I wrote that script in 7 days flat. Our light operator too in our Malaysian debut was laughing so hard during the performance, that I had to remind him of his cues, every time he practically fell off his chair!

My theatre colleagues rejected it outright when I read out the script to them in a meeting over coffee, at a five star restaurant, back in Delhi. I could see the twitch of their lips and read their cheap can she get...dumbing down theatre with this `filmy' stuff. You see we didn't respect our films then and the `cultured' class was on a Hollywood high.

As a lark I mailed the script to Sanjoy Roy, founder director and creative head of Teamwork Films, which is today a global arts promoting body. Sanjoy was a beginner like me, then. He casually sent the script to Arts Council executives in Britain who loved the concept and offered to invite it to the Edinburgh Festival in 2002. Now, one usually pays to participate in the festival and so this was an honour. I couldn't believe that something I wrote to amuse myself would see its debut in an international forum!

It was a great debut. Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan had a grand opening at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh. It was covered by the mainstream newspapers and even awarded the Spirit of the Festival Award, because Sanjoy's team performed despite losing their sets en route to Edinburgh!

I can never forget the festive evening, as the audience clapped and hummed the songs with the cast. One inebriated Scotsman even attempted to dance with the actors, beer in hand! The marriage was a success and Indian theatre got a novel format to play with.

Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan was subsequently invited to a tour of British cities the following year. I took over from Sanjoy and my own production house re named it as Mahim Junction (Sanjoy had the right to the former title) and performed it in theatre festivals in India, Malaysia, Canada, Britain and Oman. The popularity of Bollywood with the diaspora helped it get several invitations abroad. Of course, we still had members of the Indian elite looking at it askance, but their icons like film maker Deepa Mehta had enjoyed it and playwright Mahesh Dattani found the concept original.

Obviously it worked because Bollywood inspired stage productions today are a dime a dozen. It feels good to have been the pioneer and even to have gotten the flack for it... for often, when you are ripped apart, you know you've come up with something unique!

The play, in its second innings, ran for four years and is now up for revival again, by the end of this year.

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