The affectionate nomenclature “Bollywood” denotes films traditionally produced in Bombay (aka: Mumbai) and which employ some of the distinctive forties and fifties Hollywood narratives. As the program notes for Bring on the Bollywood explain:

“A journalist in the 1970s first coined the nickname for the Hindi film industry by replacing the H from Hollywood with the B from Bombay… which is the capital of the industry.”

The plot in a Bollywood film is filled with romance of one kind or another. Boy meets girl; they immediately fall in love but are then faced with bumpy obstacles so that they seem to fall in and out of love a few times until, finally, working through all these obstacles, they reach a happy ending which is celebrated with a HUGE party.

Traditionally, these romantic romps veer towards comedy and include the following: elaborate preparations for an imminent marriage – often of multiple couples; a matchmaking mother who is trying to arrange or rearrange one of the marriages; courtship in a variety of often unlikely settings, one of which is in a mountain landscape – Switzerland, Shimla or some other of the Himalayan foothills; a long rota of extended family members making humorous appearances, many of whom have their own melodramas going on; and, finally, a wedding where all the complicated entanglements are resolved and happiness is expressed with singing and dancing by bride(s) groom(s), family members and guests. The play, Bring on the Bollywood, performed at The Oxford Playhouse between Tuesday 15th and Saturday 20th, included all of these ingredients.

Singing and dancing form the basis of Bollywood films as the lyrics of the songs express much of what is going on, what is experienced and what other Indian films might be echoed and shared through the music. Bring on the Bollywood’s cast sang and danced their hearts out! In the over two hour performance there were fifteen musical numbers, some repeated at different points of the action. A good number of the songs were taken from Indian films and sung in Hindi.

I have been asked to review the dancing, which was choreographed by Dr. Leena Patel, Sonia Sabri and Subhash Viman, the latter overseeing most of the dances.

India has a long history of classical dance and is universally admired for its incredibly nuanced and demanding Bharathanatyam and for its energetic, stamping Kathak disciplines. These demand long years of training and stamina, sensitivity and strength. In the older Bollywood films, dancers trained in traditional schools often choreographed and performed the dance numbers.   However, with crossover and fusion influences from the West and other places due East, some Bollywood dancing now looks more like jazz dance, aerobic routines, and/or hip hop. This mixing is a diminishment of the traditional dance.

In the performance at The Playhouse, I found that if I were to disregard the glitter and colour of the costumes, the dancers might as well have been westerners moving to modern Indian film music with western routines. Where were the sinuous slow arm movements that built up to stronger waves? Where were swaying –rather than gyrating – hip movements? Where were the detailed eye flicks, the intricate finger weaves, the precise head moves which signify a narrative?   The absence of these distinctive Indian features was disappointing, especially because it was evident that the dancers were well trained and capable of more complex and subtler indigenous movements. In the fantasy wedding dance, some of the traditional choreography was almost convincing. There was a lyricism and understatement that allowed the audience to see and experience some of the elements present in a domestic mehendi or in the older Bombay films.

Otherwise, I had the impression that these actor/dancers’ background was more western than eastern. As such, they represented a generation copying at a long distance and too generally a film genre which is as foreign to them as it is to those of us not brought up with Bollywood films. Which is exactly how I felt watching La La Land! As a Californian brought up in the forties and fifties with the Hollywood musical, I did not think La La Land bore the slightest resemblance to the flavour, the intensity and the choreography of those great spectaculars however much Hollywood pretended that it did.

I doubt those living in India would have recognized Bollywood dance in the hip hop, jazzed up routines in this production. Nevertheless, the energetic commitment and some of the colourful costumes of the performers were impressive links to the older tradition and deserve applause. And they should be roundly commended for reminding the rest of the world that there was a film industry in Mumbai/Bombay that was every bit as glamorous and heady as any in Hollywood. If you are interested to see samples of Bollywood dance routines, try:

Susannah Harris-Wilson

19th August 2017