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Bombay makes dream debut on Broadway

New York, April 2: In case residents of the Bengal capital are unaware of this major piece of breaking news, Miss Calcutta has won the Miss India beauty pageant.

The judges were going to be bribed in order to ensure she emerged the winner, but in the end the brown envelopes stuffed with cash did not have to be distributed. Miss Calcutta won, we are told, on her own merits.

This happy development occurs in the rewritten version of Bombay Dreams, which has opened for previews in New York’s Broadway.

Ayesha Dharker’s claim that the Broadway version of Bombay Dreams is “a million times better than the show in London” does not appear to be far from the truth, metaphorically speaking.

Dharker, who comes from Mumbai, is the only one from the London cast to have been taken on in New York, and justifies her inclusion by another even more dazzling performance. As she is lowered on stage from a crescent moon, she has star written all over her voluptuous curves.

“Hollywood is sniffing round her,” revealed a source.

Compared with the production in London, the show in Broadway is altogether slicker, faster-moving and boasts the best production values, glamourous costumes and sets that dollars can buy. “It is much, much better than the London show,” volunteered an Asian youth from London who had seen Bombay Dreams at both the Apollo Theatre in Victoria and now at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

If last night’s audience reaction is any guide, this musical is likely to prove a huge hit. Bombay Dreams seems big enough for the Big Apple.

And on the back of Bombay Dreams, the whole “Indian Shining” philosophy can be aggressively promoted in America.

Already, the American media is using Bombay Dreams as a peg to look at the rise and rise of Indians in America. Of course, New York’s all important theatre critics will not deliver their judgment for another fortnight, giving the producers time to iron out any last problems. “Broadway hasn’t had anything like this,” co-writer, Thomas Meehan, told The Telegraph at the conclusion of last night’s very successful performance. Meehan was given the task of taking Meera Syal’s script for the London show and making it more accessible for an American audience.

Compared with London, where 90 per cent of the audience was Indian when Bombay Dreams opened in June 2002, barely 30 per cent of the crowd was of Indian origin at the Broadway Theatre last night. The budget for the show is said to be $14 million but after only three performances, the advance takings reportedly stand at $4 million.

Last night’s performance — there was not a single seat left unsold at the 1,800-capacity theatre — was attended by the show’s producer from London, (Lord) Andrew Lloyd Webber, plus the Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black, as well as the writers Syal and Meehan. Meehan remarked that he had seen the show in London. “I found parts confusing,” he admitted.

This could be because American audiences are largely unfamiliar with any culture other than their own. This is why aspects of Indian culture or way of life, which the British would not require to be explained, need to be spelt out for Americans.

That aside, the story of Bombay Dreams — poor kid born on the wrong side of the tracks but aspires to be a movie star — is one with which Americans, given the history of Hollywood, will identify much more easily.

Also, given the stronger position of the gay movement in the US, the role of “Sweetie”, the kind-hearted hijra from the slums, is bound to evoke instinctive sympathy in America. The expression, “hijra”, is introduced in a song with the preamble, “women who used to be men”.

What helps Bombay Dreams to work in Broadway is a string of clever one-liners in the new script. The musical is still the romantic story of poor boy-rich girl, Akaash and Priya, but for New York, the boy from the slums has an added disadvantage — he is an “untouchable”.

But screen goddess Rani (Ayesha Dharker), with whom he makes his debut blockbuster, Diamond in the Rough, finds him eminently touchable. He loses his heart, though, to the film director’s daughter, Priya (Anisha Nagarajan). Like the rest of the cast, she is an Indian American.

There is an energy and vitality about Bombay Dreams which is certain to revitalise Broadway. Manu Narayan, (Akaash), is blessed with a beautiful singing voice and a style which recalls the young John Travolta. He is probably the find of the musical.

The references at many points are as much Hollywood as Bollywood. At one point, Akaash tears off his fancy clothes, remembers his roots and returns to help residents of his old slums.

Here, the iconic images recalled are the angry young men from Hollywood, for example, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. To be sure, Bollywood is parodied, but invariably with affection. The audience laughs at the disclosure: “Every picture shot in Bollywood has a wet sari scene.” There is one.

Another laugh follows a comment on the slowness of the Indian legal system: “Indian courts are like Indian men — they take for ever.” Again and again, what comes across is just how close are the worlds of Bollywood and Hollywood, and how the Indian film awards are just “Oscars with chutney”.

London was colourful enough, but here in Broadway, where money was no object, American audiences will find the sets and Indian costumes, complete with intricate gold embroidery on rich, red fabric, lavish beyond dreams. The music is by A.R. Rahman, and choreography by Farah Khan and Anthony Van Laast.

Despite the exotic setting, Bombay Dreams, with a few changes here and there, could easily be called LA Dreams. “Some stories, such as that of Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and rich girl-poor boy have eternal appeal,” commented Meehan.

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