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Brontë goes Bollywood, British-style

Wuthering Heights, I have long believed, would make a wonderful Bollywood musical. But London cannot wait for the Subhash Ghais of this world.

“Our next production will be Wuthering Heights,” I am told by Sudha Bhuchar, artistic co-director of the Tamasha Theatre Company.

She adds: “It will be a Bollywood musical.”

By that she means it will be a song and dance affair but in English for a British audience. Perhaps the spirit of Emily Brontë should not be too perturbed at this Indianisation of her 1847 novel, but Tamasha is transposing her classic to somewhere not a million miles from the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur.

Instead of Heathcliff searching the windswept moors of Yorkshire for his Cathy, “the scorched desert landscape of Rajasthan is the setting for this musical interpretation of Emily Brontë’s classic tale of passion, jealousy and revenge. Shakuntala, headstrong daughter of spice merchant Singh, falls for Krishan, a street urchin that Singh brings home after one of his trips to the market.”

The big question is: “Can their adolescent love withstand India’s rigid social hierarchies?”

Tamasha is at its best when doing popular stuff but 10 years have passed since it did the hugely enjoyable Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral, based on the Bollywood blockbuster, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Andrew Lloyd Webber came to see the musical, left at the interval and then did his own thing — Bombay Dreams — with music by A.R. Rahman.

Tamasha has been good at nurturing young talent. So this is a time of hope for Rajneet Sidhu, a 27-year-old actress who is bidding to play Shakuntala in Wuthering Heights and who is part of the new generation of British-born Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have all been bitten by the acting bug.

She has just played the central role of Tazeen, a runaway Pakistani teenager in Sweet Cider, Tamasha’s current offering which presents an exceedingly bleak picture of young Muslims in a northern English town.

“I have read Wuthering Heights a long time ago,” Rajneet tells me, after the last night of Sweet Cider in London last week.

The Brits don’t go in for lip synch — the lucky ones picked for Wuthering Heights will have to act, sing and dance.

“We are starting to cast,” reveals Sudha.

Calcutta calling

If Rajneet Sidhu wants to improve her chances, she should reread Wuthering Heights. She should also seek out a DVD of William Wyler’s 1939 film version, starring Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff.

Merle Oberon’s achingly haunting looks in the movie perhaps owe something to Johnson’s Baby Powder as well as her origins which, in her time, she had to do so much to hide — she was born in Bombay on February 19, 1911, of an Anglo-Indian mother, Constance Selby, and an unknown white father.

According to biographical material on Merle, “Constance’s mother, Charlotte Selby, took the child immediately and raised Merle as her own, never revealing her true parentage to anyone”.

“Estelle Merle ’Brien Thompson” and Charlotte “led an impoverished existence in shabby Bombay apartments. Then, in 1917, they moved to better circumstances in Calcutta where Merle received a foundation scholarship to attend La Martiniere for Girls. But she was constantly taunted for her unconventional parentage and eventually quit school. She first performed with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society.”

She arrived in England in 1928, worked as a club hostess under the name “Queenie ’Brien” and did minor film roles. The breakthrough came when the director Alexander Korda, whom she later married, cast her under the name Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) opposite Charles Laughton. Six years later, she did her most memorable role, Cathy, in Wuthering Heights.

All her life, Merle lied about her origins. She claimed she was brought up in Tasmania and made the darker complexioned Constance pretend to be her “maid”.

Merle, too, had many operations done to improve her face which was scarred in a near fatal car crash. She had many affairs, including one with David Niven, was married four times and died, a Hollywood legend, in California, aged 68, in 1979. Her long journey west of Calcutta should now properly be the subject of an Indian film.

White knight

Aravind Adiga will be the first author to visit Georgetown University in September next year under a new partnership just established with the Booker Prize Foundation in London.

Professor Father Alvaro Ribeiro SJ, who has taught a course on Man Booker Prize fiction at Georgetown since 1995, says: “The arrangement harmonises perfectly with the university’s global outreach.”

His invitation struck a chord with the author of The White Tiger.

“I was invited by a Catholic teacher, a Jesuit priest, from Georgetown, to speak to his class on the book and the issues it raises — and I agreed,” confirms Adiga.

As someone who remembers the Jesuit fathers at St Xavier’s in Patna — and especially Fr Cleary who taught me English — with undying affection, I understand Adiga completely.

“I studied at a Jesuit school, St Aloysius College, Mangalore,” explains Adiga. “Though I’m a Hindu, I feel that the Catholics are also my own community — in fact, I donated a part of the Booker money (reported to be Rs15 lakh) to my old Catholic school. I also plan on giving them the Booker award, so they can keep it in the school.”

He points out: “It’s been a very rough year for Catholics in India. I felt the need to show my support at a time like this.”

Coming home

More Indians are starting to have second homes in India but few are as elegant and so full of light and space as the one designed by the artist Natvar Bhavsar and his wife, Janet, in Gujarat. Such Indians spend the winter months in India and summer in the UK or the US with their grown-up children. This is increasingly going to be the lifestyle of many “bi-country” Indians who migrated west 30 or 40 years ago.

New York will always be their permanent home but I see Natvar and Janet spending more time in India.

Natvar hasn’t had an exhibition in India yet because his stretched canvases are too big to bring from New York but this problem may be resolved when he adds an expansive studio to his Indian home.

Tittle tattle

Tanika Gupta, I have suggested in my usual desire to be helpful, should wear a white cotton sari with a red border and carry a big bunch of keys round her waist, when she goes to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday to meet the Queen and collect her MBE “for services to drama”.

“My halal butcher also thinks I should wear a sari,” says the 44-year-old playwright, who will be accompanied by her mother, Gairika, her 42-year-old brother, Teertha, a barrister, and daughter, Malini, 8.

Tanika says that her paternal great uncle, Dinesh Chandra Gupta, a freedom fighter hanged, aged 19, at Alipore Central Jail on July 7, 1931, “will be in my mind”.

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