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Voice of Bride? & Black in West End

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 27.01.05
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London, Jan. 27: Heard the story about the bridegroom who goes to marry one woman but changes his mind after spotting her younger, prettier sister?

This story, as related by Michael Ward, the producer of The Far Pavilions, a new ?4-million musical due to premiere in the 1,300-seat Shaftesbury Theatre in London?s West End on April 14, has parallels.

Talking about the casting of the Mumbai playback singer Gayatri Iyer, 24, in the lead role of Princess Anjuli, Ward said: ?Gayatri accompanied a friend to an audition we had in Mumbai last August when she was persuaded to sing.? She was flown to London in March, put through the ropes again and effectively told, ?Forget your friend. We want you?.

The moral of this tale, if any, is never take a friend to an audition. Yesterday, on a very cold evening, Gayatri flew to Heathrow to begin a new life as the star of The Far Pavilions, which is based on the 1978 novel about love between a dashing British army officer and an Indian princess by M.M. Kaye.

Before plunging into intensive rehearsals today with the other cast members, Gayatri talked to The Telegraph about how one moment she was busy with her life as a Bollywood playback singer and the next practically plucked out of nowhere to be an international star. She was the first to admit her acting experience was limited. ?I have been in one play, Alyque Padamsee?s Final Solutions, and that was when I was 16,? she recalled.

One of the few articles on Gayatri, an MBA from IIM Lucknow, describes her as ?one of those lucky ones blessed with brains, talent, and beauty?. Her credits include being playback singer to Aishwarya Rai in both the English and Hindi versions of Gurinder Chadha?s Bride and Prejudice. ?I sang most of the songs,? said Gayatri.

Gurinder?s husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, said: ?I don?t know about her acting ability but her voice is great.?

The Far Pavilions spans the 25 years between the Indian uprising of 1857 and the Second Afghan War, telling the story of forbidden love between a British officer, Ashton Khan Pelham-Martyn, and an Indian woman, Princess Anjuli. The point about Ashton is that he is the opposite of a ?coconut? (brown on the outside, white inside). Born in India, he is brought up by his ayah, Sita, whom he believes to be his mother. But just before she dies, she tells him he is really English.

A psychologically traumatised Ashton is packed off to England, attends what sounds like Eton and returns to India a pukka British army officer. But deep down his heart is Hindustani, and love blooms in the desert when he comes across Princess Anjuli whom he had once known as a little boy when both thought he was ?Ashok?.

It took Kaye, who was born in India and died last year in England, aged 95, all of 958 pages to tell her truly epic story. Surprisingly for a prim and proper lady, she allows Ash and his ?Julie? repeatedly to make passionate love in a cave when they are caught out in a ferocious dust storm.

?I am half way through the novel,? confided Gayatri, who said she could bring true Indian authenticity to the role, which had been thrust on her. Her other life will be put on hold for, at least, nine months. She said she was a Tamil brought up in Mumbai. Her husband, Kunal Ganjawala, also a singer (his credits include Murder), would visit her in London from time to time. ?For Bollywood, I have been the playback singer in films like Elaan and Black,? she said. As for her new role, ?I am really, really, excited about doing this?.

Ward is aware that by choosing a girl from India and ignoring all the available talent in Britain, he will have upset a lot of British Asian actors. ?Some of them will be upset,? acknowledged Ward, an Irishman born in India who says he, too, identifies with the hero of The Far Pavilions. ?Cameron Mackintosh, who produced Miss Saigon, scoured the world for the right girl.?

He revealed that what Kaye did not want was a western actress ?blacked up?, as was the case with the TV series of The Far Pavilions in 1984, which cast an American as Anjuli. This time other cast members include Kabir Bedi as Koda Dad Khan and Sophia Haque as Janoo Rani. The English lead has gone to Hadley Fraser, a young British actor.