Touring – reviewed at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Guest reviewer: Amarjeet Singh
I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was to watch this production. A child of the 1970s, I grew up with song in my soul and a ‘dishoom’ instead of a heartbeat. My mother had just settled down in the cinema, when she felt contractions, but there was no way she was going to miss ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ for a baby, I simply had to wait until the credits to make my arrival.
Bollywood meant everything to ardent viewers. One of the reasons why Bollywood films were everything, a heady combination of thriller, murder mystery, comedy, romance, tearjerker, musical, you name it, and why they went on for so long, was because people didn’t have lots of money or free time, so going to see a film was a treat and the people wanted to be treated.
Reading the previews got me geared up, for what read for an absolute treat. A female starlet, Laila, romanced by her dashing co-star, they make movies, sweet music and mayhem, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. The plot of Bombay Superstar transpires to be a bit of an unofficial biopic of the Bollywood actress Rekha. Rekha’s story has been subtly changed and some life events have been swapped with her then leading man, Amitabh Bachchan, for what I can only imagine to be creative/entertainment purposes.
In Bombay Superstar, Laila’s story spans her childhood, entering the film industry, her life struggles, being drawn into a less than savoury relationship and what transpires after that (no spoilers here).
Written and directed by artistic director Sâmir Bhamra, it’s the 50th production from award-winning British Asian theatre company Phizzical, the musical is co-produced with Belgrade Theatre and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.
Bollywood Superstar is told in a very fast paced fashion, as it’s trying to cram so much into two hours. Each scene lasts a matter of moments which is jarring and doesn’t lend itself to endearing one with the characters or fleshes them out. The female protagonists journey from orphan, to abandoned girl, to abused/harassed/racially/sexually objectified young woman, to actress, to Bollywood starlet, to the next step and then on and then on, happens at the rate of knots. Blink and she has become something else, or the next thing is happening.
In terms of the rest of the cast, you don’t quite understand what they are doing or why, and so you don’t care. I could barely keep up with it all, but could, because I had previous knowledge of the actress’ life story and upbringing and her subsequent journey in Bollywood and beyond, but other audience members didn’t get it, and some left during the interval because, I could only imagine, they were lost. Others let it wash over them and said they were ok with just enjoying the sporadic songs.
The theme about woman power felt uncomfortable as did the mention of the #metoo. It appeared Bombay Superstar was championing strong, powerful, independent women, however, when you look at the female leads, they all engaged in some underhanded behaviour, competed against each other and ultimately proclaimed to ‘win’, but, when you think about what actually happened, did they really ‘win’? To what end? Did the male antagonists get their just desserts or at least learn anything? Embroiled in an era steeped in misogyny, these themes are hugely important and deserved exploring but Bombay Superstar did not do this justice.
Due to the incoherent storytelling, the audience were unable to fully engage during moments of poignancy, so they laughed. It sadly became quite farcical and pantomime like which is where Bollywood usually becomes the butt of most jokes, and that saddened me greatly, as there have been some timeless classics which have emerged from this genre of storytelling.
The staging of Bollywood Superstar was oddly static. Characters would walk on stage, deliver their lines as if doing a line read through and then walk off, perhaps carrying a piece of furniture if the lights went dark, ready for another quick scene change. If there were more then two characters on stage at a time they would just be standing there, waiting. The fight scenes were akin to a school production, no sound effects and they added very little to the drama or the storyline.
The set itself was simply a flat, white temple like structure that didn’t give any indication to any era, the edges of it lit up on occasion but it never changed. As previously mentioned, bits of furniture were brought/wheeled on to indicate a change of scene, but that was all. There was a distinct lack of creativity or imagination when it came to staging, set design and scene setting. Above the temple there was a screen, upon which the words the actors were speaking were projected. It helpfully translated the words of the songs which were sung in Hindi, but it didn’t translate the Hindi words spoken by the actors, words such as Junglee Bilee and Deewana, which seemed odd.
Costume/hair and make-up were not indicative of the 70’s/80’s. They were a mish/mash of modern and I’m not sure what. At one point, the backing dancers were dressed like shirtless hipsters and had questionable fishnets/shorts combo on. Granted, there were some strange things going on in the disco era, but if I had not been told this story was set in the 70’s/80’s I would not have been able to guess.
The song and dance numbers were entertaining but due to the costume, hair, make-up and set not supporting the numbers, they occasionally felt out of place and didn’t always lend to the story telling. The synchronicity was off, which was a real shame as this is part of the wow factor when it comes to watching the Bollywood choreography. In all honesty, not all performers could sing and dance to a polished level. Some could sing but not dance and vice versa. It would have been better to have played to those strengths instead of, again, trying to do it all.
However, Bombay Superstar did have the most amazing musicians. The live music was incredible and Chirag Rao who played DD and did a lot of the male backing singing was a singing stand out for me. To have had these musicians on stage would have really helped the production seem less vacant.
Overall, I think if Bombay Superstar focused on being one thing, either the semi tragic biopic, an attempt to show the behind-the-scenes Bollywood – where ‘reel life becomes real life’ or had been a magical, musical romcom romp then it could have been something amazing. But as it is, it’s messy, confusing and amateurish, I’m afraid, in its current state, it’s more Bombay Mediocre than Bombay Superstar for me
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