On a sweltering evening, we pack into the Peacock theatre. Fans patter like falling autumn leaves in the audience, as Beyond Bollywood returns to the West End after a triumphant run at the London Palladium in 2015! The sparkle, energy, and exuberance are intoxicating, even if some of the wires of the machine have blown.
The concept is a good one. Rajeev Goswami understands bringing Bollywood to the West. Pushing boundaries into 3D animation, and championing the genre in non-Bollywood films, he’s been at this for 25 years. The issue, as happens with a lot of productions is the creative pool is too small, and we all know what happens to a small pool in the summertime. Goswami is; writer, director, and choreographer. In this case, he is effective in one out of the three roles.
Firstly, the choreography is stunning. The large cast, decked out by Prajakta Gore in a range of India’s finest local garments dazzle. Such energy, such passion, such fluidity of ability, mastering a range of the sub-continent’s most distinctive and diverse dances. We have the flying skirts snake charming of Kalbelia from Rajasthan, the clashing clangs of Maharashtra’s Lezim, the swift small steps of Bihu from the state of Assam, the goddess worship of Gujarat’s Garba, and the wheeling skirts of Kathak from Uttar Pradesh. Each dance is explained to the audience and set within its geographical and cultural place. India has over 22 languages and 9 religions split between 1.38 billion people. To even attempt to cover that cultural expression in dance is quite the undertaking.
But the question is how to pull these vastly different and distant styles together into a cohesive story. These are the directing and writer caps Goswami is asked to wear, and unfortunately, they don’t stay very firmly in place.
We are introduced to Shaily, played by Alessandra Whelan. She is the daughter of a famous Indian dancer in Germany trying to protect her mother’s legacy. Her hip-hop Indian fusion isn’t working, and she takes a trip to her homeland to understand her roots and break her dancer’s block. So far so good. Sadly, the lack of any work on accent, or much consensus on the style of acting overall means she becomes a two-dimensional character for our lead male to fall predictably in love with. Sahill Mayenkar plays Raghav, a cheeky Chappy choreographer with an eye for the ladies but a heart of gold. While Whelan tries for a semblance of realism, Mayenkar and his hilarious sidekick Ballu (played by Sudeep Modak) are in full Bollywood style, larger-than-life mode, making the story flounder in inconstancy. The writing is rigid, and lacking in the musicality and originality that the dance so clearly shows.
Irfan Siddiqui as the lyricist and Salim and Sulaiman Merchant as composers craft a punchy soundtrack that encompasses the wide variety of Indian music and dance and keeps the performers flying along. Sadly, it is when the drums go silent, and the ankle bells stop that the piece runs into difficulty. All the flashy costumes, precise hand movements, and catchy soundtrack can’t distract from the soupy dialog and obvious storyline. With only large screens to set the scene, the lazy video work mirrors the slow storyline and snatches any hope of meaningful character interactions. Even a dip into the lusty waters of Magic Mike (with a topless dance from the boys) doesn’t save Beyond Bollywood from a nosedive into bog-like-romance. Although with dancers this skilled, will you put up with some less than dazzling acting? A question for the ages. One not wholly answered in my mind.