With its decorative gauze featuring posters of masala favourites of yesteryear, and a cast and creative team explicitly billed as “direct from Bollywood”, it’s clear that the musical extravaganza The Merchants of Bollywood is squarely targeting a segment of the theatre audience familiar with the output of the Bombay film industry. Choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant (best known in the UK for her work on the international hits Devdas and Lagaan) and scored by the multi-award-winning Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, the credentials of the production team cannot be faulted.
The story is standard melodramatic fare: Shantilal (Joy Fernandes), a choreographer who worked in the progressive cinema of the 1950s and 1960s but became disillusioned with the industry’s descent into formula and sleaze, now works as a classical dance guru in a small Rajasthani village. His granddaughter Ayesha (Carol Furtado) longs for the bright lights and MTV-stylings of Bollywood today. So begins a clash of generations, tradition against modernity, classical training against Michael and Britney.
Little in the movement material reflects this schism, however, as the undeniably eye-popping ensemble routines are all near-identical mashups of bhangra and slick commercial dance. The cast of 23 bounce, whirl, shimmy and gyrate their way through a dozen staged numbers, each more sequin-drenched than the last. Furtado, a supple and elegant dancer, is criminally underused in the first half, banished to the side of the stage in favour of the high-energy ensemble routines that her character is nominally directing. Better is the second half, where Ayesha’s story (if not the tireless dancers) has room to breathe. This being Bollywood, expect love to blossom and familial wounds to be mended before the final curtain.
Narrative formula is par for the course in the cinema that The Merchants of Bollywood celebrates, and so it’s unsurprising that the production treads a fairly well-worn path of obstacle, conflict and reconciliation. The script makes Ayesha’s resistance to formula a central plot point, however, and so it’s disappointing to see a lack of sensitivity in this area in the choreography. There are multiple places in the story where the script waxes lyrical about the many flavours of Bollywood dance, but the dance numbers fail to pay tribute to the range of styles discussed by the players. This is particularly disappointing from Merchant, whose work for film is richer and more imaginative than most.
There will always be a place for feel-good spectacle on the West End stage, and the young cast of The Merchants of Bollywood work hard to win their audience over with their limitless energy and verve. The production has been touring since 2006, and will probably welcome near-full houses again on this run. I’m left with an overwhelming sense of an opportunity missed, however – as much as Merchants seems to be have been created with Bollywood fans in mind, the show doesn’t seem to have as much love for the art-form as it expects of its audience.
The Merchants of Bollywood is at the Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, Holborn, WC2A 2HT, until 15 February. Tickets www.sadlerswells.com