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October 29, 2018

How Stalwarts In India’s Theatre Scene Are Helping The Musical Endure

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

The Indian musical is slowly becoming a genre onto itself, but there are challenges that need to be overcome before the movement can reach a crescendo

In the span of the last fortnight, having witnessed two musicals, in two countries – #SingIndiaSing in Mumbai and Anastasia in Madrid – both to packed houses, I noted how these larger-than-life productions, rapture audiences who are willing to pay the price for the grand showcases. It was heartening for a diehard theatre lover like myself to notice this at a time when different forms of engrossing e-entertainment, a host of big screen bonanzas and other leisure and recreation options tend to hold sway over our imaginations. Their draw is further reinforced when I rewind to my viewing of The Sound of Music and The Threepenny Opera in the preceding months, this year. And I reflect on the fact that even though most of these musicals – if not all – are scarcely rooted in the Indian context, they do appeal to audiences with global tastes. Music, after all, speaks across geographical boundaries.

Interestingly, though a host of Hindi movies have their fair share of song and dance, they’re not termed as musicals. This term is applied to those plays or films in which singing and dancing play an essential part – and are more than mere interludes – in the plot. Showcasing a gamut of emotions, they take the action forward.

SingIndiaSing, which made its debut as part of this year’s edition of Aadyam, Aditya Birla Group’s theatre initiative, and is spoken of as being India’s first all-original English musical, stands out due to its scale of presentation, the vibrant energy, the enthusiasm, the voices of the performers, the technological effects, set changes, and, of course, the twists and turns of the plot. It features 29 songs, with lyrics and a human-interest story penned by Rahul da Cunha and ‘Bugs’ Bhargava Krishna, and has an ensemble star cast featuring talents like Uday Benegal, Siddharth Basrur, Sarosh Nanavaty, Naquita D’souza, Abhishek Krishnan, Asif Ali Beg, Brian Tellis, Delraaz Bunshah, Tavish Bhattacharya, Suchitra Pillai and Kamakshi Rai. And the ‘Indian Broadway’ presentation reflects the ethos of foreign productions.

Rahul, whose favourite musicals are Jesus Christ Superstar and Hamilton, says, “Putting on a production of this magnitude was no joke indeed. There was much rigour in writing a 29-song opera, with minimum dialogue, one where the lyrics take the plot forward. Added to this, #SingIndiaSing has no mythological source or Broadway reference point. And finding a wizard director to conceive the spectacle was tough, but Nadir Khan (its director) married live entertainment with technical finesse seamlessly.”

Musicals appeal largely due to the grandeur of each production. Feroz Abbas Khan who directed the humungous stage offering Mughal-E-Azam and who cites Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal as his all-time favourite, emphasises, “Music is in the blood stream of every Indian. Every feeling and occasion of joy and pain is expressed through music.”  On his own production he points out, “My biggest challenge was to preserve the grace and integrity of the original classic, make it accessible to the contemporary audience and mount the production on an unprecedented scale. Most of the people thought that this might be the biggest mistake of my professional career. You cannot imagine anyone replacing Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar, Dilip Kumar as Salim and Madhubala as Anarkali. I internalised the perception struggle and decided to cast talented actors and singers from theatre. We were searching for an intimate rather than bombastic performance. Despite our initial disappointments, we found the right cast with a fine balance of talent and commitment. Priyanka Barve/Neha Sargam as Anarkali were show stealers. The fact that this was a live musical made it special. It took about 20 minutes into the play for the resistant audience to reorient and totally immerse into the new experience.”

Personally, I can never forget the first musical I had seen as a college student, when I was at a much more impressionable age – Alyque Padamsees Evita. It featured Sharon Prabhakar in the titular role and Dalip Tahil as the unforgettable Che Guevera. With the song Don’t Cry for Me Argentina still featuring in my top tracks, I interacted with Raell Padamsee whose Ace Productions this year once again presented the iconic The Sound of Music on stage. On the continuing popularity of musicals and the Padamsees’ role in presenting them, Raell says, “At ACE Productions, we believe in showcasing the best talent we have. So, from Oliver, The Sound of Music (two editions), Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar to The Sound of Music II, it’s been a great musical journey. When we went into the first production of The Sound of Music, we were most apprehensive as we were competing with the iconic film which starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. So, when we cast Delna Mody and Dalip Tahil, people came to see it and they were overwhelmed. For The Sound of Music (2018), we not only had the movie as a benchmark, but also had our own previous production to live up to. We were aiming for a completely different interpretation from the earlier one. The casting was critical and we nailed it with Arunoday Singh and Meher Mistry as the leads.”

Meher Mistry, who had earlier shone as Belle in Beauty And The Beast, and had also done a commendable job in The Threepenny Opera, admits to stepping into Maria’s shoes in The Sound of Music with a little bit of trepidation. She said, “There is always a bit of concern when you’re playing an iconic part, one that people are so familiar with, that you’ll never live up to audiences’ expectations of that character. To me, Julie Andrew’s Maria is unmatchable. But I tried not to let that concern me too much and just allowed the fun of the process to take over. We never tried to imitate the actors from the film. We were encouraged to make our own discoveries. Having watched the movie so many times as a child, and being a huge fan of Julie Andrews, consciously or subconsciously, she was definitely my guiding light along the way.”

The literary work Devdas has been translated onto celluloid by the legendary Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali and these offerings featured Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan respectively. The classic is poised to unfold on the Indian stage soon. Talking about this staged interpretation of the classic, Ashvin Gidwani, MD and producer, AGP World who are jointly responsible for bringing this production to life), says, “I’m living the true theatre dream of producing content from our country and rich heritage and presenting it to the world. On the challenges, they are on every front from technology, performances, scale, marketing, business to content. Devdas has basically been a journey of rediscovering and testing my abilities to present a world-class production.”

Its lead Gaurav Chopra insists that he has drawn no inspiration from his predecessors who gave such impactful performances on celluloid. He points out, “The first thing my director, Saif Hyder Hasan, had told me during the narrations was that this play is not inspired from any of the films but from the classic novel that was written by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay in 1917. He actually told me to not see these films as part of the preparation. When the approach is different and you’re taking an adaptation from the original classic novel, the version is different from the films. I have had to undo a lot of what I have been doing over the years. I had to undo my tone, my habits, my body language. The vulnerability of Devdas is not something that comes naturally to a man. You have to dig into your sensitive side and dive into the emotional pool of your own life to come out with those passionately sensitive emotional reactions. This is a new take, so there are surprises and there are variations. And there are questions that we have answered that none of the other versions have answered. Having said that, the other versions are classics by themselves, and we do hope to be another classic. But this is the first time Devdas is coming to the stage, and at this level.”

Musicals in India — the really big productions — are unfortunately mostly accessible to the elite largely due to the price point. This is why an initiative like Aadyam is so important. It facilitates new forms of drama. It also helps focus on one of the most engaging visual aspects of any performance that is in fact as impactful as any character on stage — the set.

Also, unfortunately in India, we have still not reached the stage – pun intended – where theatre artistes can sustain themselves solely from their work in drama. One can only hope that in the near future theatre-folk will be recognised and hero-worshipped as they are in the West.

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