Tread the Bollyboards

It has all the ingredients of a typical Bollywood product - song and dance, romance, spectacle. But it's not a film. It's a stage musical set in Mumbai's movie world.

Among the cargo offloaded at Dubai International Airport this week were 50 identical suitcases. Unprepossessing though they may have seemed from the outside, their contents were a microcosm of the world's largest and most colourful film industry - one that produces about 800 films and sells four billion tickets each year (Hollywood films, by comparison, sell around three billion). Dubai is the latest stop in a world tour by The Merchants of Bollywood, a musical extravaganza that has so far taken in Australia, much of Europe and Asia to great acclaim. And now it is Dubai's turn to experience the spectacle.

For inside the suitcases were about 1,500 items of elaborately coloured clothing from all corners of India, as well as 400 pieces of jewellery, with which the 30 cast members will relay the story of the Hindi film industry from its inception in the 1920s to the present day. Each player - there are 25 dancers and five actors - must change costume scores of times, swinging from traditional kathak dancing to disco and hip-hop in a matter of minutes. This is a thoroughly modern musical, one that fuses eastern and western music and dance styles to demonstrate the modern reality of Mumbai's sprawling film industry. Costing around $3m (Dh11m) to produce, it has so far been seen by more than two million people.

Though an exclusively Bollywood production (all of its players have starred in films and on television there, too), the concept was masterminded by the Scottish theatre director Toby Gough with the Australian producer Mark Brady. Together they have a history of world music productions, having staged three shows out of Cuba, Lady Salsa, King of Salsa and The Bar at Buena Vista. Gough is currently working on a Brazilian capoeira show, Warriors of Brazil.

"We're interested in world culture," says Brady. "And we noticed a dramatic increase in the media coverage about the rise of India, not only economically but also in terms of its film industry. We thought there were lots of stories to be told about the country." The production had its premiere in Sydney in 2005. Loosely based on the story of the Merchant family, a Bollywood dynasty whose members have been at the forefront of the film industry for generations, it tells the tale of Ayesha Merchant. Trained in the traditional art of kathak dance by her grandfather, Shantilal, a famous choreographer working during India's golden era of cinema, Ayesha longs for the thrill and glamour of Bollywood.

However, Shantilal, who abandoned film in favour of his remote desert dance school when he saw Bollywood becoming too commercial and influenced by western trends, disapproves. Ayesha leaves anyway, and goes on to become the industry's reigning queen of choreography, earning the sobriquet, "the Princess of Romance". She is soon drawn back home, though, by her childhood sweetheart, to make peace with her dying grandfather, and take over the dance school on her own terms.

Vaibhavi Merchant, on whom the character of Ayesha is based, is also the show's choreographer. "When we met her, we sat down and chatted," says Brady, "and she gave us this information about her family's history. We suddenly thought, wow, this is an amazing story. We've got it all here. Vaibhavi's story follows that of the industry itself, so we had a really solid base to work from." Research for the project took two years. "Unlocking the doors of the Bollywood film industry was pretty tough," says Brady, "so having Vaibhavi on board early on was key." Other stars were soon keen to take part in the production, the first of its kind to come out of Bollywood.

Arif Zakaria, an actor who has starred in countless films and television series, and is best known for his role as Emmi Begum in Darmiyan, for which he was nominated for a National Film Award in 1997, signed on to play the part of Shantilal. He remained with the production for two years before taking a break, and is now back, this time in the role of the film director and narrator. "It's a great musical spectacle and a great platform for me as an actor to perform," he says. "The Merchants of Bollywood represents Bollywood and India in so many ways. The show is like a tour of India. We speak a little about ourselves. And the diversity in our culture, in our music and in our dance is shown very explicitly on stage."

Its authenticity is, he says, important for the production to portray a true picture of Bollywood and India. "We've all acted in films back home in Mumbai," he says. "That's what makes us unique and authentic, as opposed to any musical which is just about India." As well as the plot, which acts as a convenient parallel to the story of Mumbai's film industry, The Merchants of Bollywood's pastiche of high emotion and colour is typical of the industry's films. "Emotions and family values are common themes among Indians," says Zakaria, "and these are prominently displayed in the show with its spectacular costumes and song-and-dance numbers. If you watch a Bollywood film it will be a simple story with a lot of passion, grandeur, song and dance. We celebrate life. There's a lot of positivity and hope in our films."

For this reason, he says, The Merchants of Bollywood transcends its origins: "People all over the world connect to these sentiments." Whereas themes in western cinema are often less than celebratory, Bollywood, he says, is about escapism. "Cinema in India is all about catering for the common man," he says. "We provide a bit of escapism and family element, because when someone comes to the cinema, perhaps he wants to escape from his harsh reality. You have to transport yourself to another world."

While the production celebrates the industry it is portraying, it is not above self-mockery. "There is a formula," says Zakaria. "Boy meets girl etc, but we make fun of this whole process of formula and non-formula, and of Bollywood constantly borrowing from Hollywood. The whole show is a form of self-parody." At one point, one of the characters remarks that his female stars don't need to be able to act or dance. "A model or an ex-Miss World will do," he says, a reference to the former beauty queens-turned-Bollywood-actresses Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra.

Music for the production has been supplied by the brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant (they are no relation to Vaibhavi), two of Bollywood's most sought-after composers. There is also a number by AR Rahman. With no live singing (the actors lip-synch to the music), the show is all about the physicality of the dancing. "Toned bellies and perfect pecs abound," said a critic in The Times when the production first played in London in 2006, "and it's not difficult to see why they're in such sensational shape."

Following their three-night visit to Dubai, the show will return, via Hong Kong, to Australia for a six-week tour. London's Sadlers Wells will then host them for a three-week run starting in mid-May. And now, for the first time, it seems the production will visit North America, with stops in Toronto and New York planned for later this year. Brady feels that such films as Slumdog Millionaire, which won nine Oscars at last year's Academy Awards, have helped to bring the Bollywood brand to a wider audience.

"Our American partners were curious and interested in the show," he said in an interview in The New York Times this week, "but they weren't convinced four years ago. Slumdog certainly changed that a lot, and I think India also changed this. It keeps on growing and the interest in the country is also growing." He is in talks to take the production to India itself. Those suitcases' journey just got a whole lot longer.

The Merchants of Bollywood will be at The Palladium, Dubai Media City, from tonight until Saturday. Performances start at 8pm. For tickets go to www.timeouttickets.com.

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