I have a friend who loves Broadway musicals as much as I love Hindi movies.
One day over lunch, not too long ago, we were comparing notes about our respective passions. It occurred to me that the two forms have a great deal in common. Both have musical production numbers, of course, but also melodrama, archetypes and allegory, big emotions, and - so compelling to both my friend and myself - chest-heaving heroines succumbing to passion against their better judgment.
An idea took shape as we talked, a sort of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" exchange - we planned a day where we would get together and watch both a Broadway show and a Hindi movie.
I asked around the internet filmi communities for recommendations for a film to show her - surely there were legions of people who were fans of both forms and would be full of ideas about what films had Broadway-crossover appeal. But there wasn't much response. The few suggestions I got were not markedly different from suggestions commonly made for introducing any newcomer to Hindi films. And only one person I found was herself a Broadway fan.
That lone Broadway fan made an interesting remark. "You would think there would be all kinds of crossover appeal," she said, but in fact there doesn't seem to be. Her own attempts to introduce her theater friends to Hindi movies were received well enough, but did not take root and create new Bollywood fans.
And so, when the day came for me and my friend and our Broadway-Bollywood exchange, I went in with the spirit of an anthropologist exploring the differences between two cultures. I wanted to know why the commonalities weren't strong enough to create a common fandom. What would I find lacking in Broadway? What would put her off about Bollywood? I tried to keep an open mind and also to put no pressure on my friend - I promised myself I wouldn't be defensive if she didn't like what she saw.
My friend chose a recording of a Royal Albert Hall staging of Phantom of the Opera, starring her crush-du-jour, Sierra Boggess. (Going to a live performance would have been ideal, but also expensive - this production of Phantom was a reasonable second choice.)
I am not going to judge the appeal (or lack thereof) of modern Broadway productions based upon this one show. Phantom of the Opera is a show with many warts - its score is bombastic and dated, its book somewhat lacking in substance. Its heroine, Christine, is a simpering thing, and she doesn't get much to do beyond look fetching and sing at the command of various men, often against her will. In that, though, she is not that much different from many filmi heroines! Though, it would have been nice to see some defiance in her reluctant performance of the Phantom's composition, like Basanti's command performance for Gabbar Singh. What she does show is not exactly defiance:
In another notable parallel to the traditions of Hindi movies, certain songs serve as a thinly-veiled substitute for sex scenes; the climax of "Music of the Night" is quite clearly just that, as the Phantom repeatedly cries "Sing!" while Christine squeals out ever higher, louder, and more ecstatic notes. "Well, that wasn't the least bit orgasmic, not at all," I commented to my friend. ETA: My friend informs me that I have my songs mixed up. What I have described here is the climax of the show's title song. "It's the lead-in to 'Music of the Night'," she tells me, "which is post-coital."
For what it's worth, while Phantom will never be my favorite show, it offers plenty to impress. The staging is large and spectacular, with a few grand production numbers and even a little bit of dancing. The most fun choreography comes not in a dance production, but in bustling scenes where characters glide around the stage in a delightful kind of orchestrated chaos. And the pure talent and ability of the performers is nothing short of stunning - it's unbelievable that they execute near-flawless live performances show after show, day after day.
After the curtain came down on Phantom of the Opera, it was Bollywood's turn. I had deliberated for weeks to choose a movie for this event; it's always hard to pick one movie to do all the heavy lifting, to be the sole representative of a vast, diverse century of Hindi cinema. I settled on Paheli, a movie that I love for its style and color - especially since my trip to Rajasthan - and its delightful songs. I love it also for Rani Mukherjee, who perhaps isn't to me quite what Sierra Boggess is to my friend, but is thoroughly delicious nonetheless. (I wanted to showcase my own crush-du-jour, Vidya Balan, but I didn't have a suitable newcomer's movie on hand.) I also love that Rani's character in Paheli makes a bold assertion of her sexuality, choosing with fully informed consent to get it on with the bhoot instead of enduring five celibate years of her husband's absence. She is a much more willful and substantial heroine, and much less an ingenue, than Christine.
The first thing my friend noticed (after I apologized profusely during Eros's interminable, unskippable promos) was that unlike Broadway, the actors don't do their own singing. (My friend has a good ear; Paheli's opening song, "Minnat kare", is sung by Shreya Ghoshal only, but lines are picturized on several different women.) I think this was a bit of a disappointment to my friend; when I probed her afterward, she said that a good part of the appeal of Broadway to her is the spectrum of talent of the performers, and the pure awesomeness of the live performance I mentioned above. I have heard others make this complaint about Hindi films, and I admit it somewhat puzzles me; I have no problem with the division of labor, letting the actors act and the singers sing. But, it's a problem inherent to comparisons across media - while Broadway and Bollywood do have some elements in common, there are some inherent differences between movies and live shows - different constraints and different advantages to each - and if a person prefers one over the other, de gustibus non disputandum.
At any rate, while my friend didn't offer much commentary during the screening of Paheli - and I didn't press her for any while she was watching - she was rapt throughout, which was good enough for me. (She especially enjoyed the peanut gallery of puppets with their running commentary on the proceedings.) The verdict is the best I could have hoped for - she wants to do it again. Next time, I think I'll show her Lagaan. She is a serious fan of football (the American kind), and so I think she'll get a kick out of the cricket and appreciate the sports-movie arc of the film. Also, being accustomed to the broad strokes and playing-to-the-cheap-seats acting style of Broadway shows, she is less likely than the average westerner to be put off by some of the more unsubtle characterizations in that movie, such as Captain Russell's mustache-twirling villainry. ("I'm not afraid of cheese," she said to me at one point, "I like cheese." She is most definitely Bollywood-ready.) Or maybe I'll go classic, and risk Chalti ka naam gaadi - that has the advantage of a tasty helping of Madhubala, along with Kishore Kumar singing his own songs.
Whatever we choose, the anthropological study will continue, and we'll see whether, at least in our two cases, a Broadway fan can become a Bollywood lover and vice versa. It's a bit of an unfair arrangement, for now, as DVDs of live stagings are not easy to come by, so she can't show me her favorites as easily as I can show her mine. I would love to see a live show with her - maybe next summer, when a production of Wicked comes to our city, we will make that happen. In the meantime, we'll make do with what she has on hand. And, I'll keep you posted.