Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Directed by Shruti Merchant and choreographed by her sister Vaibhavi Merchant, Taj Express: The Bollywood Musical Revue is making a stop in Toronto at The Bluma Appel Theatre in the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts. This feel-good musical delivers old-time Bollywood pomp and pageantry – with a knowing modern wink – inside a relentless spectacle of colour and sound. With more than 700 performances around the globe since its debut in 2013, it should come as little surprise that – judging by the gregarious and gyrating reception accorded by the audience at Sunday’s matinee – Toronto has hopped aboard the Taj Express.
“Bollywood”, of course, is shorthand for the large-scale Hindi movies filmed in Mumbai, India, (the word “Hollywood” spliced with “Bombay”, Mumbai’s previous British-given name). The term has become synonymous with beautiful locations, elaborate and myriad costumes (especially for the female actors), and intricate song-and-dance numbers performed by “playback” musicians who are megastars in their own right.
Taj Express resembles a jukebox musical, but instead of being set to the hits of a band or musician (think Mamma Mia!, Bat out of Hell or We Will Rock You), it is set to the music of prolific Indian composer A.R. Rahman. His 2008 Academy-Award winning song “Jai Ho” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire became a global anthem and made him a household name (and yes, it is performed in Taj Express).
The musical bursts onto the stage in an explosion of dance and song that is tied together by a plot that at once shamelessly coopts and satirizes the predictable girl-meets-boy formula and countless other tropes of formula Bollywood movies. The focus is on Shankar, an up-and-coming composer who aspires to the same success as his idol, Rahman. If Rahman is the “Mozart of Madras”, then why can’t Shankar become the “Beethoven of Bollywood”? A jingle writer who worships the goddess of the arts and learning Saraswati, Shankar gets his big break when he is asked to score a Bollywood film. The timeline is tight, so he is at the constant mercy of the irascible director, who calls him at all hours of the night and day with last-minute script revisions that require new or altered compositions from the hard-pressed and overwrought composer. Shankar draws inspiration from three musicians with whom he works on the sound stage: guitarist Flash, percussionist Animal (an homage to the Muppets?), and a flautist who plays the bansuri. Though much of the music is recorded, it is a highlight of the show, as exemplified in exchanges like the rhythmic jugal bandi (musical dialogue) that Flash and Animal perform live. The music becomes a protagonist of this tale thanks to the quick wit and quick fingers of these musicians who incrementally deconstruct – and reconstruct – Bollywood music through both their commentary and their instrumentation.
A second highlight of the show is the interaction with the audience. At distinct points in the show, the wry and winsome Flash comes out to to engage the audience in matters Indian, such as quasi-yogic breathing and a bhangra dance, where the crowd is encouraged to leave their seats and dance. Practically speaking, these moments facilitate costume changes backstage, but an equally important function is to make the audience feel they are more than mere spectators – they are a part of the Bollywood film-creation process they are seeing on stage.
But in no uncertain terms, the true and undisputed star of the show is the choreography, virtuosically performed by 20 gifted dancers. There is no playbill, and the show’s website does not list the names of the performers. Suffice it to say that they inspire awe as they perform intricate, athletic choreographies that fuse Eastern and Western styles, including Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Manipuri, Kathakali, bhangra, garba, lyrical, ballroom, ballet and hip hop. These are some of the most precisely sequenced, gorgeously executed and genuinely thrilling dance numbers that I have ever seen. Taj Express at full throttle is utterly mesmerizing.
For many (including the jubilant audience members dancing in the aisles), the spectacle and energy of Taj Express will satisfy their love of the artform and celebrate the place their culture has made for itself within the mainstream. For me, this crowd – clapping, singing and dancing deliriously to the hits that many knew and loved – exemplified the importance of representation. At the same time, I wonder what people who are not intimately (or at the least passingly) familiar with Bollywood films or Rahman’s music will think of it. While Taj Express brings the style of Bollywood from the fringes into a prominent place as a unique and valid artform, it does so at the expense of reinforcing certain stereotypes through aspects like the show’s costuming and character names.
That question aside, Taj Express successfully susses out the idealistic sparkle of Bollywood musical razzle-dazzle, which is where the Merchant sisters’ love for the genre becomes an overwhelming asset. This relentlessly dynamic show zips along to an easy-to-follow storyline and boasts wry and sweet humour aplenty, coupled with audience interactivity and the most spectacular dancing from here to Mumbai. It’s a toe-tapper and a visual feast that revel in the glory of Indian music and dance. Hop aboard – you’ll find yourself swept up in it.
News You Can Use
What: Taj Express: The Bollywood Musical Revue featuring the songs of composer A.R. Rahman | Written by Toby Gough | Directed by Shruti Merchant | Choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant | Music Direction by Abhijit Vaghani | Executive Producer: Pranav Merchant | Presented by TO Live
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: On stage until December 1, 2019
Where: St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts – Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: stlc.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019