Before we go any further, I must confess I am no expert on the genre of Bollywood film. In fact, I have never seen one in its entirety. Furthermore I never had the opportunity to experience Andrew Lloyd Webber's 2002 production of A.R. Rahman's 'Bombay Dreams' either. I, like so many others in the Western world, have a fondness for anglicised (or even Hollywoodised) offerings such as 'Slumdog Millionaire,' 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,' and 'The Hundred -Foot Journey,' but I definitely had a curiosity to experience something more authentic. Granted that South Asian culture has been underrepresented in the West End on the whole, however there has seemed to be an awakened interest to explore Indian themes on stage recently. The National Theatre's production of Katherine Boo's 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers,' adapted for the stage by David Hare, Trafalgar Transformed's 'East is East' written by and starring Ayub Khan-Din alongside Jane Horrocks, and the upcoming musical adaptation of Gurinder Chadha's 'Bend It Like Beckham,' are all bringing Asian culture into the British mainstream. And you can't get much more mainstream than the London Palladium. This iconic venue, however, is both an amazing opportunity and also the downfall of Beyond Bollywood.
Starting with the positives, and perhaps stating the obvious, it seems clear that most of the show's budget went on the exquisite costumes, designed by Jennifer Lucien. It appears as though someone opened a huge bag of luxury Skittles, which exploded onto the stage with vibrant colours and endless shining jewel pieces. To borrow that confectionary's slogan for a second, the production's main aim might well be that every single audience member 'tastes the rainbow,' and we certainly do. Every musical number has an impressive costume change too and, with a huge ensemble of 25, I can only imagine the backstage chaos that must be going on between scene changes. I cannot fault this young troop of dancers. Each gives it his or her all, mastering Rajeev Goswami's mesmerizing choreography to a tee.
Mr. Goswami also serves as the production's writer and director, and unfortunately this is where the Bollywood dream turns into a Bollywood nightmare. The plot is so paper-thin that at times you feel like you're watching a very bad soap opera, whose characters just all happen to be Indian. It is also predictable and occasionally incoherent. Appearances by the lead character Shaily's now deceased mother, swirling around in a white Sari in a cloud of dry ice, only brought the audience to snigger, which I'm sure was not the desired effect. Towards the end of Act II, we are also treated to a rendition of that Bollywood classic 'It's Raining Men' by seven young Indian men in hot pants and high heels, to get some cheap laughs from the audience. Even Nicole Scherzinger gets a backing track credit, as trendy youths dance to The Pussycat Dolls and A.R. Rahman's 'Jai Ho.' Perhaps unjustly, for someone like myself who shows a mere curiosity for Bollywood, once you have witnessed thirty minutes of the talented ensemble lip-synching to Bollywood music, you have seen enough. True purists would surely take more from watching over two hours of it.
The production's lack of set - the whole show uses a video wall at the rear - leaves the Palladium's stage feeling very big and very empty during the scenes where the three or four protagonists are alone without the massive ensemble. I feel the production would have benefited greatly from a much more intimate venue. I do believe genres like this, should be given the opportunity to perform on the grandest stages (and that was Lloyd Webber's intention with 'Bombay Dreams'), but the London Palladium sadly engulfs Beyond Bollywood and magnifies its low production values (besides those marvellous costumes).