The Merchants of Bollywood @ Peacock Theatre, London

principal performers
Carol Furtado, Deepak Rawat, Denzil Smith, Chander Khanna, Satwinder Singh Jaspal

directed by
Toby Gough
The Merchants of Bollywood, which premiered in 2006, will, for many, prove an educational, as well as an uplifting, experience.

The show is predominantly (and unsurprisingly) a forum for Bollywood dancing, but it illustrates how this, and the film industry as a whole, have profoundly altered over the decades.

What plot there is has been established to reveal the genres routes in traditional Indian dancing, and, as with many Bollywood films, it witnesses a series of clashes between tradition and modernity.
The plot centres on the Merchant family. The Grandfather Shantilal (Chander Khanna) presided over Bollywoods golden age that reached its zenith in the 1970s, and he always ensured that his choreography embraced the ancient traditions of kathak dance. He fears, however, that with his death this tradition will die out since his granddaughter Ayesha (Carol Furtado) has turned her back on his approach, and made her own way in the industry as a thoroughly modern choreographer.

The pair also represent the two sides of an ongoing debate concerning what Bollywood films can do. Ayesha believes that their function is to allow people to escape and dream for a few hours, whereas Shantilal thinks that they really can change peoples lives. He recalls when India was recovering from Partition, and how cinema played its part in healing wounds and divisions.

In this way, we are treated to traditional Indian dances, featuring flowing Shiva arms, stamping, and spears, as well as Bollywood dances from a variety of ages. The 1970s number sees men dressed in black and white dancing with umbrellas, ladies rising from a sea of linen sheets, and people driving cardboard cut-out cars across the stage. Then the modern rock and roll piece sees the women dressed first in tight-fitting Spiderman suits, and then in can-can style dresses.

Throughout, the choreography of Vaibhavi Merchant (the story is inspired by her own familys) is exemplary. Hoards of dancers fill the stage, where different groups of them simultaneously perform a variety of steps. The performers are highly skilled, and the precision of every movement is matched by an equal measure of energy and flare. The routines are lengthy, often including several costume changes for the cast, but they never outstay their welcome. They are clearly designed to keep lifting the audience higher and higher, and just when it seems that a routine can go no further it is suddenly taken to another level again.

Salim and Sulaiman Merchants music is beautifully composed, meaning that the only slight disappointment is the clumsy execution of the storyline. The dialogues on the Bollywood plot formula, the influence of Hollywood on Indian films, and the decline of Bollywood in the 1980s are delivered for laughs, and offer no real insights into these interesting issues. The shows plot ultimately follows a Bollywood formula, but the lesson is that the successful application of even a standard blueprint requires considerable skill.

As with Bollywood films, the plotting is not the main attraction, and for sheer entertainment and exuberance The Merchants of Bollywood is very much a winner. Though it treats us to more encores than we could ever have hoped for, we still leave the auditorium wanting more.

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