Bombay Superstar is the 50th show by South Asian theatre company Phizzical. Its arrival in Manchester is timely, given the other South Asian theatre gracing our city this month.
A musical, it is two-fold, simultaneously paying tribute to and parodying the golden age of Bollywood. The result, too, is two-fold. The production has some real positives (especially the stunning set and costume design), but there are some questionable decisions. At times, the production feels unfinished.good bad acting and acting that is just bad. I’m not sure that the occasional bad acting can be blamed on the cast, though. Actors can only do so much with a bad script. It’s not that the script is bad, per se; it just needs some tweaking, and the characters could do with some fleshing out. For example (SPOILER), the protagonist, Laila (Nisha Aaliya), transforms from an inquisitive, innocent woman into a despicable, demanding diva – with no character development. Presumably, months pass from one scene to the next, and in that time, she has developed – but denying the audience the opportunity to see a character develop is kinda lazy. Now, the decision to turn the likeable protagonist into a sort-of villain is ambitious and interesting, and a subversion of the “maiden in distress” trope that still persists in Bollywood, but the sudden change, and lack of development, is too startling for audiences to properly appreciate the nuance. On the topic of subversion and feminism, Phizzical deserve praise for exposing the sexism of Bollywood (and India more broadly) and championing women’s rights and girl power. The supporting female characters are both stars-turned-housewives. You see, back in the day, actresses had to retire upon marriage, but neither of these ladies are content slaving around for their husbands, who get to continue starring in hit films. There’s a even twist that forces us to re-evaluate Sheetal Pandya’s character (Dolly), but this ‘feminist’ twist actually, ironically, uses the sexist trope of women messing up (and even going crazy) when they break free from patriarchal simplicity.
The musical is essentially an ensemble piece, with a diverse selection of characters, each embodying a different archetype – and each playing around with the conventions of that archetype. Whilst the subversiveness deserves praise, I occasionally found myself distracted by some of the actors’ tendency to overact. I know it’s intentional, for the cast are playing caricatures, and old school Bollywood films are notorious for their melodrama (with the cast, essentially, India’s 20th century answer to Shakesapeare). But there is a difference between
Laila’s metamorphosis has a feminist edge to it but her actions are indefensible. I get that she is exposing the hypocrisy of society, which condemns women for doing things that men are allowed to do, but hurting other women in the process is not feminism. Laila seems to embody a ‘gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss’ brand of feminism. Dolly’s (even worse) actions are also blamed on sexism but Dolly is only in it for herself. Laila, meanwhile, claims to champion women’s rights – whilst hurting other women.
Having characters commit atrocious acts and hiding behind feminism is nothing new, and it still persists. For instance, in the penultimate episode of House of the Dragon, Rhaenys reminds the Royal family of her strength, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. The presentation is ‘girlboss’, and the episode’s writer, Sara Hess, said “civilians don’t count”. Call me radical but I don’t think that mass murder is a feminist principle, and justifying violence with ‘girl power’ is tacky and offensive. Overall, though, the musical’s feminism is poignant and appreciated. Whilst the show is on the nose and throws everything but the kitchen sink, there are some subtleties and nuances (that might go missed in the glamour and drama).
For instance, in the second act, when (SPOILER) a character is shot onset – which adds a sense of darkness and seriousness to an otherwise (unashamedly) dumb, silly piece of theatre. Whilst some might think the shooting is a nod to Alec Baldwin – and yes, that makes it timely – it is actually inspired by a real-life 1982 accident in Bollywood that left the actor Amitabh Bachchan fighting for his life.
Within Bombay Superstar, the incident could very well be a commentary on the way in which transgressive women are punished – in both fiction and real life. Sikander – arguably the real villain of the musical, given his treatment of two women – gets out unscathed. The musical actually tackles quite a few serious issues. Laila is a victim not only of sexism but also colourism and classism. The love child of a North Indian director and his South Indian mistress, she is initially met with rejection and hostility, but she fights for her place at the table. The only problem? Whilst Aaliya might be “too dark” for Bollywood, she is is no darker than the rest of the cast, and she does not look South Indian, so the important commentary feels a little forced. Sometimes, the politics of the piece are so on the nose that the nose can no longer be seen. For instance, there are two mentions of “fake news” – two too many. It just felt obvious and overdone. When you go down that route, you risk losing your audience. You can allude to things without mentioning them explicitly; doing so can feel patronising and uninspired. I’m reminded of a Nazi guard in The Book Thief saying “make Germany great again”. It is, at best, cringe-worthy and, at worst, suggests a lack of creativity. Whilst the script has its problems, there are also plenty of positives. By far, its biggest success is its satire of Bollywood. It is obvious that the writers have a clear understanding of Bollywood conventions. But more than that – they have a great love of Bollywood, and that comes through. For instance, in the first act, there’s a suggestion that Dolly play Sikander’s mother, even though she is years younger than him. Those familiar with Bollywood know that young women were often cast to play older women, and they were aged up in the most subtle of ways. I remember watching a South Asian drama at my grandmother’s house as a child, and the actress playing the mother was aged up with a simple grey streak. Even as a child, I thought it looked ridiculous. Sure enough, the second act sees Dolly play Sikander’s mother, though instead of a grey streak, she’s given a grey wig! The scene was absolutely hilarious. Those familiar with Bollywood will also know that Bollywood actors rarely do their own singing; they just lip sync. Whilst this is rare in the West – and when it is done, it arouses controversy – it is entirely the norm in Bollywood, a norm which allows tone deaf but brilliant actors to star in musical blockbusters. Most of the cast do a little singing of their own, usually when the scene is “real life” and not a musical number in the play (or rather, movie) within the play. But most of the music numbers are sang by Amar (who plays showbusiness journalist Pammi) and Chirag Rao (who plays director Din Dayal), whilst Robby Khela (who plays Bollywood heartthrob Vicky) also provides some of the male vocals. Whilst Khela has a lovely voice, Amar and Rao blew the audience away with their vivacious voices, which sound very similar to those you hear in classic Bollywood movies. Amar (the recipient of Best Female Act at the UK Asian Music Awards, aka the UK AMAs) sounds a bit like Asha Bhosle – who holds the Guinness World Record for the most studio recordings – singles. Whilst much of the musical felt very modern, their voices transported us back to the 70s.
Whilst the real singers are placed behind two screens at the back of the set, allowing the audience to see them but not clearly, the penultimate song finally allows Amar to sing upfront. The other women danced behind her, and both of the male singers stood behind the screens at the back of the set. It was lovely putting a face to the angelic voice that had soothed us for the past two hours.Student of the Year. Whilst Aaliya occasionally lacked the gravitas required when playing an anti-hero, she always shone in the music numbers; her simple seductiveness enticed the entire audience. The dazzling dance numbers are captivating but a standout song is a ballad performed by Mala (Pia Sutaria), Sikander’s wife (who deserves so much better). Sutaria has a look of Aishwarya Rai, and her performance seemed to embody the more angel-faced Bollywood stars, as opposed to the modern divas (who Laila represented).
Laila gets most of the fun dance numbers, including ‘The Disco Song’ from
Pia is the twin sister of Bollywood star Tara Sutaria, who actually had her breakthrough playing the female lead in the sequel to the aforementioned Student of the Year. Pia, though, is a star in her own right, with a big following on social media. She is also a recipient of the Disney Theatrical Productions scholarship.
Sutaria’s performances felt much more natural than her co-stars, perhaps because she is actually from India, whilst her co-stars are British, so is more used to ‘Bollywood acting’.
Whilst there are some original songs, most of them are from Bollywood films, many of them very well-known. Even if you know nothing about Bollywood, and thus do not recognise the music, you will know that the songs are famous by the audience reaction: some patrons “ahh” with admiration whilst others (including my friend and former writer, Urussa) sing along to the first line. As fun as the music numbers were, they didn’t always add to the story. However, rather than being a distraction from the main action, they were more an escape. Indeed, the show’s strength is in the dazzling, diverse music numbers, whilst the script and the story are wishy-washy. As all songs except the opening and closing numbers are sang in Hindi, there are subtitles, which remain in use for the entirety of the piece, even when the actors are talking. Whist this decision should be applauded, for it allows those with hearing impairments to enjoy the show, placing them at the top-centre of the stage created two problems. Firstly, the lights from above sometimes obscured the text on the screens, making it difficult to read. Secondly, the prominent placing of the screen meant the subtitles sometimes distracted from the action taking place onstage. I found myself reading the subtitles even though the actors were talking in English. Further, the subtitles were not always in sync, and the words coming out of the actors’ mouths were often quite different to those onscreen.Bombay Superstar is, essentially, a love-letter to Bollywood. It’s fun, camp, and Bollywood to the core. Whilst the script needs some work, it clearly, cleverly, appropriates and parodies Bollywood. Old Bollywood movies are cheesy but Bombay Superstar is something else. If Bollywood classics are margheritas, Bombay Superstar is quattro formaggio! In a nutshell, Bombay Superstar is a live recreation of a dozen Bollywood classics, all crammed together, with conventions subverted and satirised, and traditions questioned and discarded, alongside feminism, “fake news”, and everything but the kitchen sink (but let’s not tempt them).
Bombay Superstar runs at The Lowry (Quays Theatre) until November 12, before heading to MAST Mayflower Studios from November 15 to 19 – the final stop of its UK tour.