The Merchants of Bollywood

(Lyric Theatre)


Written and directed by Toby Gough

Professional production

Hoorah for Bollywood!

If it’s colour and movement you crave, without the need for a decent narrative or any deep thought, this show is for you.

It’s wild, boisterous and enormously appealing, and it had the audience in raptures as they were treated to every form of Indian dance, reflecting that unique film sub-genre of Bollywood romance that employs thousands of people and entertains millions more.

This show is really an excuse to show off the talents of the choreographer, designer and dancers, because the story behind the extravaganza takes second place to the glitter and the glamour that fill the stage.

If you do care, though, the story is narrated through the voice of Ayesha Merchant (played here with moving restraint by Ishitta Arun), grand-daughter of the legendary guru of Indian dance, Shantilal Merchant, who was known as the King of the Dance. He left Rajasthan and earned even greater glory when he choreographed dance numbers during the heyday of Bollywood films, but returned in disgust to his home region as the films became increasingly commercialised.

In this show, his grand-daughter Ayesha has moved to Bollywood, leaving before she has completed her own dance training and passed her final graduation, which should have been the Tandav, the legendary Dance of Shiva. Her interest is more in disco than in the classical Kathak dance, but she too makes a triumphant career as a choreographer, although of a different kind from her grandfather.

He believes that films should change people’s lives, while she is adamant that they should entertain people and help them escape reality, so they remain separated .

But eventually Uday, a servant of the Merchant clan, who is a better dancer than Ayesha, and is (of course) her One True Love, comes to bring her back to see her dying grandfather.

It’s a complicated story, but you don’t need to follow it closely, because The Merchants of Bollywood is basically a dance spectacular, with the story there only as a backbone on which to hang the dances.

And what a spectacle it is, from the classic Dance of Shiva which opens the show, through old Indian dance to modern Bollywood hip-hop, and every number is a treat.

The costuming in particular is beautiful beyond belief, and proves what the women’s magazines of my generation used to say that hiding the body under gorgeous clothes is much more appealing than revealing all. “A man needs to have something for his imagination to work on,” was the advice they gave, and most of the men I spoke to agreed that they found the full flowing embroidered skirts, which revealed only tight trousers under them, much more sexually titillating than the let-it-all-hang-out fashions of today. But maybe that’s their age speaking.

But whatever turns you on, if you love spectacle you’ll love The Merchants of Bollywood, for it’s the most gorgeous frock show you’re likely to see for a long time.

Lights, camera, action! Let ‘er go, fellas!

Choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant

Playing until Sunday 20 November. Evenings at 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 1.30pm, Sunday matinee 3pm, no evening performance

Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes, one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Tue 15th November 2005)