A review by James Buxton w for EXTRA! EXTRA!




The Merchants of Bollywood


Photo courtesy of Eugenie Dunster

Writer and Director: Toby Gough
Choreographer: Vaibhavi Merchant
Composers: Salim and Sulaiman Merchant
Costume Designer: Bipin Tanna
Lighting Designer: Benedick Miller

Peacock Theatre


31 May – 3 July 2011


Let us invoke Shiva in one of his many incarnations as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, to commend The Merchants of Bollywood, for the words of a mere mortal cannot do justice to this extravaganza of celestial dimensions.

Eight hundred films are made a year in Bollywood, and 15 million tickets are sold a day. Figures of such magnitude give us an idea of the impact Bollywood films have on the consciousness of the Indian public, a country where most people live on less than £1 a day.

The Merchants of Bollywood is loosely based upon the Merchants, one of India's most influential film making families. The inspiration for the story actually comes from the life of the show's choreographer, Vaibhavi Merchant, granddaughter of Shri Hiralal, a visionary choreographer during the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

Carol Furtado plays Ayesha, grand-daughter of Shantilal, (Chander Khanna) a legendary Bollywood choreographer and last in line of the Merchant family, who uphold the ancient tradition of Kathak, the dance of the Gods. However, he has turned his back on the film industry due to Western influence, to start his own traditional dance school in the deserts of Rajasthan. Ayesha however, cannot reconcile her passion for films with her grandfather's old fashioned ways, and leaves to become queen of the choreographers in Bollywood. When she returns to make peace with her grandfather, she finds a broken man on the verge of death, who’s turned to alcohol to drown his sorrows. Ayesha takes it upon herself to carry on Shantilal's traditions, by remaining in Rajasthan, marrying her childhood sweetheart, Uday (Deepak Rawat), and continuing her grandfathers dance school.

From the temple of Shiva to a Bollywood studio, Miller's lighting design and video screens allow the minimal white stage to adapt to suit its atmospheres. Flames shoot up around a dancing figure of Shiva as the lights beneath the rostra turn red and the dancers skip onto the set in Tanna's vibrant costumes. Pomegranate crop tops are exchanged for blood orange and luscious lime colours, saffron saris spangle under the bright lights and sequins sparkle as skirts whirl in a riot of colour and music. Gold bracelets and anklets rattle on the dancer’s limbs as they move with such precision and exactitude that their timing is reminiscent of military formations. Merchant's choreography is impeccable as she blends the ancient Kathak, dance of the Gods with modern dance moves. One is struck by the spirituality of the dance as the female dancer's arms glide through the air, their hands weaving ineffable gestures born out of a five thousand year old tradition. In each one of their perfectly positioned fingers there is a sense of history on such a scale that we are transported back from the glitz of the Peacock theatre, a thousand years to the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, where a woman in a lilac sari embroidered with gold, slaps her child’s rags against the stone steps, scrubbing them clean. Despite the domesticity of the chore, the fluidity of her movements, somehow, are still capable of embodying the same elegance these dancers sustain.

For anyone who has been to India, one will know that it is the nosiest country in the world. Just walking down a street in Jaipur, your ears will be assaulted by the din of Bangra music pounding out of speakers attached to lamp-posts, the honking and revving of traffic, the trumpet of an elephant, the mantra like call of Chai Wallahs and taxi drivers, and the overall clamour of a thousand bodies jostling past one another. Salim and Sulaiman Merchant have done an excellent job of summoning the goddess Saraswati to the Peacock theatre and reducing the background cacophony. They have recorded a variety of traditional Indian instruments such as the pakhavaj (a
small two sided drum played with two wooden sticks), sarangi, a string based instrument played with a bow using the back of your fingertips, (like a cello but smaller) and more recognizable sounds, such as those of reed flute and sitar, to conjure the atmosphere of India. Highly evocative is the inclusion of bols - rhythmic words such as ta tatta ta ta tigda, which are recited in short bursts and really infuse the sense of an ancient tradition merging with modern club influenced sounds. The Merchant brothers whip up a carnival of jangling and trampling drums which roll us along, as the dancers mime the words to the songs pumping out of the speakers.

Carol Furtado as Ayesha is mesmerising as she glides across the stage barefoot, her red and gold skirt flaring around her as her dark hair tosses about her shoulders, surrounded by a sea of dancers moving in unison, supporting her every move. Deepak Rawat’s Uday is literally bursting with energy, his rippled torso gleaming with sweat as he punches his fist into the air and back flips off  the steps. The male dancers leap around him, shaking their chests and twisting their wrists with joyful enthusiasm, each one of their faces beaming with charismatic smiles. Chander Khanna as Shantilal bestows a commanding presence on the stage in his white kurta, looking down with distaste at the pelvic thrusting, jumping and jerking of Western dance moves that merge with the Kathak tradition. Khanna movingly embodies a man who truly believes in the power of Bollywood to change people's lives, who has lived through the great eras of dance and finally refuses to compromise. Tony Bakshi (Satwinder Jaspal) in blue flares, white sunglasses and gold medallion draped over his hirsute chest, tells Shantilal in his flirty camp manner, “the audience want flesh, fantasy and plunging necklines”, ironic, considering the film they are shooting is about a Hindu Brahmin. Jaspal is a versatile performer, frequently funny in all the roles he doubles up in.

Gough’s witty script illuminates the differences between the traditionalism of Shantilal and the modernization of Ayesha’s approach, all within the confines of a spectacular show which combines the best of both worlds. Rarely is it possible to see dance of such a high quality, such vivid exuberance and such precise choreography. This is a spell binding performance. As the fantastic dancers whirl across the stage, hair flicking from side to side, animating their lavish costumes with boundless energy, the wheel comes full circle. One can feel a nod of approval, as Lord Shiva looks down on the eternal dance of the Gods, the hint of a smile playing on his lips.


Photo courtesy of Eugenie Dunster


Peacock Theatre
Portugal Street
Performance times
Tue - Sun at 7.30pm
Sat & Sun at 2.30pm
Running time 2 hrs 18 mins (including one 20 min interval)
Ticket office:
0844 412 4322
£18 - £45
Box Office: 0844 412 4300


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