Just like Bollywood, Mumbai theatre too, for many years, relied on content from the West -- particularly English theatre. Playwrights like Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw, Ibsen to Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard have had their works adapted or played out straight, with Indian actors playing American or British characters, sometimes with the right accents, mostly without.
Gradually, original plays were written in English, but whenever a big musical is planned, it is invariably Broadway that’s the inspiration --Bharat Dabholkar is one of the few who does his own thing, his latest hit being Blame it on Yashraj (produced by Ashvin Gidwani). But think of all the memorable musicals -- Cabaret, Man From La Mancha, Evita, Sound of Music, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Sound of Music and they all come from the West -- most of them produced by Alyque Padamsee or his daughter Raell.
She has just done Grease, based on the hit 1978 screen musical, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John as a high school couple trying to work out their relationship amidst a bunch of co-eds (remember terms like bobby soxers and jocks from that period?) from Rydell High, singing, dancing, bitching, weeping and ‘prom-ing’ their way to adulthood. The original, set in 1959, set such a template for teen romances, that it could very well have been set in 2013 Mumbai, with very few plot points changed.
However, seen from today’s perspective, the girls seem empty-headed and focused only on boys. The boys, are trying to be swaggering about in tight jeans, leather jackets and gelled hair aiming very hard for coolth, which entails getting the right wheels, multiple girls cooing at them, and a put-on care-a-damn attitude.
Jim Jacob and Warren Casey’s stage musical, adapted for the screen, had some super songs -- Hopelessly devoted to you, Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, Summer Nights, You’re the one I want -- hung on a very simple plot and stereotyped teens of that period -- the tomboy, the confused ‘girlie’ dumb chick, the aggressive cheerleader, and the boys, immature, but trying to act all carefree and grown up. In the original the conflict was that Sandy was a Miss Goody Two Shoes and Danny was the hot-blooded dude, too macho to show his emotions. In the end, she turns up in tight and revealing clothes and floors dithering Danny.
Raell Padamsee’s organisational and marketing capacity has to be commended. She did a huge production at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, with flying sets, dazzling lighting and superbly choreographed dance numbers. She got a large cast, some of whom could sing, all could dance, and were super confident, even though they are not experienced stage actors. The costume budget along could fund a couple of small experimental plays. A large section of the audience was probably not born when the Grease was released, but they were swept along with the infectious energy.
To her credit, she gets underprivileged children from various city NGOs to sing and perform, giving them an opportunity to discover their talent, face an audience and enjoy applause. There were, she said, 300 people working backstage on the production, and this kind of expense would not have been possible without the support of sponsors, who also want to reach an upmarket audience.
It was baffling, however, why director Adwait Hazrat, made all the actors speak with fake (and irritating) American accents, which, gave the otherwise grand production a touch of tackiness.
However, the response to Grease shows that the audience is willing to buy expensive tickets to watch a live show if they get their money’s worth of entertainment; they are not necessarily looking for thought-provoking theatre; to come up with a Bollywood example, people will curse a Chennai Express but still add to its collections, but they will not accord the same to a film like Ship of Theseus, which they claim to admire.
Finally, Bollywood is gradually getting out of its plagiarism mould -- maybe tougher copyright controls are the reason -- and trying to its own stories that fit into a slick production mould as well -- Anurag Kashyap is the reigning badshah of this kind of cinema.
So isn’t it time Mumbai’s English theatre to find its own stories, its own style, its own music and dance? In Hindi theatre, Sunil Shanbag worked wonders with Stories in a Song and Atul Kumar with Piya Behroopiya. Isn’t it better to be original Mumbai than Broadway wannabe?
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator