On November 26, 2008, when Mumbai was in the throes of a deadly terror attack, Bombay Jazz was being staged at Tropentheatre in Amsterdam. It’s a story that has stayed with the director, Etienne Coutinho, after all these years. “Some scenes in the play actually happened at The Taj Mahal Hotel. Even though the audience was largely European, they were so moved. They felt a deep connection with the story,” he says.
Through a student-mentor relationship, Bombay Jazz brings alive the era of the’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when jazz was brought to Bombay from Goa, and went on to have a huge influence in the Hindi film industry. Remember Chin Chin Chu (Howrah Bridge), Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan (C.I.D) and Baar Baar Dekho (ChinaTown)? While jazz evolved in the country during the British rule, musicians were left seeking a source of livelihood after their exit. Clubs were running empty, avenues were few and money was drying up. The musicians then did what they thought was logical – they turned to Bollywood.
“But Bollywood destroyed their soul. They were asked to plagiarise and ‘adapt’ from other songs,” says Coutinho, citing the instance of Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan, which is copied from the famous Oh my Darling, Clementine. The play is a scathing criticism of Bollywood, and how it didn’t do right by musicians who gave it their all. Bombay Jazz travels back and forth through the ages, with the nameless protagonist, played by Denzil Smith, representing the talented musicians of the time – like Sebastian D’Souza, Chic Chocolate and Anthony Gonsalves – who led their lives in virtual penury.
In fact, the role of the saxophonist-student is played by Rhys D’Souza, Sebastian’s grandson. “Rhys speaks almost in monosyllables, and conveys everything through music,” says Coutinho, also an artist whose exhibition Canvas Restrung was shown in December.
For Smith, who has been a part of the production since its inception – he came on board as the actor in 2012 replacing Bugs Bhargava – it’s been an eventful journey. “The idea stemmed from a discussion Ramu (Ramanathan, the writer) and I had at Prithvi. We then met a lot of families, and scanned pictures from their albums from those ages, which then triggered so many stories,” recalls Smith. He remembers a girl walking up to him after one of the shows, telling him that the character he was talking about was actually her father. “While people in Bombay feel more connected with it due to the references, the play connects with people everywhere. The student-mentor relationship, and the theme of poverty, is universal,” adds Smith.
Bombay Jazz is currently in its 10th year – it premiered at the Prithvi Festival in 2007 and has had over 40 shows since, across the country and abroad. Smith believes the play hasn’t seen its full potential just yet – venues are difficult to acquire and other economic reasons, like using recorded tracks. “My dream is to have live music on stage,” he says.
As it gets set for a showcase at the Experimental theatre, NCPA today, Coutinho says that Bombay Jazz is very relevant to our times. “There’s been a transition in the music industry and socio-political attitudes have changed, but there’s a sense of human dignity the play conveys that makes it relatable for everybody.”
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