Bollywood’s la dolce vita
Florence is like a jewel case. The Italian city’s piazzas are like pendants, its palazzos like brooches, pinned onto folds of the city. Gelato stores on its pearl-grey streets release whiffs of chocolate into the air. The Arno flows through it like a slowly-unwinding necklace. I am walking towards the Theatre Verdi where Teamwork Productions from India is staging Bollywood Love Story. One bejewelled world of art is about to meet another.
At the Verdi, the cast is rehearsing intensely, directed by Sanjoy Roy, theproducer of multiple theatre shows. The play’s story is simple. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, run into obstacles such as a mafioso father. But in the end all’s well.
Love Story has played to full houses across Europe since 2008. Based on bollywood music, dance and drama (including a vintage Ajit ‘torture scene’), it is remarkable how Europeans have lapped it up over 130 shows.
Wolfram Kremer, the European producer, explains, “With cable, DVDs and film fests, Europeans are becoming familiar with bollywood. Europe is facing serious problems like recession, terror and war. Everyone’s longing for romance and happy endings. This show has that.” The Italian producer, Ilenia Carli, agrees, “During recession, people seek joy, sweetness and bright colours. India’s exotica appeals greatly.”
The production presents ‘exotica’ with style. Sequences on the stage include a rustic fair, a villain’s den, a kotha, a marriage and dreams, interspersed with players’ entries into the audience, including a baraat with a groom on a horse.
Choreographer Gilles Chuyen says, “This show combines elements from bharatanatyam, kathak, chhau, ballet, salsa, jazz and tango.” Backstage, the Indian producer, Sharupa Dutta, facilitates communication between the Italian wardrobe managers and Indian players, essential for the 10-second changes needed. She explains, “Theatre is as much about managing spaces as content. Any play has to be fitted into a space. It comes alive there.”
Theatre Verdi is a remarkable space and has been graced by performers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra. It was once a prison, converted into an opera house in the mid-19th century. Atmosphere lingers about its plush seats and regal boxes, extending six floors up to a baroque ceiling gleaming with chandeliers. Affluent Florentians sporting furs and solitaires fill up 1,500 seats.
As the play opens, the audience seems struck by its exuberant dancing. A man remarks, “I was curious since India’s seen rapid changes. After seeing this play, I want to visit India.” Another man says, “The last Indian film I saw was Salaam Bombay. This has no slums, no depression. I am intrigued by this image of India.”
The show closes to rapturous applause. Where Europe was once imagined through literature and art, India is now understood through Shah Rukh Khan films and cosmopolitan consumption. Indian youth is now able to compare frappés between Florence and Saket. That, however, is another drama. For the moment, it is enough that after helping India get a taste of La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, bollywood is now enthralling Europe and the world.
Das is a social anthropologist.