Judge Bill Gibron dreamed of tandoori chicken while viewing this exceptional musical theater documentary.
A perfect pastiche of Broadway and Bollywood.
Sometimes, an idea seems so obvious that it's amazing no one thought of it sooner. For decades now, India has been the scene for one of the most amazing media explosions in the history of cinema. Creating hundreds of films each year, and mobilized as a major moneymaking industry in this overpopulated Third World country, Bollywood—as it has come to be called—relies on a combination of classic Tinseltown formulas melded with local customs and traditions (and a little spicy Madras magic over the top) to create singular films of wild invention and excitement.
Front and center of most of these experiments in entertainment is music. Even the most action-oriented drama or tragedy-filled fable will find its performers breaking out into song. And one man is the undeniable master of the Bollywood show tune—A. R. Rahman. So when Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the award-winning composer of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Cats, was looking for a new musical idea—nay, a totally original and novel songwriting voice—to place his prodigious production backing behind, a chance meeting with a Rahman score sealed the deal.
That was over three years ago—thousands of performances and a trip to Broadway (from the London West End) later. Bombay Dreams, about to end its two-year-plus run in Britain and only a couple of months old on the Great White Way, is the result of Webber's labor of love. Bringing together an all-Asian cast and several of the superstars behind the scenes of Indian cinema, this musical maverick set out to convey the fiery zest of India's electric extravaganzas into the theatrical setting. The new-to-DVD documentary, Salaam Bombay Dreams, illustrates this long, strange journey, as well as the success of the knighted UK tunesmith's vision.
After watching the incredibly informative and wildly entertaining documentary Salaam Bombay Dreams, it is easy to feel ashamed of Western culture and attitudes. We are so wrapped up in our own importance and feelings of superiority that when something truly unique and extraordinary arrives from a far-off, distant land, we immediately reject it—or worse, leap upon it with intent to consume it and make it our own. The traditions of Indian movie musicals are indeed endangered by a total lack of knowledge and a strict adherence to standard conventions by Lloyd Webber and his creative team of Englishmen. But somehow, magically and magnificently, the elements that make Bollywood such ballyhoo find a way to shine through the stiff upper lip limitations being placed upon them.
Salaam Bombay Dreams isn't just concerned about the creation of a new West End entertainment. It's a meditation on the marvelous meeting of the minds that can occur when West begrudgingly embraces East on its own terms. What this coming together of temperaments tells us is that, when we broaden our horizons just a little, the answers to our creative quandaries are right outside our backdoor. Indeed, the fact that a nation like Britain, infamous for its decades-long colonization and occupation of India, would be ignorant of Bollywood musical burlesques is amazing. But what we see throughout the entire running time is how insular the English—and other predominantly Caucasian societies—act toward other ethnic aesthetic principles. Fortunately, the terrific talent and good-natured novelty of the Tandoori traditions awaken all manner of genial genius in everyone involved.
Though we only get glimpses of the show (both in the feature and its bonus material) there is indeed something special about Bombay Dreams. Maybe it's the marvelous look, from the casting of people of color to the mirror-image recreations of Bollywood sets and costumes. Mixing the practical with the magical, we do indeed observe an evolution of the musical format. While it's not as inventive as Lloyd Webber and company would have you believe (it owes far too much to the current Broadway trend of rock album / movie remake-itis), it still looks like a leap beyond the operatic ordinariness that has overwhelmed musical theater for decades. Unlike such previous ethnic missteps as Flower Drum Song and the far more evocative Pacific Overtures, Bombay Dreams has first-hand experience with the genre under the amusement microscope. Thanks to the participation of Bollywood mainstays, this new experience emulates the energy and effervescence of the enigmatic Eastern delight. The Indian creative teams are really a revelation in Salaam Bombay Dreams. Watching composer Rahman improvise over a backing track to capture the perfect melody, or hearing him fret over a series of notes until he gets them right, help us understand why he is so popular—and why his way with instrumentation and intonation are instantly accessible and memorable.
But even more amazing is choreographer Farah Khan. One of only a literal handful of dance instructors in India (where such a career is considered a lowly false occupation), Khan's signature moves are instantly recognizable by anyone who's seen a Bollywood film. Using mostly college kids hoofing for pocket money (their society would never accept the choice of dance as a career), her multi-faceted company—comprised of tall and short, stout and svelte—provides an exercise in contrasts to the bird-like lyricism of English performers. It's fascinating to watch her British equivalents (Anthony Van Laast, along with his underfed assistant) stare in humility as a loose amalgamation of youth suddenly turn into some of the most superior psychedelic whirling dervishes they've ever seen. Complete with telltale comments (Van Laast concedes that, unbeknownst to him, woman can be "curvaceous" and still be great dancers) and Kahn's instant rapport with the camera, the step arrangement aspects of Salaam Bombay Dreams really stand out.
So do the segments where crewmembers like director Steven Pimlott, as well as some of the cast, make the pilgrimage to India to soak in some local color. And drink it in they do. Several times throughout this travelogue portion of the program, we begin to understand how knowledge of the traditions and experience of the source are required to capture all the cultural quirks that this musical wants to maintain. As the opening looms and the narrative focus shifts to last-minute impasses, we leave the marvels of the East for the stresses of the West End. Yet even then, Salaam Bombay Dreams is still fascinating. From the final tweaks to the technical flubs, the show shifts, evolves, comes alive, survives…and thrives. As a collaboration of cultures, Bombay Dreams has no equals. It clearly captures the essence of Bollywood for a new audience to appreciate. As a documentary, this alliance is also an incredibly captivating portrait of partnership attempting to produce paradise.
Eagle Vision Entertainment creates a multimedia DVD package that, if one were so cynical as to think it so, truly smacks of hard-sell promotion. We constantly have the brilliance and the bravery of Bombay Dreams tossed in our entertained faces, a borderline publicity puff piece mentality that almost destroys the delightful digital dimensions here. Still, all shill aside, the sound and image here are near-reference quality. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is so colorful and vibrant, so alive with visual vitality, that you feel you can reach out and touch certain onscreen elements. The clarity is superb, both in the transfer as well as the audio. Using Dolby Digital Stereo to full atmospheric effect, every interview, every rehearsal hall conversation, all the musical moments, and the ambient backing tracks come together to create an astonishingly exotic sonic landscape.
But Eagle actually goes one step further, giving us a bonus bandwagon with several sensational features. There are over 90 minutes of additional interviews included, fleshed-out Q&A's that were used as the source for the film's sound bites and clips. We are treated to four songs from the show, shot in multi-angle excellence to give us an immersive view of the musical numbers. There are also music videos and a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes. One outlines the preparations involved in receiving Her Royal Highness, the Queen, for one of the few nights out at the theater her Majesty has taken in the last few decades. Another highlights the process of taking a scene from rehearsal to stage, with blocking and behavior discussed in exceptional specificity. With almost four hours of material in total, Salaam Bombay Dreams becomes a primer for the making of a musical, as well as a rare glimpse into the culture shock experienced when people from different places on the globe come together for a common creative purpose.
Salaam Bombay Dreams is one of the best documentaries about the elusive, enigmatic world of the theater. Add in the basics of Bollywood, and the creative outsiders let into the Western world of musical production, and you've got a glorious celebration of ingenuity and cooperation. As the signature song in the show states, "the journey home is never too far." For Salaam Bombay Dreams, the long, hard voyage is finally over.
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