It may be a well-worn path, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun too. The glitter and sparkle of Bollywood is making its way to the Dubai Opera stage, from October 16-20, and it’s promising to be a hoot. Ahead of the show, Gulf News tabloid! caught up with Vaibhavi Merchant, who has crafted and choreographed the love story set along the length and breadth of India.
It’s a boy-meets-girl romance — with a difference — tracing the hiccups of the Indian movie industry. It centres on the world of Shankar, who owns a music studio and who aspires to be like Grammy-winning composer AR Rahman. “We wanted to make Taj Express about a boy meeting a girl, and their journey from Kashmir to Kanyakumari — literally from the north of India to the south of India to the east of India to the west of India. So we were covering a bouquet of all the textures, pallets, landscapes of India. It slowly then also progressed into making it a contemporary story; we started off classical… [with] a beautiful romance, and then we contemporised it.”
Expect a quick lesson in all things Tinsel town. The songs you’ll be grooving to include: Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) (from Slumdog Millionaire); Deewani Mastani (from Bajirao Mastani); Bang Bang (from Bang Bang!); and Wakhra Swag (feat Badshah).
The show is the brainchild of Vaibhavi Merchant and her sister, Shruti, who has produced and directed it. “This is an actual home production,” says Merchant. “This is something we’ve always wanted to do; we’ve always wanted to venture out into theatre.”
Together, the formidable siblings have worked on movie songs that include Dholi Taro (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam); Bairi Piya (Devdas); and Love Yatri.
Their first foray on stage was with Merchants of Bollywood.
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It’s never the same old, same old with this production. “Every year there’s a show [and] we always update [with] newer songs. Because we update newer songs, then there have to be newer choreographies. We update and bring new actors and we change and bring newer scenes. So this an ever-evolving [show].”
Bold. Brazen. Unapologetic. Masala moments. Magic. What’s not to love? “There is a celebration of who we are in Bollywood,” says Merchant on the subject matter’s draw. “This is who we are and we take pride in whoever we are. The energy, the colours and the grandeur — all that translates into entertainment, and that’s what they [people] like.”
Taj Express is a ride through the ups and downs experienced by those who are entrenched in the industry. “It’s not all happy and fun and glory; it also dabbles with the angst of the creator who has to go to these lengths to make a formulaic success story within the script,” explains Merchant.
“So what are the issues and what are the problems that Shankar’s character, who’s [an] aspirant music director, faces? It’s really bizarre you know because he’s having a conversation with a director over his food and he’s being asked to churn out a certain number overnight. And these are all true stories.”
Lesson from life
The chaos and predictability you see on stage is an echo of the craziness in real life. Merchant offers an anecdote to illustrate the point. “Like even Swag Se Swagat [from Tiger Zinda Hai in 2017], we were holding on to a song which was made six months ago, but exactly three [or] four days before we were leaving for Greece, we suddenly changed the song and Swag Se Swagat came in. [Since then it’s become] a hit, obviously.”
#MeToo - maybe not
When she talks about the MeToo wave threatening to drown Bollywood by revealing abuse of power, Merchant gets very animated. She wonders why one needs to go industry by industry to focus on the issue. “Forget industry, you are looking at a shadow of society,” she says.
“Every girl in her lifetime, be it a sister, mother, friend, me, you, we’ve all gone through some kind of harassment, whether it’s sexual, whether it’s emotional. It depends on what dose it comes in, whether it’s mild, whether it’s too harsh. But I believe this, that every girl in her lifetime has gone through this. There’ll be very few exceptions.”
She does, however, have something to say to people who wait to speak up about it. “If you’ve gone through something like this, you must seek your justice or whatever it takes to bring your dignity back to you. You do it right there and then. It can’t be an afterthought. It shouldn’t be an afterthought because it damages you that much further. Like if you’ve waited for 18 years; you’ve waited for eight years; if you’ve waited for even an hour. Don’t wait,” she stresses.
She says she herself hasn’t faced such traumatic events. “If I am uncomfortable at an area, I simply say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t wish to work with you people”.
However, she has a bone to pick with those who won’t speak up. “You can be more powerful than that person who has oppressed you, because you have to understand that the oppressor is the weaker one. Not the one whose bring oppressed,” she says.
But she’s quick to speak without genders, saying it’s not just men who can be predatory. “There are also women who’ve also gone to [various] extents to get what they want, and there have been men who’ve refused these kind of women; folded their hands and said,’ sorry, madam please leave…’ so you can’t just say this is the only thing that’s happening.” There are, says Merchant, two sides to every story.
Don’t miss it!
Taj Express runs at the Dubai Opera from October 16 to 20. Tickets, starting at Dh95, are available online.