How many Bollywood stars does it take to change a light bulb? Actually that’s an unfinished joke because I have no idea (answers on a postcard). Bollywood movies are hugely popular, and so ingrained in popular culture, that even those who’ve never seen one – and that includes me – kind of know what to expect. Standard features (generally produced in what is now Mumbai, and spoken in Hindi) include larger than life heroes, formulaic storylines, expertly choreographed fight scenes, dazzling song and dance numbers, and melodramatic plots, often involving a handsome young man and beautiful young woman caught in a complicated romantic relationship.
Bombay Superstar, a co production between Phizzical, Belgrade Coventry and the New Wolsey, takes place in the early 70’s, the age when the Bollywood blueprint was carved in stone, and the industry went supernova. ‘There are no scripts in Bollywood’, says one character, early on. Fair point. Bombay Superstar is the story of wannabe actress Laila (Nisha Aaliya), who moves to Bombay after the death of her mother, determined to track down Din Dayal (Chirig Rao) – the film director father who abandoned her as a child.
Laila is savvy enough to know becoming a star requires a certain degree of ruthlessness: ‘No one opens doors for me, so I’ll kick them open myself!’ She quickly develops an on-screen rapport with actor Sikander (Rav Moore), which translates into box office gold. Laila and Sikander start to develop feelings for each other. What could go wrong? Everything! Rav is married, and has a child with fellow star Mala (Pia Sutaria). These ill fated romantic shenanigans are observed with a sharp eye and an acid pen by movie gossip queen Pammi (adroitly played by singer/songwriter Amar).
Written as the 50th show for the company Phizzical, Bombay Superstar gets off to a sluggish start, not helped by clunky dialogue, or the fact everyone’s mikes are turned up to the max, high enough to occasionally pick up distracting backstage noise. Half an hour in, and it seems like the actors have relaxed a bit. Bombay Superstar is a jukebox musical, featuring 24 songs, all taken from classic Bollywood films, dating from the late sixties to the mid 80’s. Clearly chosen with love by director Samir Bhamra, it’s the perfect Bollywood playlist (my own personal favourite was ‘Disco Deewane’). All the numbers are interpreted with just the right amount of verve by musical director Hinal Pattani, and his talented band.
The second act involves a near fatal on set-shooting (apparently inspired by a real life incident in the 80’s, which left legendary Indian actor Amitabh Bachnan in critical condition). A huge dramatic turn that director Bhamra rather rushes. Overall, the show feels a bit rough around the edges; there’s room for more dramatic tension, and an extra layer of detail. The functional sparkly set looks like the Las Vegas version of the Taj Mahal reception. Occasional images of 70’s Bombay are projected on the screen above, though they’re so arbitrary, they look like they’ve been randomly copied from an old property catalogue. It would have been great to see images of the real Bollywood, as it developed over the years (sourcing suitable shots from the Getty photo library is ridiculously expensive these days, so maybe I’m expecting too much.)
The show’s secret weapon is Nisha Aaliya, a rising star with various TV projects stacked up and ready to go (including a stint in ‘Emmerdale’, and an upcoming appearance in BBC comedy ‘Ghosts’). Strikingly beautiful, Aaliya approaches the role with a winning combination of steel and vulnerability; Laila’s journey belongs to the time honoured underdog tradition, and Aaliya’s natural warmth means it’s easy to root for her.
Quibbles aside, Bombay Superstar is a hard show to dislike, and the music and choreography eventually win the day, as evidenced by the enthusiastic audience response. Phizzical’s latest may not be perfect, but it is a huge amount of fun.
Bombay Superstar is at The Lowry, Salford from 8-12 November 2022.