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Case of cultural handicap

``Bombay Dreams" is something that Indians can love watching and not the British, because they don't know the peculiar language of Bollywood productions. That is only if you would grant that the response of white critics concurs with that of white theatre-goers. In performances, the two have been theatrically apart, says this Correspondent from London.


Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, left, with Shekhar Kapur, centre, and A.R. Rahman.

WHOEVER SAID you cannot be critical of a critic? The only difficulty is that it is a wasteful tangent. It can become a dialogue of comments and of comments over comments. And so if you are talking of some of the recent remarks by some critics on "Bombay Dreams," then you are probably talking of something else, not of ``Bombay Dreams." Because much of the allegedly critical stuff on this musical says something about where the critics are coming from, not about the musical itself. This can of course be just as true of people who praise the production. And praise from Indians, particularly.

The Indian response to the musical has been little less than ecstatic. But that could be a statement of where we are coming from. Not just a matter of nationalistic delight to have a Bombay story on stage in London's West End, but also because we all bring to Bollywood stuff that good old willing suspension of disbelief that makes these productions watchable. That some others do not is nothing more than a cultural handicap. So at least it is possible to argue. And so you could be saying that ``Bombay Dreams" is something that Indians can watch and love watching, and not the British, because we know the peculiar language of Bollywoodish productions, and they don't.

That is only if you would grant that the response of white critics concurs with that of white theatregoers. In performances of ``Bombay Dreams," the two have been theatrically apart.

At the Apollo Victoria white audiences have screamed and cheered in delight as much as the Indians. You can believe either what you see in the theatre, or what you see in newspaper columns. The difference is dramatic, and visibly dramatic. It's a pity how many of us, and that includes us Indians, and particularly those who feel obliged to adopt positions that we hope will be considered intellectual, actually feel the need to borrow thinking from an English critic to substitute what we should be able to see for ourselves.

We must read the English critics to decide what we saw. This kind of institutional awe is of course a statement of our own inadequacy. A pity that so much of this has been evident in the Indian media.

A good deal of criticism of the musical in Indian media is little more than rehashed thinking, even rehashed language. And this sort of thing is so much with us that you need to get the critics out of the way before you can return to the musical.

"Bombay Dreams" is by any standard a fabulous production. And that can mean the standard of West End theatre, considered with Broadway to be about the best there is anywhere. If this isn't good enough, it's hard to say what could be.

The English critics stand damned in the face of this production. But they also stand exposed for what they are saying on its own. Listen to this from The Independent: "The play does not work because its time is out of joint," says the critic. "When India does not mean songs and sequins but terror and panic, one needs more than this shoddy glamour to forget reality." That this panic was mostly in the minds of foreigners is another matter. But if there is terrorism in India, should Bollywood be retired? Is terrorism all that happens in India? This kind of reasoning can of course be extended almost indefinitely.

It is if anything embarrassed by its own obvious nature. You summon it only to counter this opinion being offered by way of critique in British newspapers. You almost think that these critics had their knives out for this production well before it hit the stage.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is anything but a popular figure among critics; his unmatched success, if nothing else, has made sure of that. And there is little sympathy among critics who make the minutiae of subtleties the measure of success for the broad-brush strokes of Bollywood. Some of this criticism comes from ignorance, but also a determination to remain ignorant. The Independent is worried that ``excited destitute women do a happy dance." Please, is this a musical, or isn't it?

And whoever claimed that this is a sociological study of the class divide in Bombay? And there is ignorance of the take-offs on Bollywood that come through the musical, like that villainous laugh from JK.

The Independent writes: "It's also difficult to take seriously a villain who wears a single black glove and laughs like a drain in a Christopher Lee film." The critics cannot forgive India its poverty.

"The musical mockingly contrasts the glittering fantasy of Bollywood movies with the grim reality of Bombay," The Guardian writes. But the whole musical is not that serious. It's a story that is like a fable, with song and dance and this and that. The Guardian calls it ``ambivalence" which it would be if this was a stage version of a Ph.D.

The Guardian writes that in the end the baddies are beaten up in Bruce Lee style. It acknowledges that this is fun, but that what is harder to take is the notion of the Bombay back streets filled with happy dancing slum dwellers. The poor boy-rich girl story is such an obvious part of Bollywood fun. The Times sagely calls the story ``preposterous".

It says: "Some clunkingly earnest stretches of dialogue invite us to take the preposterous story seriously. But then the villainous Raad Rawilets rip a horror-movie laugh, or a fight sequence is accompanied by pantomime drum thwacks, and we are in a style of ham melodrama not seen since the days of Sir Henry Irving. Post-modern irony? No, just miscalculation." — on the part of critics, one might add.

That Bollywood is a foreign genre is little excuse for this. Out in the theatre thousands of Brits who know less about Bollywood than critics ought to have, just loved the show.

That the critics did not is their problem. You only wish that they had found some way of keeping that to themselves.

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