B-Town in London town

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Old 27-May-2012
B-Town in London town

UNP ImageLater this month, Bollywood goes to Britain, when a musical titled Wah! Wah! Girls takes the high-octane spectacle of Indian films to the stage. In itself, this is not a new idea: 10 years ago Andrew Lloyd Webber did it with Bombay Dreams. What makes Wah! Wah! Girls different, and potentially very exciting, is that it is set not in India, but in the London of 2012.

Whereas Bollywood is defined by a look of opulence and lavish shimmer, this show takes place in the East End, complete with onstage corner shop. Its cast of 14, mostly British Asians, also has a role for that familiar London figure, the Polish handyman.

At the heart of the show is a love story, but more tellingly there is a confrontation between old India — as symbolised by the traditions of mujra, a sensuous dance dating back to the Mughal era — and the new generation that has grown up with modern Bollywood and a more Westernised "street" attitude. This culture clash is played out directly through two powerful female roles, and the result might just bring real meaning to overused labels such as "diverse" and "vibrant". More importantly, it should make for a cracking piece of theatre.

The richly collaborative show is written by Tanika Gupta, and its score interweaves familiar Bollywood songs — "item numbers", as the parlance has it — with a new score by Niraj Chag. Then there are the two choreographers. Gauri Sharma Tripathi is a highly distinguished exponent of the ancient dance form kathak. Javed Sanadi, who made a great hit as one of the "professionals" in the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing, is renowned for his work in the Bollywood style.

These apparently dissimilar dance worlds are not, in truth, so far apart. Bollywood today may have become brasher, flasher and more highly edited. Yet its origins go right back to the Mahabharata, to folk theatre and to classical styles such as kathak, which in turn influenced the court dancing of mujra. It is, as Sanadi says, "like a family tree. So many branches, of all the styles that have been taken on and adapted".


On a trip to Mumbai, to see the very early stages of rehearsal, I get a brief and intoxicating sense of this breadth of heritage. Tripathi's mother, Padma Sharma, is a legendary figure in the world of kathak. For a few unforgettable minutes she gives a masterclass, dancing barefoot to the rhythm of her daughter's chanting. What is extraordinary is the way that the lower body remains rooted, stamping and swaying, while the hands and head make small, immaculate gestures of amazing expressiveness.

"The feet, the upper torso, the head — they are all saying different things," says Tripathi.

After this, Sanadi, who is himself classically trained, takes the dancers through a couple of swift, dazzling routines that will later be re-choreographed on the British cast. Despite the greater attack of the more modern style, the movements retain the old qualities of playful eloquence, of sensual engagement with the spectator.

Tripathi describes the process of "getting the vocabulary into their bodies", something that has been hard. "Because they are actors, when they clock what you are talking about, it's there. I just had to hack it through without breaking their confidence.

"And so much of it is about the vibrancy of the face — that's pure Bollywood. I knew that it was a tough terrain we were treading on, trying to find people who could act and sing and dance. But what we were looking for was a little madness and hunger in the way that they danced. An authenticity."

In the rehearsal hall at Clapham, south London, the cast go through their final number, best described as a Bollywood rap. Their unified voices sound alive with passion but also with a relaxed, very British kind of humour. This, indeed, is achieving what Sanadi describes as the aim of the show: "Bollywood with essence of London".

Key to the enterprise is director Emma Rice, of the acclaimed theatre company Kneehigh. Tripathi says: "We all grew up watching Bollywood. It is part of our lives. Emma didn't know the world in that way — so the cliches of interpretation could be avoided."

As for that bizarre title — what exactly does it mean? "Wah," says Tripathi, "is a very old word. It dates back to the Mughals. It's an expression, a sort of ‘wow', to show that you appreciate whatever you are savouring. It's what you say when your senses have been gratified."

Here's hoping.

— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2012

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