The Merchants of Bollywood is an electrifying dance theatre performance at the Peacock Theatre in conjunction with Sadler’s Wells. The story is set in India, in the deserts of Rajasthan, and follows the young and talented classical dancer, Ayesha Merchant (Carol Furtado). Her grandfather, Shantilal Merchant (Denzil Leonard Smith) is a dance master. The Merchant family dynasty holds the responsibility of continuing the ancient tradition of Kathak dance – the dance of the gods. However, Ayesha believes that change is necessary and she wants to become a Bollywood movie star. Shantilal warns her of the corruption and the commercialisation of the industry, which is what caused him to leave and set up his own classical dance school in the desert. Ayesha wants to change lives with her performances. She leaves her former life to the disappointment to her grandfather, and she gains success and fame as a Bollywood leading lady. However, she is frustrated by the haranguing of the press and fame. She decides to return and reconnect with her roots and make amends with her grandfather who has since turned to alcohol. Upon her return, she discovers that Shantilal is dying and that the tradition of Kathak dance will soon die too. Ayesha resolves to marry her childhood sweetheart, Uday (Sushant Sanjeev Pujari), and remain in Rajasthan to continue running her grandfather’s dance school, but with her own modernised twist fusing the old with the new.
This dance theatre spectacle is everything you could ask for in a Bollywood performance. There are fantastic ensemble dance numbers with great technique, an engaging story, a talented cast and of course plenty of glittery colourful costumes and set pieces such as horses, kites and tuk tuks. The cast are equally good at dance as well as acting. Carol Furtado is likeable, strong-willed and empathetic as Ayesha. Denzil Leonard Smith is a force to be reckoned with as the loving and stubborn Shantilal. Sushant Sanjeev Pujari brings the lightness and humour into the mix with his portrayal of the cheeky Uday. Arif Ahmen Zakaria is the core of the play as a powerful narrator and also doubles as Tony Bakshi – the Indian John Travolta. The supportive dancers are fantastic and bring the energy to the piece.
The Merchants of Bollywood’s success is down to the writing and direction by Toby Gough, as well as the choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant and Shruti Merchant. It is this creative collaboration, which takes the performance from more than just a dance number, into a theatre piece with meaning. The story is based on Vaibhavi’s own family, which is perhaps why it resonates as an honest and powerful tale. Additionally, there are small references to the historical context such as the Partition (1947), which are equally important and formative to the background of the piece. The show is as much about Ayesha as it is about India. It seems allegorical that Ayesha resolves to mix old and new, much how India itself has grown as a powerful country.
The Merchants of Bollywood is a celebration of Bollywood and carries the message of staying true to one’s roots, but also to move with the times. It is a show for all the family, and the audience leaves wanting to dance along to the catchy Bollywood beats.
The Merchants of Bollywood is playing at the Peacock Theatre until 11 June. For more information and tickets, see the Sadler’s Wells website.