The Merchants of Bollywood is a stage musical loosely based on two real figures: Hiralalji Merchant, a choreographer of classic Hindi films, and his granddaughter Vaibhavi Merchant, a young Bollywood choreographer who also created the dances for this show. Director Toby Gough thus yokes a history of Bollywood dancing over the generations to the story of a woman who leaves her old-fashioned grandfather to make her own name in the film industry.
The two stories mix without really matching. The first half sets the scene: a temple to Shiva, Lord of the Dance, with granddad Shantilal (Chander Khanna) as keeper of the flame and young Ayesha (Carol Furtado) as a young woman with modern ideas. But the style clashes brazenly with the story. The temple is filled with pouting dancers in glittery harem pants, hips and shoulders pumping to a bouncy beat, against a digital animation of sacred fires – the idea that Ayesha is leaving a bastion of tradition cuts no ice. The misregister recurs throughout the first part, where dance styles and eras are indicated more by costume changes than by the turbo-charged, samey MTV-style choreography.
Part two has more dramatic unity. The now successful Ayesha returns to make peace with her grandfather, marry her childhood sweetheart Uday (Deepak Rawat), and reflect on the mysteries of life, to jazzed-up Rajasthani folk songs and dances, and lashings of local colour.
Bollywood films are often called “masala movies” – spicy mixtures of action, comedy, melodrama, playback songs and dance sequences. The Merchants of Bollywood is certainly a masala musical, but its proportions are all over the place. Still, like a kick of chilli, its dance numbers overpower with their energy, hot rhythms and kaleidoscope of eye-scorching costumes.