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The Great White Way to Crossover Success?

When a fellow writer mentioned to me on Twitter that Monsoon Wedding was in the works as a Broadway musical, I felt the frisson of discovering the obvious, the kind of frisson that makes you smack your forehead and say, “Of course!” The Road to America goes through Broadway -- not the only road, but one of the most natural avenues.

I hear you saying, “But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams didn’t exactly set either London’s West End or Broadway on fire.” Well, you, it had a decent two year run in London, but I have to agree you’re right. Even with A R Rahman’s brilliant score, it was ultimately disappointing.

There are very good reasons for this. First of all, the story isn’t that engaging or relatable. Second, the dance numbers, while beautiful, toned down the emotional power and sheer life-affirming spectacle of songs like Chaiyya chaiyya. It’s a brilliant and beautiful song on its own, but once you’ve seen the film version, the Bombay Dreams version pales in comparison, which leads to the third and fourth problems:
3) Denuded or radically-changed versions of classic Indian songs and stories could turn off the built-in audience, NRIs, and
4) No Bollywood stars in the cast.
In other words, if I’m going to pay a hundred quid to see Bollywood, you’d better give me Shah Rukh Khan on top of a a train with hundreds of colorfully dressed people.

Some Bollywood films just don’t translate. You can’t do justice to the train dance in Dil Se by setting it on the stage, even with all sorts of multimedia bells and whistles. But a few choice Bollywood movies are ready-made for Broadway, requiring just minor adjustments. On Broadway, the musical is king, and when it comes to modern musicals, India has America beat hands down.

With its operatic score and story, its touching characters, lush costumes and heartbreakingly beautiful look and tone, Devdas would be an inspired choice for Broadway. I’m referring to the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version, although come to think of it, Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D would make for an interesting and edgy stage production. Devdas is an appealing mixture of sweetness and sophistication, youthful energy and world-weariness that goes straight to the heart of the Broadway audience. Above all, it has a universal story, one that everyone in the world recognises with an ache: The one who got away.
On the lighter side, how about Bunty Aur Babli? Endearing characters, comedy, drama, a zippy plot and great musical numbers -- who wouldn’t enjoy Kajra re and Amitabh’s saucy fusion rap, especially if you could get at least two superstars in the movie’s cast to open the show in a limited run? Sounds like a fun family project for the clan Bachchan, if you ask me.
Or what about Lage Raho Munnabhai? Munna and Circuit and Lucky Singh on Broadway? Damon Runyan would smile at the very thought of it. A romantic, musical comedy about, yes, Gandhi, seems a sure-fire formula for mainstream success.

And here’s an idea that might seem unusual: Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. The somewhat scanty story is hardly a problem for Broadway, not with that score and that choreography. It would probably make a better Broadway musical than film.

Monsoon Wedding, too, is a natural; though it has further to go to make the transition than the movies above. As most of the music in Monsoon is background soundtrack, dance numbers will have to be added, and some of the nuance of the film will be lost on stage, where things have to be even bigger and louder than a Punjabi wedding. But with talents like Vishal Bhardwaj and Jaideep Sahni on the project, composing and writing respectively, it has a very good chance of becoming the next impossible-to-get ticket on Broadway.

Pray for its success, because it could open a lot of doors. Get a load of the potential. Not only does Bollywood have a chance to win the New York/London theatre audience and the media in both places, but a hit show spawns road shows, spreading Bollywood throughout America like Johnny’s proverbial apple seeds. People who love the musical would purchase the movie version on DVD, not to mention the CD soundtrack and T-shirts. Yes, people who love your Broadway show will pay you money to advertise your product on their chest.

And of course, hit Broadway shows often get made into Hollywood films. A film-Broadway-film transition, while exceedingly rare,  is not impossible, as John Waters’ film-musical-film Hairspray proved.

Can a Bollywood homage on Glee be far behind?

Sparkle Hayter is a writer who worked in Bollywood for a Canadian movie channel for two years. She has been following Hindi cinema for over 20 years.

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