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‘Bollywood Boulevard’ showcases century of Hindi cinema

‘Bollywood Boulevard’ showcases century of Hindi cinema
February 14
10:58 2019

Elizabeth Chalier & Sunthar Visuvalingam

CHICAGO: “Bollywood Boulevard (BB): A Journey Through Hindi Cinema” regaled a mixed audience at McAninch Arts Center (MAC) in Glen Ellyn, over the weekend of February 9 and 10.

A fusion of film, live dance and music, this retrospective multi-media celebration, supported in part by an award from National Endowment for the Arts, featured four vocalists, six musicians and 14 dancers. More than just entertainment, “for more than a century, the Hindi film industry (Bollywood) has attempted to represent the multitude of voices reflecting the country’s different religious, ethnic, linguistic, economic and class backgrounds.”

BB intersperses short films with spectacular classic and contemporary Bollywood dance numbers and music inspired from vintage black and white films. BB was created by MELA Productions and co-executive producers Heena Patel and Rushi Vakil. A ‘common ground conversation’ (Q&A) followed both performances.

First-time producer and artistic director Patel explained to India Post that after Bollywood exploded into Western consciousness with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), public exposure has remained mostly to films released over subsequent years. Ten years in the making, this ‘retrospective’ aims to foster a deeper, more discerning appreciation of the rich history (from (1913) that predates Hollywood.

Memorable vignettes from epochal movies danced across the stage for full 90 minutes, each blending into the next without break, with amazing behind-the-scenes costume changes. This unique fusion brought yesteryear’s film tracks to life for a contemporary, especially American audience, giving a sense of how alive and formative this ‘history’’ remains for their South Asian Diaspora neighbors.

Sunday afternoon’s largely non-Desi middle-aged and elderly audience at the 780-seat Belushi Performance Hall was estimated at 500, most of whom seemed regular subscribers to MAC’s varied palette of plays and performances, who had also witnessed recent shows by visiting troupes, Flamenco from Spain and ballet from Russia. Saturday evening saw 600, a relatively younger audience with higher proportion of Desis, many of whom seemed first-time MAC visitors.

The well-attended introductory MAC chat was conducted by local dancer-choreographer, Jigar Shah, current manager of the annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival. He offered a comprehensive overview of the content, evolution, periodization, superstars, economics, diversity and cultural context of Bollywood movies. This was very necessary for the many unfamiliar with the subcontinent, some of whom had not seen an Indian movie before.

As part of MAC’s free “Music Friday’s @ Noon”, BB music director Vakil gave a special February 8 presentation on Bollywood music, explaining basic beat structure, groupings, the language that goes with the beats and underlying philosophy. He showed film clips to illustrate how to recognize it, encouraging the audience to clap along.

Most of the post-performance ‘conversation’ was dominated by the few Desis and began with one offering the welcome suggestion that each dance be accompanied by an English translation of the lyrics. Given the language barrier, India’s incredible diversity depicted in BB’s content, style, region, social register, associations (Banarasi pan), etc., could be made more evident through simultaneous screens providing a minimum of context. Patel however told us that BB aims to provide an appetizing taste (as across an overwhelming Indian buffet), that the curious could fill themselves with later through social media, etc.

Patel has founded and choreographed award-winning Indian dance teams after learning folk and Bollywood dancing since childhood. Vakil learned Indian classic musical from his father and has credits on movies from splash hit feature films to award-winning shorts. Four among the dancers were locals. Masumi Jadia and Priya Budhwar were from Ameya Performing Arts (APA), a female-led South Asian dance organization in Chicagoland.

Formally trained in Bharatanatyam, APA co-founder and operations director, Jadia, has studied modern, jazz, ballet, and hip hop at New York’s Broadway Dance Center. APA choreographer and multi-faceted Indian dancer, Detroit-native Budhwar (featured here in Tu Hi Re and Mitwa), is trained in Bharatanatyam, Bhangra, Bollywood and Raas. Megha Mathur of Indian Dance School and Komal Joshi of Meher Dance Company performed in Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya from Mughal-e-Azam (with Badwar on Saturday). Masumi Amin was in Tu Hi Re and Mitwa.

Other team members include choreographer Rohit Gijare. who has worked as assistant choreographer on shows combining American and Indian styles of dance including FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance?” BB’s short, animated films are the creation of Raxit Faldu and Faldu studios, a Gujarat-based group that has developed bits specifically to help audiences understand the history of Bollywood.

BB attracted more than 4,000 patrons when it debuted as part of NY Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series in August 2017. Having recently regaled audiences at various other cities in the east, the show will continue touring the rest of the country. With the producers constantly adding to and refining their act, based on audience feedback and as ideas pop up, we hope that subsequent shows, while still catering to South Asian fans, will become even more accessible to appreciative non-Desis braving inevitable cultural barriers to approach India and its diaspora through cinema.

Backstage buzz with Patel incorporating a brief trailer is accessible here

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