The music begins slowly. A few sad and faraway notes and then more instruments, and still more, until the piece climaxes with the cacophony of a city springing to life. I could be describing George Gershwins An American in Paris. But in fact, I am thinking of A.R. Rahmans Bombay Awakes, the haunting instrumental prelude to Andrew Lloyd Webers new Broadway musical, Bombay Dreams.
Different music, different cities, different times.
Gershwins jazz music evokes an era when Americans were embracing their own national culture and rethinking their relations with Europe. Rahmans music (a hybrid of Indian and American pop traditions) sounds the slow, still distant, but intensifying influence of India on the Western pop imagination.
As Bombay Dreams continues, the music becomes more sassy and in your face until we reach the show stopping number, Shakalaka Baby. Fountains spurt water high in the air and rain showers down on the writhing bodies of the chorus, each in a brightly colored and soaking wet sari.
Western critics have been confused by the shows abrupt shifts in tone and its broad performance style (characteristics it shares with many of the Hindi films that inspired it). The New York Times’ Ben Brantley notes that Bollywood, the object of its homage and parody, is little known to theatergoers who have nevereaten a papadum. But for many South Asians, the play has become a cause celebre.
I was lucky enough to see a preview of the play in London several years ago and get an early glimpse of the cultural phenomenon it would become there, despite (or perhaps because of) such critical dismissals. The theater was packed with the elite of Londons Indian diasporic community. They came wearing silk, gold, and velvet. They were there to support what was the first South Asian show to open in the West End. The play ran for more than two years.
Shortly after its debut, the Indian-born filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Four Feathers, The Bandit Queen), himself an investor in Bombay Dreams, startled readers of the London newspaper The Guardian, with a boastful prediction that Asian media might edge out U.S. dominance over the worlds media market in the coming decade. American medias market share is declining as media producers around the world are reasserting their control over local markets. There are now 60 countries in which 70 percent or more of television programs are produced domestically. That’s a dramatic reversal of the situation a decade ago, when the worlds television networks were dominated by Dallas and Bay Watch. Hollywoods global box office revenues are down 16 percent and other national cinemas, especially in Asia, are rebounding. Seeking to hold onto its economic empire, Hollywood (and American media makers more generally) are courting Asian consumers, while Asian media are entering the U.S. market in ways never before imagined.
The degree of Asian cultural penetration was brought home when I recently went to a Loews theater in Boston and saw a come-on for its Fandango ticket service. The promotion featured puppets speaking with Indian accents and dancing to the strains of Bhangra music. Bollywood had come to the multiplex!