The established Merchant family returns to London’s Peacock Theatre this year with another kaleidoscopic Bollywood-inspired production, Taj Express.
From the start the tone is set, with a warning to the audience that the story consists of ‘unbelievable storylines, melodramatic acting and terrible jokes’.
In essence it is a show within a show, with a deliberately thin plot that allows its vast choreographies to take centre stage. This is a story of Shankar (Mikhail Sen), a budding composer obsessed by the famous Indian composer A.R. Rahman. Desperately hoping to follow in his idol’s footsteps, Shankar lands his dream job to write the music for a new romantic Bollywood blockbuster Taj Express, a quintessential love story of an actress Katrina Kaboom (Tanvi Patil) and a very handsome underdog Arjun (Hiten Shah). Shankar and his small group of reluctant but immensely talented musicians take us through the film plot that is woven into his own creative processes to create his first Bollywood musical.
The back projections on semi-transparent mesh were a striking combination of authentic and abstract imagery. This brought relevance to the narrative and scene changes without the need for a set, so producer Shruti Merchant and choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant were able to make intelligent use of the stage. An example of this is how Shankar’s music studio was set behind the mesh, giving a literal feel of being ‘behind the scenes’.
It was a pleasant surprise to have the opening dance scene as an ode to goddess Saraswati in a semi-classical choreography that also borrowed from the karanas (the 108 key units of dance as described in the Natya Shastra). The female lead, Tanvi Patil, performed this and most of the other dance sequences with the same grace and panache that you would expect from a principal performer. Kudos should also go to the eighteen-member ensemble who vibrantly dance their way through twenty-three scenes and myriad costume changes. Overall, the choreography is structured very similarly to what is seen in many Indian film awards: high-energy dancing with constant variations in styles, tempo, spatial patterns, and of course a large helping of props. There are moments of great skill also provided by the male lead Shah. The leading duo stands out majestically in terms of their movement range and individual energies. Their duets deserve a special mention and include a stunning rendition of the famous Gujarati folk song Mor Bani Thanghat Kare.
One sequence that attempts to represent a journey from north to south India through a multitude of dance forms, however, is a medley that ultimately disappoints if your knowledge of Indian folk and classical dance is great. Intermingling styles such as manipuri, Rajasthani chirmi, kathakali and the karaga folk dance from Karnataka with a Bollywood twist was perhaps the low point of the entire evening due to its loose interpretations of each style.
Despite this, the soundtrack is a mixed bag of familiar favourites of Bollywood’s greatest hits, particularly those by Rahman. However, the real art lies in the live music by Chandan Raina (guitarist), Prathamesh Kandalkar (percussionist) and the favourite, Avadooth Phadke (flautist), which elevates the overall soundscape and mood of the evening. It is a pleasure to listen to them showcase their talents individually and together. Raina also occasionally anchors the show through direct conversation, yoga and current affairs to engage a friendly unity between audience and performer.
For the most part this is a people-pleaser; a commercial show that will entice audiences from all backgrounds to visit the theatre. It is certainly an evening of unapologetic cheese and glamour with likeable characters in a light-hearted, high-energy set-up. As mentioned by a colleague, more than a musical, this really is a ‘dance-ical’.