Saturday, August 23, 2008

Unforgettable: Bollywood in New York


New Yorkers aren’t immune to star power, but anyone ogling, gushing, or asking for autographs is immediately marked as a tourist. Indifference, even when feigned, is considered the proper response to a celebrity sighting. This blasé approach wouldn’t translate in India, where people openly and unabashedly worship their Bollywood actors—literally. In Bombay I saw pictures of the god Krishna displayed alongside photos of heartthrob Hrithik Roshan.

Adeet and I recently had the chance to join in the idol worship. A troupe of some of India's most popular Bollywood stars performed in New York as part of the “Unforgettable” tour. Amitabh Bachchan, his son Abishek, daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, Preity Zinta, Riteish Deshmukh, and Madhuri Dixit, danced and lip-synced for a sold-out crowd at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum.

Thanks to the generosity of our friend Deepak, Amitabh Bachchan’s makeup artist, Adeet and I had backstage passes for the event. We wandered past tables piled with costumes and admired larger-than-life puppets propped against the wall. Dancers adorned in fake jewels and Day-Glo leotards ran past us. One of the production coordinators asked if we were hungry and led us to a room with a buffet table filled with samosas and tandoori mixed grill. Bollywood catering!


After we ate, Adeet and I passed Preity Zinta rehearsing her dance moves in the hallway and then found ourselves standing outside the stars' dressing rooms. Suddenly Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was standing in front of me, so close I could see the vaccination scar on her arm. A thick layer of glittery makeup set off her famous eyes and her hair fell in curls down her back. Adeet commented, “I thought she’d be taller,” but he also remarked that she looked just as beautiful in person as in pictures. We were both enjoying the very un-New York experience of acting star-struck.

Abishek, however, looked slightly less handsome close up, but my judgment might have been influenced by my husband’s own Bollywood good looks. He looked serious, while Aishwarya appeared bubbly and happy.

That evening marked the 61st anniversary of India's independence. Before going on stage, the stars stood in a circle and held hands as they sang their national anthem. Amitabh’s rich baritone carried the song, especially during the final "Jaya hē" ("Victory to thee"). The actors then paused for a prayer thanking God for their final performance in the States and the tour's success, despite some glitches. Sometimes even divine intervention can’t prevent technical difficulties.

Adeet and I had seats in front, off to the side of the stage. We usually had an unimpeded view, except when effusive fans tried to rush past us. Before each actor emerged from the wings, film clips played on giant screens. Then, in a Purple Rose of Cairo moment, the actor from the screen appeared on stage, ready to entertain thousands of screaming fans. Riteish Deshmukh, known for his comic roles, opened to a dance routine involving oversized dollar bills. (Wouldn't euros have been flashier?) When fans screamed, "I love you, Riteish!" he quickly responded, "I love you, too."

Abishek arrived in a caged platform that swooped over the crowd before descending. When he danced across the stage and encouraged the crowd to clap along, he appeared much more animated than he had backstage. Aishwarya appeared for her first routine wearing black pants and a silver bustier-type top. Although still attractive, her outfit seemed oddly unflattering. In later numbers she looked radiant in traditional Indian clothes.

Aishwarya took a few moments to make a pitch for the Green Globe Foundation, which hopes to provide villages with solar-powered lanterns. Her somewhat awkward appeal won’t lead to a public speaking tour anytime soon. She then introduced her mother-in-law, Jaya, who encouraged us to do our part to help reduce global warming and to donate a lantern.

Between the actors' routines, singers Vishal and Shekhar sang hits such as "Om Shanti Om." The song is ubiquitous in our Jackson Heights neighborhood, and I joined in the English refrain. The crowd kept the security guards busy as they left their seats to dance, and two especially exuberant women near us were eventually banished.

Amitabh is a firmly established deity in the Bollywood pantheon. Dramatic music accompanied his film montage, and the emcee made declarations such as, "The Indian the whole world recognizes." (He is instantly recognizable with his dark hair and white beard. But what about Gandhi?) The crowd didn't question the hagiography and roared when the actor took the stage. 

Later Amitabh joined in some song-and-dance numbers, but for now he was more thespian than entertainer. The dance troupe got to rest from the relentless, near-manic choreography as Amitabh recited lines from his father's poem "Agneepath" and his film Deewaar. Although I couldn't understand the Hindi lines, I appreciated the resonance of his deep voice.

Despite the crowd's obvious adoration of Amitabh, the audience gave actress Madhuri Dixit one of the evening's most enthusiastic responses. Some women sitting near us left as soon as her performance was over—nothing else could surpass her. Madhuri danced gracefully, and even when Aishwarya joined her, she demanded the most attention.

For the final numbers, Preity joined Abishek for a “rock-and-roll” dance routine. She twirled expertly, evidence that her hallway rehearsal had paid off. I especially enjoyed one of the closing dances that featured Amitabh, Abishek and Aishwarya (see the video clip below).

video

The evening’s performance lasted four hours, but I hadn’t grown tired of it. As a child, I frequently enlisted my two younger brothers to join me in a dance line, my choreography consisting mainly of high kicks to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." For years, my family staged elaborate lip-sync performances every New Year’s Eve. Perhaps that's why I have a fondness for Bollywood, with its "Let's put on a show!" enthusiasm, flashy costumes, fervent dancing, and yes, lip-syncing.

When the lights went up, I turned to Adeet and said, "I never need to go to Las Vegas." How could anything there top the spectacle we'd just seen? But as much as I enjoyed the elaborate extravaganza, my favorite moment had occurred backstage. Jaya hē, jaya hē, jaya hē.

Unforgettable Tour
Nassau Coliseum • Long Island, NY

"Unforgettable" poster from: http://www.theunforgettabletour.com/home.html
photos and video by Adeet Deshmukh

5 comments:

tburman said...

Cool!

Vishal used to be frontman for a band called Pentagram back here. Pretty popular too. Never thought we'd see the day he "sold out". The zeal of youth and all that.

Roughnecks of Ravenna said...

An extravaganza.

"The Indian the whole world recognizes." (What about Gandhi?)
I've been thinking abut this statement since you mentioned it. What if we assume he meant "living Indian"? Then where are we? Closer to the truth?

Please tell me there will be a dvd.

sandhya said...

How fun! Thanks for an inside look at a concert I would have loved to have attended. I haven't been to one of these in several years, but it seems like they've gotten much more organized and hi-tech. I agree that Aishwarya looks much better in her radiant Indian outfits!

Anonymous said...

Even is other cities Madhuri got the most applause. New York Times also wrote that Madhuri's perfomance was the best.

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