What do you get when you cross two soapstars, a dancer, three directors, the latter half of Salim-Javed, a hall with giant LED screens, an infinite numbers of dancers and a flying witch? The next big Abbas-Mustan release, you might say, and you’d only be half wrong. All of this adds up to Kingdom of Dreams’ new production Zangoora - The Gypsy Prince, billed as the “world’s biggest live Bollywood musical”. One assumes that they have Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams in mind when they say “world’s biggest” because it’s India’s only. Zangoora goes where no Indian theatrical production has had the money, inclination or imagination (you can argue on which combination of the three) to go before.
Funny then, that it all felt so familiar. You realise the makers really meant what they said when they promised “Bollywood on stage”. The directors, Vikranth Pawar, Darshan Jariwala and David Freeman, seem to have decided that since there was already 80 years of popular Hindi cinema to choose from, why risk untried material? So you have Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in charge of the music, but there’s just one original song; the rest are all interpretations of older hits (of which only one, a sinister version of the previously sunny “Chaand Taare”, sounds markedly different from the original). The makers play on the familiarity of cultural signposts; “Chura Liya Hai” is still seductive, “Mehbooba O Mehbooba” still has tents in the background. It was hardly surprising to hear the hero’s mother say “Iss din ke liye paal pos kar bada kiya hai? [Did I bring you up to have to see this day?]”. When you play to the gallery, there are no points given for originality.
The story exists mainly as a hook to hang songs on. It unfolds like this: kindly royal couple is killed by scheming minister, their infant son spirited away by loyal courtier. Son is left at gypsy camp where a couple pronounces him a sign from God. Grows up to be Zangoora; is loved by all but especially by fellow gypsy Laachi. Fly in her ointment comes in form of visiting princess whom Zangoora is smitten by. Many, many dances later, loyal courtier returns to tell Zangoora the “truth”, rest is about prince reclaiming his “destiny” and choosing between two women throwing themselves at him. The dialogues (Javed Akhtar might have been better employed here than on script duty), familiar riffs that involve heroes saying “I don’t understand who I am” and heroines saying “Bachao [Help]”, skirt banality. Luckily, there are dances, aerial sequences, magic tricks and other impressive distractions every ten minutes or so.
Though they may not admit it, the sheer scale of the production may have left the directors with little choice but to go with the tried and tested. And it’s all credit to them that they imbued it with as much energy as they did. There were 20-odd dance numbers in Zangoora, and almost every one of them was thrilling, ecstatic fun. The choreography by Shiamak Davar used the massive stage to good effect, adding line after line of dancers until the bodies were a moving tapestry and each song a mini-crescendo. Giant LED screens created backdrops for the action that gave a 3D-like effect. This effect was overwhelming in its sheer scale, even when the animation wasn’t up to scratch. It also allowed the makers to create scenes like the courtier galloping across the desert without having to get an actual horse on stage (though if that had to happen anywhere, you’d bet on Kingdom of Dreams).
Zangoora was played by TV actor Hussain Kuwajerwala, whose dancing abilities (he won season two of Nach Baliye) must have gone a long way towards winning him the role. Limited to weepy TV melodramas for most of his career, he seemed to enjoy playing a larger-than-life hero who dances, lip-synchs, fights, romances and takes off his shirt (let the record show a six-pack). The two leading ladies were just as much fun. Gauhar Khan, pegged as an item girl despite an excellent performance in last year’s Rocket Singh, played Laachi with stares withering and hips slithering. And television actress Kashmira Irani gave Princess Sonali a sense of humour and an appealing coquettishness. The rest of the performers hammed it up, all except Savita Kundra as the wicked witch Chambuti; her shrieking laugh was all the more impressive when one took into account that her entire performance was conducted in mid-air, suspended by wires.
In the end, Zangoora works as spectacle (not as theatre, sadly) largely because the makers had a venue like Nautanki Mahal and enough visual sense to know how to use it. Sheer economics should rule out potential imitators, even if India’s first attempt at a quasi-Broadway musical is a hit (audience reaction seemed to suggest it might). The real test will be the extended run its creators have planned. Theatrical productions in India run for a week or two at most. If Zangoora breaks the one month barrier, this might be the point when this fairy tale-mimicking production starts becoming an actual one.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi