Yes, it’s Bollywood, this time not on screen but on stage in a new 90-minute musical devised and directed in Sydney.
To be sure, the backdrops and the lavish costumes for “Devdas: The Musical” come from India, but the rest has been done in Australia, as I find, when I talk to the director, producer and choreographer, Ruchi Sanghi.
Sanghi has been in Australia for 14 years now and has a studio in Parramatta, where she teaches Bollywood and the Kathak dance handed down to her from her famous Mumbai guru, the late Gopi Krishna.Kathak, also known colloquially as “Nautch”, is one of the Indian government’s official classical dance forms. Known for its fine footwork, it came into India via the Mogul empire, then into the courtesan networks of North India where the so-called “nautch girls” were as notable for their affairs as their dance.
But “Devdas: The Musical” is less about sex and more a demonstration that the course of true love never did run true, though the narrator is a courtesan, Chandramukhi.
Briefly, the story concerns the wealthy Devdas family, whose son falls in love with Paro, a neighbour of lower socio-economic standing. Ruin and self-destruction follow.
Sanghi has transferred the story from Kolkata to the holy town of Varanasi (Benares), maximising the romance and minimising the social commentary. So far, she reports, audiences in Sydney have been 50-50 Indian and mainstream and she’s crossing her fingers for a similar result in Canberra.
“I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals and this is very similar to how Broadway would present a show,” she says. The music has been modernised, with 12 catchy songs composed by Aparna Nagashayana.
“I hope to transport audiences back to the lives and times of the maharajas in the early 19th and 20th centuries,” she tells me.
“I’ve grown up all my life watching different versions of ‘Devdas’,” she says, “but nobody ever tried to present it on the stage.”
Despite the songs and the dance, it is a devastating tale.
“We have had most of the audience in tears at the end of the show,” Sanghi says, so much so that someone asked her: “Couldn’t we have a bit of a peppy tune at the end? It’s so tragic”.
But in showbiz, tears are as good as laughter.
“Devdas: The Musical”, Canberra Theatre, 6.30pm, August 16, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.