The New Group's world premiere of the Bollywood-meets-Hollywood musical, Bunty Berman Presents sounds like a great musical on paper:
"Movie producer Bunty Berman has long been the toast of Bombay, but now Raj, his biggest star and best friend, is losing his luster. When their new movie bombs, Bunty must navigate through divas, mobsters and ambitious tea boys to keep his studio alive."
I love the big, boisterous feel of Bollywood films and I'm a Broadway fanatic. This has the makings for a great show! But when I went to see the musical the other day, I was confronted with one of the most ill-conceived, transphobic, homophobic, and culturally insensitive pieces of theatre I have seen in some time.
I will note that my heart goes out to the actors who were caught up in this travesty of a production, as many of their performances were the only glimmers of hope in this dreary offensive mess. Lipica Shah glistened as Shambervi, the studio's rising female star. Her vocals were unmatched amongst the crowd and she brought an endearing sweetness to a potentially flat character. Debargo Sanyal was another standout. Though relegated to the ensemble, his comedic timing was spot on and a real joy to watch. Other standouts include the wonderful costume design by William Ivey Long and the resourceful set design by Derek McLane.
That being said, my thoughts on the troubled production are as follows. I would issue a spoiler warning, but it's hard to spoil something so rotten:
A brief plot synpopsis: Bunty Berman is a Bollywood producer who has fallen on hard times. His star, Raj, is aging, fat, and past his prime, and after five recent flops, Bunty Berman Productions is going to have to close down unless he finds a new investor. Enter gangster king, Shankar Dass who wants to finance Bunty's studio in exchange for distracting Shankar's son from the beautiful Sandra de Souza, that Shankar has fallen for. But when Chandra Dass turns out to be a tyrant in his own right, Bunty and his friends must save the studio from the gansters who have taken it over.
My problems with the production:
1) Everything Indian is HILARIOUS:
Almost every time Indian Culture is referenced in the show, it's almost always the punchline in a joke. From the numerous references to lepers and their stumps, the poor and their stench, or the numerous inaccurate cultural references like zen (Japanese), this production seems to be positively gleeful in its ignorance of Indian culture and history. One has to wonder who the dramaturg for this production was and why this person hates director Scott Elliott so much. This attitude towards Indian culture is additionally evident in the Director's Statement in the program which reads: "Part of the appeal of Bunty, too, we believe, is its cultural specificity... the culture of Bunty Berman Productions just happens to be particularly fun!" ... NO. A people's culture is not "fun." It's a real, lived, and important cultural system, not a frackin' field trip.
2) Broadway = real, Bollywood = fake:
This show is very much done in the style of old Broadway. It actually made me think that this was an attempt to do a Rogers and Hammerstein Flower Drum Song, except in India. It's very clear that the production was created from a very strong white cultural frame. All of the "real" songs are done in a western musical style, with one or two Hindi songs spattered through the musical (usually depicting the subject being filmed in Bunty's movies). This creates a stark dichotomy of what kind of music is real or authentic, and what kind of music is affected and inauthentic. It's a core conceit of the musical theatre genre that whenever a character is singing a song, the audience is allowed to interpret whatever is being stated as being truthful to the character. So when all the songs that reveal a character's true authentic self are done in a white cultural style and all the songs that show the character putting on a performance style foreign to their true self... it very much positions white culture over Indian culture as more authentic, truthful, and accessible.
The real tragedy of this positioning is that the most emotionally resonant part of the musical was when Shambervi and Saleem share an unaccompanied, bare bones, impromptu Hindi song and through their shared love of Bollywood find love in each other. This is evidence for me that real Indian performance forms can be just as, if not more, emotionally effective as western performance forms. We don't need to understand the love anthem that Shambervi and Saleem sing to each other... we see it in their eyes, and feel it in their song.
3) Cultural Appropriation:
There were many times that Indian cultural artifacts were appropriated in an offensive manner. Because I'm a dancer first, I noticed this the most in the choreography. Again, all the choreography is derived from western movement vocabularies, drawing most of its inspiration from nostalgic 1950s Broadway (lots of high kicks, square steps, and kick ball changes... ). Every now and again the choreographer would awkwardly try and incorporate an Indian dance movement, typical of Bollywood... but it was often like watching the "Before" sequence of a So You Think You Can Dance Bollywood number... very amateur and imprecise.
The cultural appropriation was at its worst when Shambervi, the leading lady, first realizes her love for Saleem, the tea boy, and embarks on a dreamlike song and dance tap number, like you'd see in Anything Goes. Only this time, Shambervi and her back up dancers aren't tapping, they put on traditional Indian ankle bells used in Kathak dance, one of India's eight classical dance forms.
Kathak dance which features percussive stomping of the feet, rapid turning, and elaborate hand, eye, and facial gestures is a highly dramatic dance form, so would be a good fit for a musical. It's also a highly story-centered dance form, frequently used to depict Indian myths and epic tales. But instead of honoring this rich dance/theatre tradition, they strap on a bunch of ankle bells and do a big, brassy, Broadway tap dance number, using the bells in place of the tap shoes for the percussive element-- complete with that signature Broadway girl nasal oohs and ahs. It's the rough equivalent of a bunch of white people wearing Native American War bonnets at a Washington Redskin's Game. Oh right, that happens all the time.
Before I talk about the piece-de-resistance of offensive transphobic elements of the musical, I want to point out that the musical has several references to queerness that are all used as punch lines and falling into the whole "deviant, evil, deceitful queers" trope:
- Near the beginning of the show, Raj, the fat aging stock hero well beyond his prime, sings a song about his rise to fame. In the song he mentions that he got his break when a pederastic Indian director basically sat the young then-tea-boy on the casting couch for some heavy homo petting.
- When Bunty Berman and Shankar Dass, the gangster-cum-movie-producer, are striking a deal to refinance Bunty's film studio, Shankar makes repeated analogies of their business deal as a marriage, which Bunty repeatedly interrupts to clarify "you mean figuratively right? We're not actually getting in bed together. You know, because we're both men... cuz that would be hilarious/terrible!" /eyeroll
- After Raj sacrifices his film career for the good of the studio, he begins masquerading in various, very poor, female disguises. One of these disguises is a "blind" seer from Karachi (which the writer somehow manufactures an STD joke out of the sound of the city's name. /facepalm). Raj, in an effort to stop Bunty's deal with Shankar Dass breaks out into song as the blind seer, but not before removing her two large (crystal) balls from beneath her skirt. The whole song utilizes the crass crossdresser stock character to painful ends.
And finally we get to the most offensive part of the play: Shankar Dass's (surprise!) crossdressing son, Chandra Dass. The main antagonist of the show at first is Shankar Dass, who essentially buys creative control of BB Productions so that his son will be distracted by the prospects of a film career and stop wooing the sultry songstress Sandra de Souza who Shankar has fallen in love with. Chandra is shown to be a terrible "hero" actor, and after ousting his father from the gang business, firing Shambervi, and wresting creative control from Bunty, Chandra is squarely positioned as the new "big bad." Chandra wants to make BB Productions a platform instead for Sandra de Souza his supposed "lover." The big plot twist is that Sandra is actually Chandra in drag, and Chandra has been cultivating a widely successful female performance persona, akin to Rupaul.
The poorly stitched together resolution of the musical occurs during Sandra/Chandra's first film shoot at BB Productions, where a disguised Shankar infiltrates the set and shoots Sandra dead. When it is revealed that Sandra is actually Chandra and that he has killed his own son, Shankar is driven to inconsolable sorrow and throws himself from the roof of a building. Before he can do so, Bunty and his crew inexplicably try to convince him not to kill himself, despite their previous disdain for him, Bunty tells Shankar that there was no way for him to know that Chandra was masquerading as Sandra, and that Chandra was "asking for it."
Let's take an inventory of the reasons why the audience is told to hate Sandra/Chandra:
- incest - Chandra tricks his father into falling in love with him (read: unnatural)
- deceitful, evil, crossdresser - Chandra, even in male presentation, exhibits a nefarious femininity, akin to Jafar from Disney's Aladdin. When Bunty confront Chandra in his office, which he has taken from Bunty, we see Chandra in silk pajamas (read: sissy), his naked feet propped up on Bunty's desk (read: dirty), and his head being massaged by one of his ganster thugs (read: queer).
- maniacal jealous fame whore - Chandra in male presentation is shown to be a terrible male actor, but when called out on it by the studio's ingenue Shambervi, he unceremoniously fires her (read: bitch). He then chooses to replace her with his own "muse" Sandra (read: bitch).
To put insult to injury, the director wouldn't even let the actor portraying Chandra to play Sandra. Sandra is portrayed by a female actor for the entire production only being swapped out in the middle of the final scene where Chandra/Sandra is murdered by his father.
In defense of Chandra/Sandra, here are the reasons why Chandra is actually is the hero(ine) of the musical:
- The son of a cruel Bombay gangster who mistreated Chandra's mother eventually rises to power and ousts his evil father from his role as gang leader. He exacts revenge on his father by metaphorically castrating him.
- Chandra, who has grown up harboring a desire to dress in women's clothes and be famous, cultivates a widely successful female performance persona, so notable that she is booked at Bombay's trendiest club and captures the affections of powerful men.
- Chandra is handed a film company by his father in a misguided effort to separate Chandra and Sandra. Chandra begins to turn around the failing film studio by jettisoning its failed dead weight, namely Shambervi, who we are told has been dropped from all her other contracts with other companies, and its inept film producer, whose last five films were critical and commercial flops.
- The film producer and his friends plot to murder Chandra because they don't like the new direction he's taking the studio by engineering an on set accident.
- When Chandra/Sandra is finally getting her day in the sun as a real film star, she is murdered not by the plotting film crew, but by her own father.
Chandra/Sandra is the tragic hero(ine) of this musical.
I also want to point people to this open letter written by Mashuq Deen, a trans, Indian playwright who also saw the show recently.
The show has some potential, and could be reworked with some new songs and a repositioning of Indian culture within it to be less problematic... but in its current form it's almost unwatchable.
Save your money and stay home and watch Bride and Prejudice. If you want to see some theatre that honors queer Asian voices, check out Second Generation, GAPIMNY, Q-WAVE, and SALGA's Community Voices: The Next GenderAsian, a series of short plays by Queer Asian playwrights.