hat’s a good Broadway musical without a pair of star-crossed lovers, a little dishum-dishum action, and some racy dance numbers, plus or minus a wet sari scene? No, you’re not mistaken—we are talking about Broadway. But if you thought we meant Bollywood, you’re not far from the mark. Bombay Dreams, which hit New York’s Broadway stage in April after two successful years in London, encompasses everything we both love—and love to mock—about Bollywood films.

Produced by renowned Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bombay Dreams takes its audience on a rhythmic ride as it follows young, witty Indian street-dweller Akaash on his rise to fame in Bollywood, the tinseltown of the East. On his journey to stardom, Aakash falls in love with aspiring filmmaker Priya and learns that the price of fame and fortune means rejecting his roots and values.

This is, even for many of us, a chance to explore our culture for the first time or the second time on the stage and to be with a bunch of people who are doing the same thing.

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The stars of Bombay Dreams Speak Their Minds

Anisha Nagarajan
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Before Broadway: Anything Goes (Reno Sweeney), Fiddler on the Roof (Fruma Sarah), To Kill a Mockingbird (Jean Louise Finch)
On singing both Indian and Western music in BD: “Considering that I grew up with both so hand in hand, the idea of the merging wasn’t really that foreign to me because I myself am kind of a merge. I grew up in a family where my mom would play Jesus Christ Superstar, the records from her childhood … But at the same time she would put in a song from Santanam. So it was a very eclectic household.”

Manu Narayan
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Before Broadway: Public Theater’s F*cking A, national tour of Miss Saigon, founder of Rasa Theater
On working on a Broadway show: “When you’re doing a show, your day-to-day life changes. Everything becomes about the time between seven o’clock and 11 o’clock. That’s the meat of the day. That’s what you have to save your energy for, save your voice for, save your everything for. It’s as if running a marathon happens between seven o’clock and 11 o’clock as opposed to people who work from nine to five. If you work nine to five, you can go out and do whatever you want from five until you have to go to bed. But for us, it’s seven to 11 and then after 11 it takes a lot to come down from that.”

Sriram Ganesan
Hometown: Philadephia, Pennsylvania
Before Broadway: Songs for a New World, Pirates of Penzance (Frederick), Pippin (leading player), recently featured in the benefit concert “Embrace!” alongside talents like Raul Esparza
On the South Asian community’s reaction to him playing a hijira (eunuch/transgender) in BD: “Some of the more traditional Indian audiences are confused about why the role of Sweetie is played in such an affectionate and kind and gentle way because they’re so used to the hijiras as being nasty and cruel and mean and vulgar. This kind of portrayal where [eunuchs] have feelings is so odd to them. Sometimes you get a few audience members who have a tough time accepting it, but all in all I don’t see anybody having real issues with [the presence of homosexuality in the show]. Ultimately acting is acting and you’re being somebody who you’re not. And if they make assumptions about the actor based on the role they’re playing, then the actor has succeeded at his job, in my opinion.”

Bombay blows New York away

Even though critics have given the play mixed reviews, audiences are still packing the theater four months after opening night. Lead actress Anisha Nagarajan plays Priya, the enthusiastic film director/wannabe social revolutionary. She claims that though the show is unlike most musicals in some ways, it doesn’t deviate too far from the Broadway formula. “The show’s got all of the same elements that a lot of Broadway shows have, in the sense that it does have that love story and the rags-to-riches kind of themes that a lot of people can relate to. So it’s not foreign in its storyline,” Nagarajan says.

A cross between Bollywood filmi music and traditional Broadway show tunes, the music of Bombay Dreams was composed by acclaimed Indian music producer A.R. Rahman. Rahman, who lavishly borrows from popular songs like “Shakalaka Baby” from the film “Nayak” and “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from “Dil Se,” also created many original numbers specifically for Dreams. These songs, including “The Journey Home,” “Salaam Bombay” and “Love’s Never Easy,” capture the show’s spotlight even more than its witty dialogue or hilarious parody of Bollywood film. “The music is so new for Broadway, and you can tell the audience is toe tapping and kind of dancing in their seats by the end of the show because I mean, it’s A.R. Rahman,” says Nagarajan, referencing Rahman’s enormous success in the Indian film industry.

Left: Manu Narayan and Anisha Nagarajan. Right: The water scene.
A close-knit cast

Though Bombay Dreams does boast some marquee names, some very new faces make their Broadway debut, as well. The cast, comprised not only of South and East Asians but also other actors of color, is also much younger than the ensembles of its Broadway counterparts. The close-knit group spends a lot of time together off-stage, according to Nagarajan. “It’s definitely very interesting to have a cast of so many South Asians and also other Asians as well. We all sort of treat each other like siblings.”

Star Manu Narayan, who plays Akaash the slum-dweller, says that while the bond between cast members is something found in most productions, the cast of Bombay Dreams has a special rapport. “There’s always camaraderie in a show. But we all have a common bond because most of us are South Asian. This is, even for many of us, a chance to explore our culture for the first time or the second time on the stage and to be with a bunch of people who are doing the same thing. So it’s great,” Narayan explains.

Sriram Ganesan, who plays Akaash’s best friend, the eunuch Sweetie, says the group is one of the most unified and tight-knit casts he’s ever worked with. “I think it’s very much attributed to the fact that a lot of us are an ethnic minority, and we had to work that much harder to overcome the obstacle of making it to where we are right now,” says Ganesan.

The Bombay Dreams company.
The family factor

And where would Bollywood be if there wasn’t a little family tension? A career in theater is not often something South Asian parents hope for their children. Nagarajan was only 19 years old when she won the part of Priya—and she had to face the pressure of balancing the wishes of her family with her own dreams. Nagarajan is currently on a leave of absence from New York University, where she is a sophomore studying drama. Despite seeing her name in lights, some family members are still concerned.

“It would be completely impossible at this point for me to try to be a student at the same time,” Nagarajan says, citing her busy schedule with Bombay Dreams, which has her performing six days a week. “There’s definitely familial wanting of me to become a part-time student. It’s not my parents. It’s other relatives who will ask me sometimes, ‘So will you finish school, will you become a part-time student?’ Well, right now, I don’t really know,” Nagarajan says.

And while Ganesan has always known that theater was for him, his route to stardom was a bit circuitous. “I have really traditional Indian parents and you know how that goes. Actually, I was supposed to go to the University of the Arts to study theater but they were really against it and made me study neuroscience,” he says. But after landing the role of Sweetie, his parents reacted positively to the news. “They always wanted to believe that I would make it in theater. But they were too conservative and too scared as parents to see their kid not succeed in something and so they wanted me to do something more practical. But once I had gotten the role, it wasn’t a pipe dream anymore. They were just really happy and fully supportive of it all and now they are OK with me doing acting for the rest of my life,” says Ganesan.

Akaash and Sweetie get a visit from Priya in the slum.

I was supposed to go to the University of the Arts to study theater but they were really against it and made me study neuroscience.

Dreams opens doors

Ganesan’s parents’ change of heart is just one example of a turnaround in “old-school” attitudes. The success of Bombay Dreams may help bring about a revolution in the larger South Asian community while creating more mainstream opportunities for South Asian actors. The show has brought South Asians to the forefront of professional theater—and the media is starting to take notice. Coverage of the South Asian arts community has reached an all-time high and the outlook is good for these actors. Narayan believes Bombay Dreams will open doors for other South Asians on two fronts. The show won’t just affect actors, Narayan claims, referring to a ripple effect. “I think that more writers will write for South Asians now that they know that there’s a pool of South Asians to draw from,” he says. “The younger generation of South Asian actors now will be looked at as musical performers as well as actors. Those who have studied acting will be able to work more.”

And what’s in store for the show’s leading lady? Nagarajan says that all she wants at this point is to perform her art in any way she can: “I’m just kind of riding the wave. I want to strike while the iron is hot and make sure that I do get the opportunity to explore other acting ventures so that I’m not just the person who did Bombay Dreams and that’s it.” After showcasing her talent on the world’s biggest stage, we doubt she’ll be forgotten. n

Published on September 1, 2004.
Photography: Joan Marcus.

More Information

Bombay Dreams on Broadway

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  1. June 2, 2008, 5:08 pm Syed

    Does anyone have or know where I can get the Broadway Recording of Bombay Dreams? It is different than the Original London Recording. Thank you.