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Move out Slumdog Millionaire. Here’s to the latest bollywood musical that is taking the theater scene of the world by storm showcasing the glitz, glamour and the razzmatazz the way it exists. The new theatrical dance spectacular highlights the rich, extensive and colorful history of bollywood from the times of Hiralalji (known as the pioneering icon of classical dance choreography) to his contemporary grand daughter Vaibhavi Merchant, who has made several star brands dance to her tunes. In a magnetic one-on-one, Anu Gopalakrishnan of’ Raaga catches Bollywood’s top-notch choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant, in her eclectic and vibrant mood. Vaibhavi talks about her story that has been woven into the Merchants of Bollywood musical and also shares details about her experiences with bollywood actors. A exclusive!

Some excerpts…read on!

Tell us about the Merchants. How did the whole idea conceptualize?
It is 5 years since we started the stage show. It is in the 6th year now. Mark Brady approached me initially as they wanted to do a show about Bollywood. Something like a bollywood diary. It was in the very initial stages. Even though the time was right, there was so much to learn about Bollywood itself. So when I started talking to them, the only thing I could relate to was with my grandfather, the memories about him, the storis he told me about bollywood. I spoke and spoke and then Mark realized that he found a story woven in my explanations and descriptions. I did not like to see the snippets as a bollywood diary. They felt that it made more sense to relive the authentic experience, the life I lived, the working styles of then and now, the kind of songs, the transformation of dances and music over time. That s when we realized we need to encompasses the complete journey. Toby Gough did a wonderful job of representing India in the international platform. I did choreograph classical dances for Madhuri and Aishwarya in Devdas. Umrao Jaan, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were films that did have classical notes. With my contemporary and classical blend of experience, Merchants of Bollywood became a good platform to showcase other forms of Indian dance.

In other words, does this capture your professional life in and out?
Not really. This is part fictional. Most of the scenes are lifted from my life since I have seen it with so much clarity. There is comedy that has been fit into the script. The show has turned out to be a very authentic and credible depiction of bollywood style that I had repeat audience in Singapore and Australia. There was in fact one promoter of the show in Singapore who watched the show every night back to back. She mentioned that every time she saw it, there was something new she could learn.

Like you mentioned about the 5-6 years in running – has anything changed from the original script, from the time you started?
Absolutely! There is a huge metamorphosis. We keep changing it every single time. We add new songs, newer costumes, jewelry, new dance steps. If you have seen the show in Europe, Berlin or Zurich, we even change it according to the locations. The reason we get the repeat audience is because we keep the show trendy. We want to capture the essence of bollywood and we want to capture it right. I am glad there is a certain connection between the director, producer and me with regard to the format and structure. We are so flexible and this mindset works.

Can you share more about the music, dance and the extravagant costumes? Why Salim – Sulaiman?
Most certainly! Salim Sulaiman’s music is brilliant. They are so good in what they do. Also, we began our bollywood journey together. We started off at the same time. We share the same surname but we are not related. Probably, destiny brought us together. We ended up being a family. We revised the original compositions. If you watch the show, one of the numbers from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi has been tweaked for the show. Same with Rahman’s Rang De Basanti – we have used a lot of original scores as well. Our song selections are brilliant. We have used music to enhance the scenes to bring out the underlying emotions and expressions of the actors. The music is the true hero of this show. The music is sucha strong influence and it is important for the choreographer to visualize and express the same in the movements of the actors. The costumes in my earlier show were with Falguni but now we have used Bipin Khanna who is really good. He has worked for over 150 films. My sister Shruthi Merchant takes care of the production. Every act, every new song, you will see there is a lot of beads, sequins, crystals, glitz, glamour and shimmer. If you look at the bigger picture, the show is not only about Bollywood, it presents the palette of India in all its colors and glory. We have an all Indian crew of 40 performers who are all not strangers to Bollywood. You would have seen their faces behind many popular stars in hit films. Every performer understands the script completely and they can act, dance and slide. That is an advantage of having an Indian crew perform to Indian numbers because they understand the story and the script. My main leads know music, dance and acting so it worked well.

Look forward to that. As a choreographer with so many hit numbers behind you – which of this was your toughest choreography?
Good one. Choreographing a dance is not easy. Bollywood relies on song and dance sequences. Sometimes movies are marked a hit and a miss based on dances/music. Every actor and actress comes with their unique style. However, I would say the toughest one was the 20 minute musical I created for Aaja Nachle. The climax required 20 minutes. I was responsible for all of 25 minutes. As a director of choreography for that film, I had an overall responsibility of 45 minutes. That is a lot for any choreographer. The challenge was not Madhuri. She is a fab dancer. The problem was to make non-dancers dance towards the end. That was the most challenging and the most fun too. We used to meet every evening at 6 p.m. It was a lot of fun and work too. Yashraj and I would watch the entire run of the show. It took me a month to choreograph it as the sequence involved a fight, a dialog – everything was choreographed by me.

Some of Vaibhavi’s Hit List:

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (National Award for Dhol Baje)
Aaja Nachle
Heyy Babyy
Dil Bole Hadippa
Dilli 6
No Entry
Balu ABCDEFG (Telugu)
Dil Ka Rishta

Dhoom/Dhoom 2
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi
Veer Zaara
Umrao Jaan
Kambhaqt Ishq
Rang De Basanti
Athadu (Telugu)
Shaadi No.1

You have several credits associated with your choreography. Who do you think is the best in Bollywood?
Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai win hands down. Rani Mukherjee has turned into a fabulous dancer. Hrithik and Shahid work like a charm. I really like Shilpa Shetty and Deepika too. Priyanka Chopra is also very good.

Tell me, you started off as an actress in a Malayalam film, why haven’t you pursued your acting or dance choreography with regional films?
I did choreograph a number in a Kannada film. I did two Tamil films and a couple of telugu films. I must admit and confess that I have no issues down south. In fact, South Film Industry if so much more fun, organized and much more disciplined that Bollywood. It is just that I have no time. I barely have time to do my Hindi films. I had to say a lot of no’s to get a few Yes’. But I will work on interesting projects in the future. I am not going to say that I will not go south. As for the acting, I did it for a dear friend Sangeeth Sivan who happens to be the brother of ace cinematographer/director Santosh Sivan. They needed a character who could dance and so Sangeeth felt it was a brilliant idea. But I like it behind the camera. I love film-making. I enjoy dancing to myself and once in a while interact with audience on television shows. Above all, I love to make Bollywood dance to my tunes. Nothing is more powerful than that.

Here’s to the true representation of Bollywood. Vaibhavi's semi-autobiographical musical narrates the story of a girl who rebels against her classical dancer grandfather who wants her to continue the family tradition, but she chooses Bollywood. It is produced by veteran Australian stage producer Mark Brady and directed by British writer-director Toby Gough. The music is by the Salim-Sulaiman duo. With a cast of 40 dancers and actors from Mumbai and over 500 costumes, it presents hit songs from the most popular Bollywood films of the past 40 years. A theatrical dance spectacular, The Merchants of Bollywood highlights the enchanting and electrifying history of the world’s largest and the most prolific film industry, and a dynasty of stars that have lit its way over generations. Come, be a part of an extraordinary evening of music and dance at the heart of which lies a heartfelt story of a young girl with soulful dreams, her rigid grandfather and their love of dance.

Do not miss the romance, glamour and the rich art all the way from India!

Click here for event information. Buy your tickets now!

Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan | Rockin’ Raaga (Saturday 1:00-2:00p.m.)

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