Taj Express

Birmingham Hippodrome


You know you are in for something different when you are told at the outset that it will be an evening of unbelievable storylines, melodramatic acting and terrible jokes, and they got two out of three right – I though the jokes weren’t half bad.

But this was Bollywood, sort of live, and those in the know tell me that that statement pretty well sums up many of the films in the prodigious output of Mumbai’s studios, but no matter how you describe it, the result is fun, with enough high energy to light up half of Birmingham and, above all, it is splendid entertainment.

This first all-Indian production in the UK comes from the Merchant family, who are Bollywood royalty, a film industry dynasty with scores of big musical movies to their name, and they have not strayed far from film set to stage Taj Express with it's plot based on making a movie of the "greatest love story ever told".

Shankar, played with a nice mix of hope and resignation by Vidyuth Gargi, is an aspiring composer scoring his first Bollywood musical. His hero is famed Indian composer A R Rahman, and we open with perhaps his most famous piece to western ears, Slumdog Millionaire’s Jai Ho.

taj mid

As he writes each song we see it performed on the fictional set as the film progresses, which is a clever device to allow gentle mickey taking of Bollywood movies – they knocked out 364 films out of India’s 1986 last year – while at the same time celebrating the colour and sheer energy of the film genre.

Which brought in Mumbai guitarist  Chandan Raina, a Hindi rocker and lead guitarist for Anand Bhaskar Collective. His character, Flash, has a wonderful, cynical view of Bollywood with the fictional film’s constant script changes and additions, such as a villain thrown in at the last minute, its  formulaic situations – “why does it always rain when boy meets girl”  - and plots so farfetched even fairy stories would reject them.

He also builds up a good rapport with the audience, throws in topical jokes about the likes of Serena Williams and Gareth Southgate, leads a community  Bhangra session as well as an auidence yoga class, and did I mention the boy plays a mean guitar, whether the heavyest of heavy rock to making a guitar sound like a sitar, he is phenomenal. The guy is worth the price of a ticket alone.

Not that he is alone in the music stakes, the onstage band are brilliant with percussionist Prathamesh Kandalkar creating rhythms and sounds that hardly seem possible with just his hands and a drum while superb classical flautist Avadooth Phadke completes the trio.

taj drum

As they argue their way through the script and the songs we see the love story between Arjun, the poor poetry loving hero, played by Hiten Shah, and Bollywood super star Kareena Kaboom, played by Tanvi Patil, slowly develop through song and dance.

The pair dance well together and have one tender moment in a nicely lit (Miguel Angel Fernandez), gentle pas de deux, a little gem of romantic dance amid the high-octane Bollywood stock in trade.

The title track is from brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, but other songs include some from Bollywood films with a couple of tracks from Rahman, with some well-known hits among them if the reaction of the Bollywood fans in the audience was anything to go by.

And there are nine hard working female dancers, including soloist  Sadhwi Majumder, and nine equally energetic male’s to make everything zip along in a blur of steps and shiny glitter in Bippin Tanna’s flamboyant costumes. Everyone seems to be enjoying every minute and it is infectious taking the audience along with them - feet tapping on every row.

Costume changes come at breakneck pace and every scene is a kaleidoscope of colour, movement and energy you can feel – it’s tiring just watching to be honest – with dancing that is dynamic, fast and well synchronised from leading Bollywood choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant in a production given a nice balance by director, and Vaibhavi’s sister, Shruti Merchant, who is also the producer.

She intersperses the all action dances with amusing pauses as the musicians argue and squabble, which is a chance to catch breath and narrate the tale.

Stage design is simple, just a video screen scrim with the band behind while the script is from Toby Gough who goes back a long way with the Merchants, being the writer and director of the Australian musical The Merchants of Bollywood which toured the UK, including Birmingham, in 2006. It charted the rise of the Bollywood film industry and, incidentally, was also choreographed by Vaibhavi.

Bollywood, with its Hindi-Urdu or Hindustani language films, might well be an unknown, unseen area of the arts for many of us, but, no matter, we might not have seen the movies but we can still encompass rock solid entertainment with feel-good factor to burn. Ok it’s not West Side Story or Guys and Dolls, but by golly it’s fun . . . even if it is with unbelievable storylines and melodramatic acting. A fast paced, fun evening bringing Bollywood to Brum. To 15-09-18

Roger Clarke


The Taj Express, incidentally, is a real train, first running in 1964 to cut the journey times between New Delhi and Agra, location of the Taj Mahal, and now runs as far as Jhansi, about 250 miles to the south. 

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