This image is a poster of Naatak's theatrical musical, Bombay Talkies. It is a black and white photo of three men in western suits and a woman in sari, standing. The title Bombay Talkies is written below. (Image credit: Naatak)
Naatak's "Bombay Talkies" actors representing (from right) Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani, and the team behind the eponymous iconic Hindi film studio. (Image credit: Naatak)

Bombay Talkies: An ‘ode’ to film music 

After 104 productions over 28 years, Naatak is finally bringing to the stage this weekend its love of Bollywood music, in its latest presentation, Bombay Talkies. Like almost everyone he knows, writer-director Sujit Saraf grew up with Hindi films.  “Growing up, there was no other form of entertainment, and those were times of acceptance and insouciance before we grew up and learned how absurd these films were and what poor entertainment they offered,” said Saraf.  “My relationship to Bollywood films has evolved, from unquestioning acceptance to ridicule to embarrassment to a sort of resigned co-existence.” 

In his teens, Saraf attended a boarding school where he learned that “Hindi films were extremely uncool”. It was embarrassing to be familiar with them, and not knowing who Amitabh Bachchan or Hema Malini were could be helpful in establishing your street cred. “In trying to outrun the embarrassment of Bollywood, I was unable to outrun film music, which pervades my childhood and adulthood, as it does for nearly anyone growing up in small-town India. It became obvious to me that film music is Bollywood’s greatest, perhaps only, contribution to the world of arts,” explains Saraf. 

“This play is, in a sense, my ode to Bollywood, to Binaca Geetmala, to many decades of life suffused with Hindi film music, to Sholay and Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah, to having grown up with Amitabh and Hema and Dharmendra. Of course, the word ‘ode’ must be understood as broadly as possible! It is difficult for me not to peek under the covers, to see wrinkles in these movies, to find them baffling and embarrassing and entertaining at the same time,” Saraf said.

A Bollywood blast from the past

In the upcoming musical, Bombay Talkies, a clapper-boy makes his way through the Hindi film industry between 1935 and 1975, from Devdas to Sholay, befriending stars – Saigal, Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, and Amitabh Bachchan, and playback singers – Lata, Rafi, Mukesh, and Kishore – while assisting in shoots and song sequences, serving as chauffeur, gateman, tea boy and confidante, and secretly shaping the industry that later came to be called Bollywood. 

Punctuated by well-known songs and lesser-known tidbits, Bombay Talkies is a sashay through the film industry in its golden years, capturing its glitz and glamor, its soul-stirring music, its utter lack of insight, and its complete detachment from the world that sustains it. The play will be performed with live music and dance and features nearly 40 songs from the golden era of Hindi film music: 1930s – 1960s. 

Choreography needed some creative workaround

A group of dancers from Naatak's Bombay Talkies in a pose. (Photo credit: Naatak)
The dance team of “Bombay Talkies” had to get creative to bring film choreography live onto the stage. (Photo credit: Naatak)

What is a Bollywood-style musical without dance? All the dances are choreographed by Soumya Agastya, who faced a unique challenge. Films in the 1930s-1950s did not really have any dances; the actor usually just stood admiring the female lead. In sad numbers, they just sang seated in a bed or chair – all very static. “So I used various dance styles based on the emotion of the play – modern contemporary styles, Kathak, Bharatanatyam, folk… or I used overly stylized movements,” says Agastya. 

Actors in Naatak’s "Bombay Talkies" depicting a dance number from the film "Sholay". (Image credit: Naatak)
Naatak’s representation of Sholay’s iconic “Mehbooba” number promises to enthrall. (Photo credit: Naatak)

Choreography plays a significant role in the Mehbooba number from Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, a very memorable scene in the play. Another popular song, Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya from K. Asif’s classic, Mughal-E-Azam, has a strong solo dance. Songs like Suhani Raat use storytelling techniques of classical dance and abstraction to depict emotions. Agastya uses a K. L. Saigal lookalike to lipsync a song while dancers perform in front, describing the song. “Working with Nachiketa, our music director, on repetitions, leading music, interludes, and tabla bols based on the play requirements is unique to the play,” says Agastya.
To adapt films to theater, Saraf uses a fictional character as the protagonist who walks us through films, songs, stars, and studios without altering well-known facts and incidents. The auditory experience will transport you to the era filled with some of the best-known Hindi songs voiced by greats like Saigal, Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, and Hemant Kumar.

A standout scene in the play, says Saraf, is the “feather scene” in Mughal-e-Azam, in which Salim and Anarkali have a secret tryst while Miya Tansen (voiced by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan) sings in the garden. “It is perhaps the most perfect confluence of film-making elements I have seen – Dilip and Madhubala are easy on the eyes, Ghulam Ali is very easy on the ears, and the stolen kisses accompanied by raag Sohni are both beautiful and sensuous,” he recalls. 

The play shows the film shoot, not the actual film, so all the humor and absurdity behind the scene intrudes on stage – the extreme jealousy of Madhubala’s father, the reluctance of Ghulam Ali to sing for a film, and the oddity of the scene itself, where the intrigues of the great Mughal empire are reduced to a love affair between a prince and a potter’s daughter. 

“I suppose I speak for myself, but how can anyone not love Lata’s haunting Yeh Zindagi Usi Ki Hai or Kishore’s rollicking Ina Mina Dika?” says Saraf.

Written and Directed by Sujit Saraf
Music by Nachiketa Yakkundi 
Dance & Production by Soumya Agastya

Run-time: 120 minutes
In Hindi with supertitles in English 
Sep 2 – Oct 1 
Cubberley Theater, Palo Alto
Tickets here

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor,...