Bollywood in the Midlands

Taj Express, which visits the Midlands this month, is a one-way ticket to experiencing the flavour of Bollywood. Expect a musical bursting with bold colours, fabulous dancing and a soundtrack by famous composer AR Rahman.

What’s On spoke to producer and director Shruti Merchant about the show...

This month, the Midlands will be hit by a wave of Indian culture when Taj Express comes to both the Birmingham Hippodrome and the Regent Theatre in Stoke.

The feelgood musical has been a success across the globe, including during its stint in London last year. Audiences will get the opportunity to explore the glamorous world of Bollywood through a young man’s desire to follow in the footsteps of composer AR Rahman - the man behind the music from hit movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Director and producer of Taj Express, Shruti Merchant, comes from a family who’s heritage is deeply rooted in dance and choreography.

“I’m born into a family of choreographers,” she says. “Not just in Bollywood, but also from a background of Indian classical dancing - predominantly Kathak, like all my ancestors from Rajasthan.                         

I started off my career assisting my sister, Vaibhavi Merchant, in films, and that’s when we got an offer to do a musical about her life. I quickly preferred sitting in a theatre to being on a set because the experience was  exhilarating - the audience reaction to your work was so instant. The kind of love and adulation we received when taking our culture and dance choreography on stage is something that made me never want to go back on a film set. So I started my company, Quintessence, to produce not only Taj Express but a lot more content from India.”

Shruti believes that Bollywood is the perfect platform upon which to base the most vibrant of musicals.

“I guess in India we still believe in dreams and fairytales. We believe very heavily in romance, and the drama surrounding romance, and we show this in our films. However, we wanted to do something different with Taj Express. We came up with the idea of telling the story of a young boy who tries to follow in the footsteps of AR Rahman. He wants to be the next big composer in Bollywood because the whole world knows who Mr Rahman is. This story contemplates who carries on his legacy, and it acts as a catalyst to explore all the different music and dance of India through different choreography.

“I always like to think that the audience enjoys being transported into a new world where they feel happy, relaxed and, most importantly, are completely entertained. I’m not here to put across any content that depresses anybody, or that makes them want to check their phones. The fact that everyone wants to dance at the end of the show is great; there’s some kind of release the audience feel when they come out of a Bollywood musical. I’m not here to show the technique of Bollywood dancing or to brag about the kinds of fabulous extensions we do in our dancing. I just want my audience to be entertained!”

Shruti believes Taj Express is bringing a true and diverse flavour of India to theatres across the world.

“I think Taj Express is a perfectly curated show of the best parts of India. Everything -  from the team we have to the songs we sing, the script by Toby Gough and the dance in the show - makes this happen. We didn’t want to bore people with Indian history, so the script is very easy to follow. Even the fabrics and colours of the costumes have brought in a pallete that is pan-India.

“Audiences find our dance styles so intriguing and wonder how we Indians move our necks in that certain way, so these are the kinds of moments we’ve incorporated into the musical. It doesn’t only feature traditional dance performed in the temples in India, it also speaks to current India, which is in tune with hip-hop and other modern forms of dance and music. The way our show has been styled is in tune with popular world standards, but also brings true India through. It’s such a unique, diverse production for   audiences all over the world to enjoy.”

Shruti is particularly excited about bringing Taj Express to the UK.

“This is my favourite country. I desperately want to move to the UK because I feel very connected to the world of musical theatre here. In Mumbai, where I’m currently living,  I feel all alone. When I walk around the streets of London, I see so many musicals playing and so many people lining up to watch        theatre. That’s something that doesn’t exist in my country - films and Bollywood are the predominant entertainment. So yes, the UK is special to me.”

Directing musical theatre and leading her company is incredibly hard work, but the rewards more than make up for it.

“Theatre is the life I’ve chosen, but I’ve had to sacrifice my personal life because the only thing I’m doing is focusing on the productions. It’s an endless job. There are times when I say, “I’m never going to do this again”. Then, after finishing the production and sleeping for two or three days straight, I’m trying to get back on it. Yes, there are a lot of sacrifices, but I think at the same time the madness is what I enjoy the most. The   reward is when the audience stands up at the end to give us a round of applause, and then  leaves the theatre laughing, smiling and dancing.

“I have another production that I’ll start working on when Taj Express has finished. It will probably be presented next year at the Edinburgh Fringe because we’ve got a keen interest from there. I’ve been touring Taj Express for five years now, so it’s high time I did something new because there’s such a demand. I’ll be presenting a lot more stuff from India out there on the world stage.” 

Taj Express runs at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 11 to Saturday 15 September and is at Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent on Tuesday 18 September.