May 3 marked the 100th anniversary of Bollywood. That's a century since Dadasaheb Phalke's monumental silent film Raja Harishchandra was released to the public. Since that day in 1913, India's film industry has grown to become the most prolific in the world, cranking out over 1000 films every year. (Hollywood averages about half that.) Some might argue Bollywood is the most influential film industry on earth: In 2009, an estimated 3.6 billion tickets were sold to Indian films worldwide, compared to just 2.6 billion for Hollywood movies. With that in mind, one might expect Ayub Khan Din's Bunty Berman Presents… at The New Group to be a celebration of Indian cinema and all that it entails: the outrageous costumes, the hunky heroes, the Jhatkas and matkas. One would be surprised, however, and not necessarily in a good way. Bunty Berman Presents… is much closer in form and content to a classic American musical, and this world premiere is like seeing a really good high school production.
It's 1957 and Bunty Berman (Ayub Khan Din) is the biggest producer/director in Bombay. But his latest film didn't fare so well, owing largely to its portly, aging star, Raj Dhawan (Sorab Wadia). Worsening matters, funding for the studio dries up and Berman is forced to seek support from gangster Shankar Dass (inexplicably played like Marlon Brando, but with Sikh bodyguards, by Alok Tewari). Dass agrees to cough up the money as long as his no-talent son Chandra (Raja Burrows) is brought on as the studio's new star. Chaos ensues. Considering the formula, this show could alternately be titled Bullets Over Bombay.
If it all sounds a lot like classic American backstage movie musicals like The Band Wagon or 42nd Street, that's because it is, albeit with a far less memorable score of generic American standard knockoffs. Appropriately, author and composer Ayub Khan Din got to have his own Peggy Sawyer moment. He stepped into the title role after the originally cast Erick Avari had to withdraw due to an injury sustained early in previews. I cannot say whether Avari would have been better, but Khan Din proves lackluster. His performance is flat and unconvincing; additionally, it is often difficult to understand the words he wrote when they are delivered in his own muffled diction.
Lipica Shah and Nick Choksi offer far more inspiring performances in the B-plot love story between studio diva Shambervi and tea boy Saleem. Shah is everything you could want from a Hindi film heroine: Imagine if Aishwarya Rai (Bollywood's own Angelina Jolie) could belt, or you know, actually sing any of her own songs. Choksi is like an Indian Roger Bart, painfully earnest in that saccharine way that is so perfect for both of the genres this show seeks to invoke.
It is clear that Khan Din and the rest of the creative team are attempting to synthesize classic Hollywood movie musicals and Bollywood. With the occasional exception of Josh Prince's choreography — the dance number "What Was That?" featuring Shah and company, quite literally with bells on, was a highlight — the production mostly just offers a poor man's version of both forms.
This is unfortunate because Khan Din (2008's Rafta, Rafta…) is obviously a very funny and gifted playwright. There are bright spots in this mostly dull script, including the outrageously hilarious Sorab Wadia as Raj Dhawan, incognito as a Sindhi soothsayer in a nightclub scene, but such moments are few and far between.
The slow-to-develop plot is wrapped up in a confusing yet zanily delightful deus ex machina that left me wishing the rest of the show could have been as fun. As it stands, you have to wade through 130 minutes of middling musical theater before you get there. None of this is to say that Bollywood and Hollywood can't come together for a thoroughly entertaining pas de deux, but Bunty Berman isn't it.