Bollywood films have deep stylistic roots in the theater world. The combination of comedy, drama, romance, moral values, music, and religious themes unique to Bollywood films was born in a soupy mix of regional theater, traditional Sanskrit dramas, Sufi musical performance styles, and Parsi theater. While trends in Bollywood have ebbed and flowed, a certain theatricality to the performances has remained constant through the years – and has provided actors and actresses with a lucrative side market in touring stage shows, something no other film industry does. This rich and vibrant theatrical film culture is the inspiration for the brand-new musical playLove Times Seven.
Written and directed by Arpita Mukherjee and Sharath Parvathavani, Love Times Seven is a love story dedicated to Bollywood, taking the audience on a whirlwind journey through seven decades of classic films.
Arpita took time from her busy schedule to speak with me about the play!
“I never thought I would write plays,” says Arpita, “I always thought I would write short stories or something but then I gave a shot to a one act play and I really became interested in theater.” And it’s been quite the journey from short stories to musical theater.
Arpita paid her theatrical dues interning at the Washington Shakespeare Company and working with studio theater, but she was working towards something different. She explains. “I really was interested in exploring the kind of aesthetic that I come from and a lot of that is South Asian stories. In the beginning I really worked on more contemporary stuff. For example, I did two plays at the Fringe Festival in 2007. One of them was called I AM S.A.A.M. (I am a South Asian-American Male) and was about South Asian men’s dating experiences in the area and I did a lyrical drama based on Sufi rock music. So, I kind of forayed from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare to the kind of aesthetic that informs my sensibility more.”
“But then after [the Fringe Festival] I had just burnt myself out. I could not get back into writing.” And that is where Love Times Seven began to come together. Arpita continues, “I decided to try and write a film with my co-writer Sharath and we would talk a lot about doing something but we couldn’t write a film. And then we started writing a contemporary play but then finally I said, ‘I always wanted to do this thing – a really simple idea – going to watch to watch a Bollywood movie on stage.'” And that simple idea grew. “We started writing in February 2009, doing research and looking at all the big films, and all of a sudden its march and we’re opening!”
There is a stereotyped view of Bollywood in the West, both among second-generation Indians and non-desis, that all there is to the entire body of films are the light-hearted family films that came out of the 1990s: Shah Rukh Khan, chiffon saris, and dancing in Switzerland. Says Arpita, “I was in India until I was about 12, so a big part of my childhood was informed by Bollywood – as is anybody who was living in India – and we always thought of it as the soundtrack to our life. So many people here have one understanding of it but aesthetic is so much bigger and the evolution of the films through the years was so much bigger and I was really interested in telling those stories.”
So, Love Times Seven embraces the chiffon saris but also the political and moral underpinnings of Bollywood film? “The core of [Love Times Seven] is a love story,”Arpita admits, “but as the love story gets retold in every decade you find the kind of films that were being made and how they relate to what was going on in India at that time. Part of the reason is that people think of Bollywood in terms of the 1990s onwards is that the 1990s films are very catered to an NRI audience and that’s when you have this big first generation/second generation interaction here and those are the kinds of films that parents wanted to take the kids to but films in the 1970s and 1980s were not like that.”
And the cast has been learning new things, too! “We have a lot of American born Indians in the play,” says Arpita, “and they said that a dialogue opened up with their parents because they had no idea that their parents were watching films that were completely different and the songs that they are now familiar with – it opens up a cultural bond.”
Still, even with the kinship between Bollywood and musical theater, there were plenty of challenges. The biggest of which was translation. ‘Love Times Seven’ is a love letter to Bollywood, but this love letter is in English and for a cross-cultural audience. Beloved film dialogues don’t always sound as magnificent in English as they do in Hindi. “You pick and choose obviously,” says Arpita, “the things you can’t [translate], you don’t and the lines that you can’t no matter how much you love them – that you can’t translate into English, that lose their essence you just let go and think of something else. I want to tell South Asian stories in a way that is universal. And I think when people come and watch they’ll be surprised at how true the stories are and how much Bollywood can apply to life.”
For those who would roll their eyes at the idea of finding truth in Bollywood, Arpita would encourage them take a closer look. “[Bollywood] is such a big part of the Indian psyche. It’s how Indians dream – it’s this dream world that we feel very connected to. And it does reflect a lot of the emotional parts of us, although it’s not the common middle class Indian man [on screen], the values that come across. And [those values], as contradictory as they may be, are true to us. A lot of the ways we perceive the world get reflected in Bollywood film.”
So, what can the audience expect to see on stage? There are 33 film songs taken from across the decades used in the play. The songs aren’t all at full length, though, and they have kept the lyrics for those in Hindi. Says Arpita, “the dialogues are in English but the songs are not so the marriage is a sort of strange one but because we’re so comfortable going between languages, we’ve managed pretty well. And the choreography is easy to understand.”
And the plot? “It’s a story that starts in the 40s. It’s a love story between boy-girl. It’s always boy-girl meet, there’s an obstacle, but it’s not the same narrative. Different obstacles relates to the films [of each decade]. The players change, the conflict changes, and each decade has it’s own look. And this is probably something the audience will find out but there is a reason they go from one decade to another.”
Finally, what is next for the writer/director/actor Arpita Mukherjee? “I want to do Love Times Seven for a while. We definitely don’t want this to be the end of Love Times Seven, which is very unusual for me. It’s been a huge labor of love.”
Love Times Seven opens on March 19th and runs until April 3rd at the Ernst Theater in Annandale, VA.