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Swirling rhythms of South Asia storm Broadway


NEW YORK - From the slums of Bombay, Akaash, a young and handsome wannabe actor and singer, crashes the nationally televised Miss India pageant and steals the spotlight, catapulting him into fame as a Bollywood film star.

When we next see him, he's wearing a tight, gleaming white outfit, gyrating wildly and singing the infectious "Shakalaka Baby" with an ensemble of brightly clothed dancers and a glamorous diva co-star. Against a whirl of percussion-driven choreography, an explosion of water fountains and soaking-wet saris, Akaash, the "Diamond in the Rough," makes his bid to become a bonafide Bollywood breakout hit.

These scenes, from the first night of previews for the new Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced Broadway musical Bombay Dreams earlier this month, brought roars of approval and bursts of applause.

It was an encouraging sign, and not just for its backers. South Asians around the country are anxiously watching to see what the fate of this latest and splashiest example of their culture's infusion into mainstream America will be. If the musical can do as well in New York as it has previously in London, Bombay Dreams could usher in a new chapter in the emergence of South Asians in American culture, a trend already apparent in films, television and other media.

On The Sopranos' season premiere last month, Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) rolled up to her parents' New Jersey home in a beat-up convertible, its stereo blaring bhangra percussion beats.

Bhangra-style music, a mainstay of Indian dance music, was recently featured on the Jay-Z hip-hop track "Beware of the Boys." The remix is a collaboration with Panjabi MC, a British-born Indian whose original song "Mundian to Bach Ke" is intertwined with Jay-Z's rap, bhangra beats and the theme song from '80s TV show Knight Rider.

Elsewhere on television, Parminder Nagra, the star of the surprise hit movie Bend It Like Beckham - another example of the South Asian invasion - has become a regular on ER. Her presence is finally quieting endless rants about how unrealistic it was for a show about a U.S. emergency room to be devoid of Indian doctors.

Meanwhile, soft jazz chanteuse Norah Jones, daughter of sitar player Ravi Shankar, is selling millions of CDs, and music from her new album, Feels Like Home, is all over the airwaves.

2 million South Asians

For South Asians, who hail from the region that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a more prominent place in American pop culture may seem overdue. There are more than 2 million people of South Asian descent in the United States. Almost one-quarter live in the New York area, while the Washington-Baltimore area has the fourth largest population.

"Some people get the feeling that being South Asian is the flavor of the month," said Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia University professor and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association. "I'm of the opinion you get this kind of media attention only once in a generation, so enjoy it."

He calls a major Broadway musical like Bombay Dreams a "stunning development."

Bombay Dreams' story-within-a-story is a celebration of Bollywood, the nickname for the vibrant Bombay film industry, which churns out about 1,000 movies annually, eclipsing even Hollywood's output.

The show, in Bollywood tradition, follows a formula: A larger-than-life backdrop sets the stage for a love story, a rags-to-riches climb, action scenes and redemption. And music and dancing - lots of it.

Its hero, Akaash, skyrockets to popularity as a film star, but snubs his roots, risking losing the love of Priya, an independent filmmaker who wants to make a movie about the Bombay slums and their fight against cold-hearted developers.

Meera Syal, co-writer for Bombay Dreams with Hairspray's Thomas Meehan, has great expectations for the show and what it could mean for South Asians in America.

"What's happening here is like what happened in London 10 years ago," Syal said. "It's exactly the same vibe. I feel a slight sense of deja vu. I think we've hit the U.S. at a very good time. ... If this works, this could change our whole perception. It could open doors."

That may be a lot to ask from one musical. But for many South Asians, it represents a true test of their culture's acceptance - on its own terms - into the American mainstream.

Two influential movies

The current South Asian infusion really began with the films Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002). Sreenivasan and others consistently cite the two movies as helping acclimate mainstream American audiences to authentic South Asian culture.

"Both movies honestly capture a certain kind of Indian and British Indian in an authentic manner," Sreenivasan said.

According to Syal, a British-born actress and writer, Bombay Dreams offers Americans a new way to connect to Indian culture: a shared heritage of splashy, romantic movie musicals.

"The easiest parallel is to the musical of the '30s in America - very escapist, celebratory, feel-good and formulaic," said Syal. "They're about happy endings, wish fulfillment, song and dance. Family values are reiterated, bad guys get their comeuppance and it sends you out with a little skip. It's a form that lends itself beautifully to stage musicals."

Newer, more sophisticated Bollywood films, she said, reflect the globalizing of eastern and western cultures, integrating Indian and Asian-American experiences against the New York skyline and set as often to rap mixes as authentic Indian music.

She said that to make Bombay Dreams more understandable to U.S. audiences, some parts of the London show have been rewritten, and are still being tweaked on Broadway.

"British audiences are much more familiar with South Asian culture," Syal said. "We're more visible there and we've been there longer. ... We couldn't assume the same level of familiarity for a U.S. audience. We could not use the same in-jokes [or] stock Bollywood characters."

Some, though, remain cautious about the show's chances on Broadway.

Manil Suri, a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of the acclaimed 2001 novel, The Death of Vishnu, saw Bombay Dreams last year during its smash run in London.

"Audiences in the U.S. are becoming increasingly conversant with Bollywood imagery," said Suri. "Still, it remains to be seen how well the musical will translate. ... One has to go to it prepared to be mesmerized by the spectacle and unoffended by the mediocre plot - like one does while watching a typical Bollywood film."

From TV to Starbucks

Whether Bombay Dreams soars or flops, it appears the emergence of South Asian imagery in American media will continue.

On the small screen, South Asians may soon be arriving en masse as an entire cast on an NBC series. Sonia Nikore, vice president of casting for NBC Primetime television, said the network recently finished casting the pilot for Nevermind Nirvana, a sitcom that would feature the first South Asian family on television and one of its American-born sons.

"We are staying away from stereotypes and trying to create characters and situations that resonate universally for a larger audience, not just South Asians," Nikore said. "The demographics of our society have changed immensely. The audience embraces ethnic points of view very differently now compared to a few years ago."

Nikore says she sees South Asian influences everywhere - including the local Starbucks.

"We're finding that there's a very strong South Asian influence emerging into mainstream society - one can get chai latte at Starbucks, there are yoga centers all over the place, people are listening to bhangra music and Bollywood movies are making the top 10 movie lists."

Also waiting in the wings is Vivek Wadhwa, a techie turned movie producer.

Bothered by stereotypes of South Asians - convenience store owner Apu on The Simpsons and the ubiquitous turbaned taxi driver in many films - Wadhwa rolled his resources into a Bollywood-Hollywood fusion film called My Bollywood Bride, set to start shooting in three weeks.

Now an executive producer, Wadhwa is passionate about changing the image of South Asians in mainstream culture.

"How else are you going to get the American masses but through TV and film?" he asks. "The success of Bend It Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding shows the fascination with Indian culture. ... Before the image of India was of snake charmers and beggars. Now, for good or bad reasons, we're on people's radar."

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