Mumbai vocalist Siddharth Basrur is looking me straight in the eye. There’s anguish and desperation in his voice. ‘How do I win the race’ he asks repeatedly. Or rather sings. You’ve won it in my book, I think.
We’re inside Sitara Studio in central Mumbai, and I’m the only non-cast or crew member at a runthrough of #SingIndiaSing, a new musical conceived and written by the veteran director and playwright Rahul DaCunha with adman and actor ‘Bugs’ Bhargava Krishna and directed by Nadir Khan. The fourth and final production in Aadyam’s 2018 season of plays, it will premiere this month at Mumbai’s National Centre For the Performing Arts.
Basrur and company have been rehearsing for months, and it shows. We could very well be at one of his gigs, watching any of his several bands over the years, the most recent of which is Runt.
However, he’s not Siddharth Basrur right now. He’s rocker Vishnu Saigal, one of the four contestants vying to win the reality show Sing India Sing. “If you’ve seen me perform, I usually shut my eyes when I’m singing, and I tend to move around a lot,” he said. “But as Vishnu, I’m more rooted, and my eyes are always locking with someone else’s. It’s given me much confidence.”
Vishnu’s competition is Carnatic classical-trained rapper Jazzy aka Jayashankar Iyer, played by theatre actor and director Tavish Bhattacharyya; former bar dancer Kitty, portrayed by singer Kamakshi Rai; and mysterious masked girl Shweta played by vocalist Sarosh Nanavaty. Rai and Nanavaty, incidentally, were both contestants on different seasons of English reality TV singing talent series The Stage.
“I’ve often found that musicals that are set in worlds where there wouldn’t naturally be music are very difficult to pull off,” said DaCunha who felt a reality TV singing contest would provide the perfect environment for his overarching theme of wannabeism and the quest for fame. “I find it fascinating how people come from small towns to make their living here,” he said. “They’re prepared to do anything. My big theme was always to explore: How far do you take it? How far will you push for fame? That’s something that has been interesting me a lot. Each of these characters is flawed and all are trying to win at all costs.”
Performed mostly through songs – there’s relatively little-spoken dialogue – #SingIndiaSing is an ambitious effort in both scale and scope. Arguably the biggest original Indian musical in English with a whopping 29 songs, it is a comment not only on the relentless desire for stardom among the youth but is also about the rising popularity of voyeuristic forms of reality TV and the increasing hold social media has on our lives. It is, as DaCunha puts it, American Idol combined with Big Brother. Cameras follow the contestants’ every move, and they’re judged not just on their talent but also their off-stage actions.
It’s been eight years in the making, but #SingIndiaSing is very much a tale of the present, believes Krishna. “[It’s a] story about young people today, ambition today, about life that’s framed in social media 24/7,” he said. “Something like Big Boss or Big Brother, it is about putting you in a hothouse and staring at you for 90 days. [We wanted to inspect] how [people] react to that kind of attention. At the same time, we realised that in our lives, we’re in the same situation. You may not want to be on Facebook, but your friend has put you on Facebook. Willy-nilly digital media is examining you all the time. CCTV is looking at you all the time. We’re all in Big Boss in a manner of speaking, only that we don’t know who our audience is.”
On social media, we might have a vague idea of who our audience is, but we have no way of knowing or controlling what they will say about us. This aspect of life in the twenty-first century is represented by the characters of The Hashtags, a collective of four commentators portrayed by theatre actors and singers Abhishek Krishnan, Asif Ali Beg, Delraaz Bunshaw and Naquita D’souza, who are constantly sharing their opinion on the contestants. They appear only to sing lines that are essentially “live tweeting and trolling”.
“India is possibly musically the most exciting country in the world. Like we have a God for each Indian, we’ve got a musical style for each Indian.”
Krishna compares them to a Greek chorus, or as DaCunha says, “they’re like the hyenas” in The Lion King. Khan said he took a little time to figure out how exactly to use them on stage. “The Hashtags were an amorphous idea for me,” said the director. A breakthrough came through a lyric in the song ‘Dig For Dirt’ which contains the refrain: “Gossip, scandal, scoop and scam”. “A little light bulb went off in my head, and I said [to them] ‘Four of you take one each’,” said Khan. “That was a very rudimentary building block in terms of assigning [them] a personality, a way of being.”
The result is that The Hashtags are arguably the campiest and most fun characters in the play. “[They’ve] fleshed out quite nicely into something that’s believable but also separated from reality,” said Khan. The Hashtags’ tracks are the closest to traditional Broadway show tunes and are just one of the several musical styles heard in the play. Each of the aspirants specialises in a different genre; Vishnu is the stereotypical rocker, Jazzy reps rap, Kitty is influenced by Bollywood, and Shweta embodies an Adele-like torch balladeer.
“India is possibly musically the most exciting country in the world,” said Krishna about why they chose to make Sing India Sing a multigenre musical. “We’ve got our classical, Hindustani and Carnatic, our folk, and Bollywood has absorbed everything around the world and made it ours. Our hip-hop is fabulous. Like we have a God for each Indian, we’ve got a musical style for each Indian. We said such a rich musical heritage has got to throw up interesting characters. Like the south Indian fellow who has grown up on temple music and aspires to be a rapper. He’s living in Chennai, but his head is in New York.”
“I want young people to come. I want the teenager. I want them to say: ‘That was (like) a rock concert’.”
While Krishna has acted in DaCunha’s plays – he was Pontius Pilate in DaCunha’s 2000 production of Jesus Christ Superstar – #SingIndiaSing marks the first time they’ve collaborated as writers. By deciding to write a musical told almost entirely through song, DaCunha and Krishna set themselves a pretty tall challenge. It helped that as ad men, both have already dabbled in songwriting through their work on jingles and brand themes.
The pair already had their wish list of collaborators in place after they locked down their first draft: composer Clinton Cerejo for his ability to work across and blend genres, director Nadir Khan for his familiarity with managing an ensemble cast and incorporating technology into theatre, and singers Uday Benegal and Basrur who DaCunha says, along with Suraj Jagan and Vishal Dadlani, he counts among the handful of voices that are born “every generation”.
DaCunha had asked Benegal to play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. The role went to Dadlani after Benegal decided to move to the US. This time around, Benegal was cast as the somewhat unimaginatively named Channel, the owner of the Dhoom Dham TV channel, who is desperate to get out of debt and now pinning his hopes on the success of #SingIndiaSing to turn his fortunes around, with the help of co-producers and show hosts Rocky (Brian Tellis) and Dolly (Suchitra Pillai).
For Benegal, as for Basrur and Nanavaty, rehearsing for the play has been a great learning experience. “I’m doing something that I’ve been doing for so many years, which is singing on stage to an audience, but as a different person,” said Benegal. “I have to modulate my voice according to that character. It’s not necessarily the way I would sing a song.” He said that the exercises actors underwent with Khan “blew my mind”. For instance, each of them was asked to write down active verbs for each line of lyric they sing.
“I would put an indication as to who I was singing to and what the intent of that line was: to evoke, to provoke, to co-opt, to convince [or] to assert,” said Benegal. “And it would automatically influence the way I thought about that song [and] I would sing it differently.” Thanks to the play’s vocal coach, Marianne D’Cruz Aiman, the singers learned how to correct their techniques and stop straining their voice.
Benegal has already applied D’Cruz Aiman’s instruction in his regular role as frontman of Indus Creed. “At two gigs we played in Chennai and Delhi, there were times when I was aware I was going back to the pattern, and then I would remind myself to bring Marianne’s techniques into focus, and I could tell the difference, it was really good,” he said. Incidentally, D’Cruz Aiman was a backup singer for Indus Creed’s MTV Unplugged episode.
With Basrur, the biggest challenge came not from having to learn how to act but from trying out his terpsichorean skills. “I was very apprehensive about the dancing,” he said. “I’ve never fucking done that in my life. I don’t even go clubbing. It took me a while to take that stick out of my asshole.” For the past couple of months, Basrur has been documenting the making of #SingIndiaSing on his Instagram feed. The fun posts – of the cast monkeying around on set, for example – belie the rigorous schedule they’ve been following. “We have this running joke within the cast that this is probably like the first 9-to-5 most of us have had,” said Nanavaty. “It’s like a full-time job.”
Their day, she says, is broken up into fitness sessions, dance classes, singing rehearsals, acting coaching, readings and run-throughs.”
This, for those not familiar with the theatre scene, is unusual. “For me, normally rehearsal is a four-hour deal,” said Khan. “As you get to the pointy end, the last week before you do the show, [it’s] six or seven hours. This has been 9 am to 6 pm with the cast since June.”
“I was very apprehensive about the dancing. I’ve never fucking done that in my life. I don’t even go clubbing. It took me a while to take that stick out of my asshole.”
Nanavaty said that while she drew on some of her experiences as a contestant on The Stage, filming that series was, in actuality, a far tamer affair. “We were a very uninterestingly happy, lovable bunch,” she said. “There was no drama.” Another way that #SingIndiaSing deviates from reality in its depiction of such reality shows is that the contestants have to write and compose original material instead of showcasing their singing prowess through a range of covers. This forms a key plot point.
The musical also stands out through its use of video and technology. Interspersed with all the song and dance will be videos of the contestants being interviewed by celebrity blogger Miss Malini and behind-the-scenes footage of their time offstage during the 14-daylong competition. And at the end, #SingIndiaSing will break the fourth wall. The audience will decide the winner, by picking their choice through voting pads placed on their seats.
For DaCunha, the play will have been a success if he sees different faces among the crowd that usually attends theatre performances. “I want young people to come,” he said. “I want the teenager. I want them to say: ‘That was [like] a rock concert’.” If that happens – and it’s very likely to give the talented cast and the elaborate and energetic dance sequences put together by the duo of choreographers Bertwin Ravi D’Souza and Shampa Gopikrishna – we can expect to hear a lot more from the team of DaCunha and Krishna. “I think we’re going to write many more [musicals],” said Krishna. “We’ve decided to write one a year at least.”
Luckily for DaCunha, #SingIndiaSing comes at a time when musicals are riding a new wave of popularity around the world. Hamilton is among the most wanted tickets on Broadway; the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman is the best-selling album of the year so far, and the TV movie Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert, starring John Legend and Sara Bareilles, triumphed at the Emmy Awards. Closer home, Disney India’s local productions of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and the theatrical adaptation of classic 1960s Hindi film Mughal-e-Azam have proven that audiences are willing to pay top rupee for a ticket. In return, says DaCunha, they want a “spectacle”. Sing India Sing undoubtedly fits the bill.