It is fair to say that to so many folk that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s that watched Indian Cinema, one film stood out from that era – Sholay. It is now considered to be one of India’s greatest ever films. Ramesh Sippy’s curry western kickstarted the era of the Bollywood superhero and in particular the crazy superstardom that Amitabh Bachchan now enjoys. Of course the Big B was not the only star from that hit film, with a stellar cast that included Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Sanjeev Kumar and the scene stealing Amjad Khan. So when Dishoom! – a coming of age drama that charts the tumultuous events of one summer in 1978 – set to the banging RD Burman soundtrack of Sholay, it was something that just had to be seen!
Dishoom! is latest of a long list of productions from the brains of Rifco Theatre that celebrate and reflect contemporary British Asian culture. Their latest collaboration with Watford Palace Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre tells a simple story of friendship. One glorious summer where the sounds of Sholay meet Plastic Bertrand, Simon befriends Baljit and their relationship takes them on a journey of self discovery.
As an fan of Sholay and having watched my fair share of bollywood films over the past few years I’m not sure what I expected fright from the off. Oh wait I tell a lie, I know exactly what my preconceptions were. It was going to be full on bollywood, full and frothy and full of colour with a barnstorming song opening proceedings, just like any good old film starring Amitabh Bachchan back in the day.
I could not have been more mistaken
The opening to Dishoom! hits you in the gut almost immediately. We are confronted with the issue of disability within the Asian culture and how this subject is treated as a taboo. If you thought that was heavy handed, themes that deal with racial politics of the time and the issue of single parent families without a single dupatta being flagrantly flown in song and dance are also depicted.
This is the kind of production that highlights what a great regional theatre Oldham Coliseum has become. It’s a theatre that should be championed for its innovative and diverse programme. It’s a repertory theatre not content to put on the same old shows for the same old people. It’s made a conscious and collective decision to produce shows that reflect the town and its inhabitants and therefore nurturing a relationship between theatre and theatregoer that is founded on more than just the audience being mere paying customers.
Dishoom is another excellent example of this. A town where there is a significant proportion of locals that are of south Asian heritage, who will find it more likely to venture to the Coliseum for the first time if it is a show that speaks to their core. The evidence of this strategy is to see the diversity on stage represented in the aisles.
Underneath the veneer is some powerful drama. Writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti tackles some tough issues. Disability, racism, single parent families, the rise of the right and the National Front, the disaffected youth from non BAME groups … it’s the kind of kitchen sink drama that Mike Leigh would rub his hands at and get stuck right in.
And so whilst all the hard hitting stuff was hitting us hard, the soft and surreal underbelly of using Sholay just came unstuck. As much as it pains me being such a massive lover of the film, the use of the classic in telling this coming of age story is quite frankly jarring. I get that the Jai/Veeru dynamic is an easy one to convey when talking about the characters of Simon and Baljit, but the rest just seems to be crowbarred in. There is no obvious stand out villain so the use of Gabbar Singh doesnt come off quite right. The character of Donna is somehow Basanti and Radha all rolled into one. It just doesn’t work.
It is a shame because the rest works brilliantly. Forget this is a drama that has is geared towards South Asian communities, irrespective of ethnicity, this a drama that anyone would find utterly compelling because of the wonderful writing of Kaur and the subtle direction from Pravesh Kumar. The scenes in which Bilal Khan as Simon plays out his frustrations at his disability, or when James Mace as Keith charts his descent into the far right, or Omar Ibrahim as the Dad poignantly showcases the loss of his wife are all stand out moments from the show. The cast are are exemplary with Gurkiran Kaur playing a sprightly kooky Baljit and Seema Bowri channeling the late great Amjad Khan in virtually stealing every scene she seems to be involved in as the matriarch Bibi.
When the ending comes it comes suddenly and somewhat conveniently, reinforcing that the magic to this production lies in its heart and soul. Look past the frothy milky foam and you may be pleasantly surprised at how good Dishoom really is!
Verdict: A sprightly sentimental story of growing up one summer in the 1970s. Set to the soundtrack of Sholay, Dishoom! takes us on a journey of self discovery that more than packs a punch in this surprisingly touching drama.