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Taking a ride on the Taj Express

The audience saw the glitz and the glamour... backstage, it was a different story. One that shows how hard the cast and crew have to work to keep us entertained. -tabla!
Sheela Narayanan

Sat, Jun 16, 2012

Paint, perspiration, make-up, nicotine, spiced tea, cologne, glucose powder, pain relief spray... these are some of the things that you smell as you stand backstage at the Taj Express. Plus, a fair dose of excitement, anxiety, exhilaration and, in a few cases, fear.

This air doesn't go past the stage... it is something reserved for the cast, the crew and the few others privileged enough to be permitted to loiter behind the scenes. The people in the audience inhale a very different scent. One that reeks of glitz, glamour, joy, high energy, stardom.

How do I know this?

I breathed the air on both sides of the curtain at the Esplanade Theatre. For five days - June 6 to 10 - I was associate, reviewer, partner, supporter and friend of the Bollywood musical which was presented by tabla! and sponsored by Si2i, part of the Spice Group.

Thanks to the generosity of the producers Quintessence Entertainment Productions, which also promoted the show in Singapore along with De Ideaz, Go-Vin Holdings and Harry's, I was permitted to mingle with the cast and crew from the day they set up shop at the Esplanade. And, believe me, I had a very different view from those of you who were lucky enough to watch the show.

While the audience saw what seemed like an inexhaustible well of energy as the dancers performed for 21/2 hours, behind the paint and the pretty costumes it was a different picture.

Backstage and in the wings, as the colourful show unfolded on stage like an Indian film, an air of calm tension engulfed the area. As some performed on stage, others warmed up for their turn in the spotlights, the sheen of perspiration on their skin. Some nervously sipped spiced tea as they kept their eyes on proceedings, others used the short periods between their time on stage to glug down glucose water to recharge themselves.

And all through this the slightly medicated smell of pain relief spray flirted with the nostrils. After all, it was being liberally used by the performers for injuries - sprained ankles and toes, cramping calves were some of them - sustained during the six-show run.

Not that the audience would ever know if any of the performers had been struck with an injury or an illness.

A good example was lead actress Pallavi Sharda who played Meera in the musical... she was very sick during the show's run here but nobody in the audience could tell.

She shared with tabla! that a bout of gastroenteritis saw her hospitalised in Mumbai where she is based. She even had to be put on a drip a day before she left for Singapore.

"I was throwing up between intervals. On the day of the world premiere it was really bad. That's when I felt I was fainting. I think I would have probably eaten four bananas in four days. I couldn't eat very much," said the petite Indian-Australian actress who was given electrolyte drinks by her mother who had flown in from Melbourne for the shows.

As the late Freddie Mercury of Queen once sang so operatically, the show must go on... Sharda kept a big smile on her face, danced like a professional and delivered her lines convincingly even as her stomach did the bhangra every night.

Even actor Priyanshu Painyuli, the newbie of the group - he was brought into the show a month before it opened in Singapore - told tabla! that he was feeling very poorly before the show on June 10 but a lozenge provided by one of the dancers made him feel better.

That, in a way, demonstrates how tight the Taj Express team is. Everyone pitches in to help, even if it's just providing a pill or a sympathetic ear. Painyuli played five characters in the show including the station master who is the show's narrator, Raj who is Meera's love interest, a flirty swami called Babaji, a policeman and the Sikh owner of a roadside stall (dhaba).

The Mumbai-based professional stage actor told tabla! that while the first half of the show was relatively calm for him, the second half was hectic, especially when he had just 11/2 minutes to change from his Raj character (young, slim and in trendy clothes) into the narrator's outfit (fake paunch, make-up to make him look older, jacket, shirt and tie).

"I have three people on me, getting me velcroed-up into the costume. One night, as I was running to take my spot to make my entrance, one of the dancers bumped into me and I lost my glasses in the dark. Somehow I found it, seconds before I went on... I don't know how I did it," he said. Neither did the audience.

He also enjoyed improvising with his Babaji character who shamelessly flirts with some women in the audience, even asking for their BB Pin (BlackBerry Pin). "I improvised the flirting every night to make it more interesting for me," he confessed.

The musical showcases songs and music from around India weaved into a simple love story about a girl, Meera (Sharda), who boards the Taj Express looking for her tour guide boyfriend, Raj (Painyuli), but meets a thief with a heart of gold, Vasu (Pulkit Samrat), who has had a crush on her since they were children and wants to start a new life as an honest citizen.

Led by the indefatigable director and co-producer Shruti Merchant, the show has both original music written by Salim-Sulaiman and directed by Monty Sharma as well as popular music from Bollywood like Chammak Challo and Choli Ke Peeche.

Like a certain battery-operated bunny, Shruti didn't stop flitting between the stage, the backstage area and the smoking area outside the theatre to talk with her dancers, actors and her brother and sister, co-producers Pranav and Vaibhavi Merchant.

It was rare to find her sitting down for even a moment and when she did, it was on the floor, cross-legged in a corner, still talking to people as they walked by, giving instructions or sharing a joke.

Despite her slight frame, she appeared to command a great deal of respect from her dancers and even gave the cast and crew feedback - she calls it "director's notes" - after every performance.

"The notes can get quite dramatic," she said. Since this is an Indian production, we are not surprised.

Shruti even insists on a 10-minute, intense, multireligious prayer session 30 minutes before showtime. "It helps them focus and get centred," she said.

Focus is a key word for the Taj Express team. On show days, the dancers start prepping two hours before showtime. They pace up and down the hall, collect their costumes, wrap their strained feet, ankles and knees to steady wobbly muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Once they are in their costume, they sign a call sheet - it is something that has to be done by 7.45pm (showtime was at 8pm) to ensure everyone is ready. I heard whispers of "punishment" if they didn't sign in on time but nobody elaborated on it. There is another reason for the sign-in: In case of an emergency, like a fire, the crew knows who is present and can account for everyone.

Once they are ready and signed-in, the cast members mingle with each other, discussing post-show supper plans, while nibbling on Marie biscuits, bananas and apples or making their glucose drinks to sip between acts.

The 10-minute bell is a signal for one last toilet break as the next opportunity to visit the bathroom is the interval which is more than an hour away. Once the curtain comes down at the end of the show, there is another rush to the toilets. All the pent-up energy and gulps of glucose water take their toll on the bladders.

Once that basic urge is attended to, the cast members sit down to catch their breath. Some discuss their performance that night, others inspect fresh injuries. Overall, the feeling is one of relief... another show seen off without too many problems.

That was also when many of the dancers would chat with me and find out more about Singapore. For many of them, this was their first visit and they were keen to see the sights and catch some of the local flavour.

Dancer Shashank Mali, who played the younger Vasu in the first half of the show, told tabla! that he hadn't had a chance to see Singapore properly. "It's my first time here but we have been so busy with rehearsals and the show, I have seen very little. Maybe I'll see something of Singapore before I leave," he said with a smile.

The only time the cast's high energy took a dive - albeit a small one - was when they read a critical review of the show in a local newspaper. One of the dancers confided in tabla! that it was unusually quiet at the breakfast buffet in Grand Park City Hall hotel as the review was passed around.

"We felt like somebody kicked us in the stomach. But we still had a show to do that night," she said. And watching them in action that night, I could see that the audience had no clue how they felt as they put in yet another high energy performance.

But Shruti, who has been on tour with The Merchants Of Bollywood, shrugged her petite shoulders and told tabla! the review didn't bother her. "When I was in Merchants Of Bollywood, the reviews always said the storyline was not good enough or the dancing was better. It's okay, I am used to it. They will be too," she said of her dancers.

However, the applause from the appreciative Singapore audiences was a good balm and lead actor Pulkit Samrat spoke for the team when he said: "The Singapore audience has been so warm and fantastic to us. We got so much energy from them."

As the cast and crew packed up their costumes after the final show on June 10, they started saying goodbye to me. They told me they hoped to come to Singapore again... back on the Taj Express. I told them we looked forward to having them back, and walked out of the Esplanade with the warm feeling of having made many new friends.

I do have one complaint though... after all the time I shared with the cast and crew, the least they could have done was give me one of those black-and-gold crew T-shirts. I feel I deserved one.

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