This review comes with something of a caveat: I spent three weeks in February working with Umar Ahmed, the co-writer and director of How to Make a Killing in Bollywood. I’m glad I did – if not, it’s doubtful I would have walked through the snow on a dismal Friday night in Paisley to watch a play about Bollywood.
How to Make a Killing in Bollywood tells the story of Raza Khan, a struggling Scottish-Asian actor disillusioned by working evenings in his family’s carryout in Glasgow – “serving chips and cheese to the local neds”. After persuading his best friend and fellow actor, Gurjit, to take a leap of faith and have a crack at making it big in Bollywood, the pair set off for India “on a path that will change both their lives forever.” [Quotes from the show’s official flyer]
The first act rushes a little too quickly towards its cliff-hanger moment, although when it arrives, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Raza. It’s no spoiler to reveal that it is actually Gurjit who receives the fabled call-back from a Bollywood casting company. Cue shocked expression on Raza’s face and a fade to black for the interval. At this point, I was really hoping that the second act didn’t lurch into a moral testing of faith/soul-searching for Raza. In a way, it does do that, but How to Make a Killing in Bollywood is actually a much cleverer and more ambitious play.
Raza’s relationship with Versha, a prostitute he meets at a bar on his first night in India, becomes one of the highlights of the show. Not only does Versha embody the duality of India and Bollywood – sexy yet seedy, beautiful yet dangerous, hot yet cold – her ability to manipulate Raza (and the ease with which he allows this to happen), makes him a far more rounded and, crucially, believable, character. In a great scene in the second act, where Gurjit chastises Raza for going out drinking again instead of concentrating on what he came to India for, Raza curtly tells his friend that that is what he’s doing. The ambiguity, bizarrely, could not be more clear: Raza has realised, finally, that the road to glory is not as straightforward as he had previously hoped, so he panders to Versha’s good nature, deceiving her with promises of a future together, that he really cares, so that he can steal her ‘little black book’. As Raza becomes less likeable as a character, the tension between him and Gurjit escalates perfectly along its tragicomic plotline. Yet, its almost-inevitable climax remained a surprise, quite a shocking one at that, which I think the play manages because of its expert juxtaposition and blending of dark and light, both visually and metaphorically.
Had the play ended ten seconds earlier, with the harrowing confrontation between Raza and Gurjit, I would have left Paisley Arts Centre slightly underwhelmed. That the last words we hear are “And, cut!” from a disembodied director is testament to the writers’ and (real) director’s skill and judgement. How to Make a Killing in Bollywood doesn’t frame itself as a metafictional work in the way that books like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller do, but I am very glad that Ahmed and Sumal injected the play with a hearty dose of self-awareness. The play’s opening, an answer-phone message left by a casting agency informing Raza of a(nother) unsuccessful audition, is strong, but it’s only two hours later, when we realise that How to Make a Killing In Bollywood is, effectively, a two-fingered salute to all of the directors and theatre companies that didn’t employ the four actors in this show, that we fully appreciate its real intricacy and beauty: the ease with which it lies a sardonic, deadpan message about the whole of the theatre and acting world while simultaneously providing us with a camp-as-you-like, pat the dog, change the lightbulb romp through the journey of two minority characters.
There are, of course, problems with the play, just as there are specific instances of excellence. For me, the tendency towards very literal soliloquies, in which characters subjected us to their inner fears and desires in quite banal speeches felt a little over the top. A more successful example of these soliloquies, performed by Gurjit not long after his arrival in India, sees the character reflect on a meeting with a street kid who wanted to involve him in a game of cricket. By focusing on the ordinary, on Gurjit’s noticing of the precise way that the child held the bat, the speech became more than a sum of its parts; it invoked something else about India – a bigger picture and wider scope than that merely framed in this show.
Elsewhere, the airport security scene was handled brilliantly, giving us a sense of some of the prejudices facing Asian travellers. Done so humorously – Gurjit ultimately having to strip to his boxers, with the alarm-raising ‘problem’ being discovered ‘down there’ – the scene was genuinely funny without holding us, as a neutral audience, accountable for the bigotry of others. Just after this, as a nervous Gurjit waits for the plane to take off, he muses on the mechanics of what it is that will actually keep him in the air all the way to India. The scene is very poetic: isolated within his own mind, we hear all of the ridiculous but appropriate thoughts that we must have all had at some point during flying, such as what would happen if just that one wire were to fail?
How to Make a Killing in Bollywood is currently touring Scotland (dates on the site below) and I really hope that people will make the effort to see it. Ahmed and Sumal have produced a play which is so much richer than it appears; a play that is about friendship and ambition and the lengths people will go to realise their dreams. It’s a play of light and dark; a play of life and death; a play of laughter and sorrow. It’s a play that more people need to see, and I wish the cast and the whole team every success with it in the future.
Written and devised by Umar Ahmed and Manjot Sumal. Directed by Umar Ahemd. Cast of actors: Umar Ahmed, Manjot Sumal, Storm Skyler McClure and Adam Buksh.
Produced by Scott Kyle, NLP Theatre Company/Regal Theatre, Bathgate
Watched at Paisley Arts Centre on Friday the 22nd March 2013.
For tour dates and more information, please click here.