Despite nearly 10 hours of grilling rehearsals for Bombay Dreams some weeks ago, A R Rahman remembered that he had to do his namaaz. But did he remember that he had gone without food for most of the time?
As he emerged from his Sheraton Hotel suite, Sudhir Vaishnav wanted to remind the composer to eat something. But he went a step ahead. He gave Rahman a packet of halal meat delicacies from an Indian restaurant.
"He is very devoted to this production," Rahman, who had nudged Vaishnav into joining the Bombay Dreams production team lead by Andrew Lloyd Webber, said with a gentle smile.
Rahman and Vaishnav became friends a few years ago when the latter organised a Rahman benefit concert for the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New York. Vaishnav, who is arguably the first entrepreneur in America to host shows featuring the likes of Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mahmood and Hemant Kumar starting in the 1970s, has many reasons for his devotion to Bombay Dreams.
For one, he is fully aware that he is making history.
For, it is the first time in 110 year-old Broadway, the world's glitziest theatre district, that an Indian gets billed as producer. Though Shekhar Kapur is also listed as an associate producer with Vaishnav, his billing has more to do with his early contribution to the show, by way of suggesting the plot line.
But it is Vaishnav who, apart from investing a sizeable amount in the $14 million production, spends several hours at the theatre, helping anyone from Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Steven Pimlott to the actors in the ensemble cast.
More important, he also spent many hours making the show known to the Indian community by taking key actors such as Manu Narayan and Anisha Nagarajan to sing two or three numbers from the show at Indian community events.
It was Vaishnav who organised the first ever peek into the show at a well-attended function at the Indian consulate auditorium in December. His efforts have been covered by not only The New York Times but also by National Public Radio. "This is a great opportunity for us to show that we are interested in promoting a big show on Broadway," he said, adding that he wishes he had a role to play in the London production of Bombay Dreams.
Vaishnav knows that Lloyd Webber had in vain sought out investments from millionaire Indian families in London and India about three years ago. When nobody showed interest, he invested about $7 million of his own money. He recouped it in just about a year even as some of the higher profile shows like Kiss Me Kate closed down losing substantial amounts of money.
"Bombay Dreams is set in Bollywood and has Indian actors and India's best-known composer," Vaishnav said. "But it is by all accounts a mainstream Broadway production and it is promoted that way."
He is proud to be part of a musical that shows contemporary India and not the stereotypical India of maharajas and snake charmers, he added wryly. If the show succeeds, Vaishnav thinks more Indians will be interested in backing other Broadway shows, irrespective of where they are set.
"There are so many Indian producers in Hollywood and England and they are making mainstream films," he said. "I don't know why the theatre hasn't attracted us."
But he remembers quickly that but for Rahman's urging and Lloyd Webber's encouragement, he too would not have been on Broadway. But he is glad to be part of the show now. For, Vaishnav, who served as an executive with Lufthansa for many years, is tired of organising desi musical shows.
He started getting tired of them over two decades ago as the competition increased and the financial and other demands of the artistes began soaring. "Yet, there was some fun and adventure in organising those shows in the early years," he said.
Vaishnav grew up in Bombay listening to stories of the likes of K L Saigal and Pankaj Mullick from his physician father. "Showbiz, you may say, was part of my upbringing," he chuckled.
His first connection with Hindi films took place when he started screening Indian films across campuses in America. Other distributors were not worried that the films were not shown continuously. After a reel was shown, there would be a break, and a new reel would mechanically replace the old one. But Vaishnav decided to show the films continuously (except for an intermission). "I demanded from the producers that I had to have the film with me a day before the showing," he said. He would then put the reels together so that continuity was obtained.
Then, he started organising concerts. He almost went out of business when Mukesh died in Detroit in the middle of the tour. "Lata Mangeshkar helped me out," he recalled. "She said she would return to America after a year and sing so that she could help me." She kept her promise.
Though the prospects of organising desi music concerts hardly interest Vaishnav now, he wants to try his hand at organising concerts of hot Western singers abroad, including in India. "My plans are realistic," he said. "Let us say an established company in America or England has booked Norah Jones concerts worldwide. I would like to host the show in a few places like Dubai, New Delhi and Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore."
It is an eminently feasible idea, he believes.
Having crossed a big barrier and become a producer on Bombay Dreams, one of the most discussed shows today, Vaishnav can certainly dream big.
Photograph: Paresh Gandhi
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