The writer of Wah! Wah! Girls Tanika Gupta tells us where her inspiration came from…
I come from a musical family where my father was a singer and my mother a classically trained Indian dancer. As young students, they met and fell in love in the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s university ashram of Santiniketan.
The story goes that my mother used to hear my father singing open voiced and joyously as he walked through the campus every day, and she fell in love with his voice long before she ever saw his face. My father told me how, as a child, he would run away from school and cycle to the nearest cinema to watch the latest Bollywood movie.
For my holidays I was sent back to India to learn Indian dancing (Kathakali and Manipuri) and Tagore singing – part of a process that I used to facetiously call ‘de-Anglicisation’. On those trips I went to see Bollywood movies with my Indian teenage friends. Often I was as fascinated by the audiences in the cinema halls as I was by the films: rickshaw-pullers, hawkers and tradesmen in the cheap stalls and the middle classes in the more expensive seats. When the songs came on, everyone would dance in their seats, some would sing along and the men would cat call and wolf whistle when the heroine danced – her breast heaving and her pirouettes revealing her ankles.
So I was delighted three years ago when I was approached to develop a musical for Sadler’s Wells and Theatre Royal Stratford East. The combination seemed perfect for forging a new form of British Bollywood musical, drawing on the dance expertise of Sadler’s Wells and Theatre Royal Stratford East’s experience in contemporary musical theatre. Although I have written many plays this was to be my first musical – and I was determined to do something modern and different. But as I started writing the book and the lyrics, I first looked for inspiration in the old films.
In the West, people tend to think of Bollywood as superficial glitter, high melodrama and idealised romance punctuated by over-the-top songs and dances. In fact, many Bollywood films have a very strong storyline and the films often deal with important subjects such as rape, domestic violence, class and caste, religion and poverty, as well as the well-trodden storylines of star-crossed lovers and estranged families.
Bollywood is big and loud but it also has gentle performances, comic turns, powerful drama and touching observations on life. With modern India now emerging in the forefront of global economic power, things are changing. This is reflected in the films which deal with contemporary Indian sensibilities.
There is still poetry, singing and dancing, but it is often more MTV style; more flesh is bared and courtesans are a thing of the past. I wanted this new musical to capture something of the changing dynamic in India, whilst locating it clearly in London, exploring how British culture is being influenced increasingly by the subcontinent.
Through the conflict between the characters Soraya and Sita, Wah! Wah! Girls celebrates both the ancient form of Mujra dance and new dancing styles.
The wonderfully diverse musical score by the exceptional Niraj Chag captures the fusion of contemporary London life with Asian, Afro- Caribbean and Eastern European neighbours each finding their voice. Wah! Wah! Girls is a woman-centred script with all the glitter, great songs and dances from the old films, but also the vivacity of the East End and the energy of today’s new India.