item dance musala

‘Item’ // Dance Masala

‘Item’ was intricate.

A simultaneous celebration and critique of Bollywood films called ‘Item’ took over West End’s New Benner Theatre for three days last week. With Andrea (Drea) Lam at the helm alongside director Lisa Fa’alafi, local Bollywood company Dance Masala’s Nakhre Crew presented a mix of live dance, recorded interviews, satirical social media clips and advertising-style videos projected onto the stage backdrop. Live monologues and plenty of audience interaction meant everyone in the crowd had the opportunity to practice (or learn new) song lyrics, consider the more problematic elements and ultimately share the joy of Bollywood.

For those unfamiliar, the ‘item girl’ or ‘item dance’ in Bollywood films refers to a number inserted for the purpose of including a sexualised dance by an up-and-coming star, rather than necessarily advancing the plot. The ‘Item’ playing at Metro Arts acknowledged the inspirational impact Bollywood films have had on generations of young (particularly South Asian) women, while calling out the dangerous stereotypes and outdated patriarchal norms it perpetuates.

The ‘Item’ team used three years’ worth of letters and interviews from hundreds of women to show the various impacts of Bollywood, some of which were included in the performance via projected videos. Love, inspiration, body image, consent, the male gaze, toxic masculinity, ageism, colourism, cultural stereotypes and representation – and the effect of these themes embedded in media and advertising on youth – were creatively explored as part of the production.

Technically, the show flowed nicely: red and gold lighting by Steven May Productions accentuated the beautiful Bollywood costumes as they shimmered and glimmered on stage; spotlights and patterns projected onto the stage floor added texture and the sound design was flawless (with music composition by Andrew Tuttle and additional composition by Parvyn Kaur Bennett and Josh Bennett). The velvety-looking patterned backdrop was a lovely detail, but unfortunately made it hard to see some of the video projections; particularly the captions, which curiously, didn’t always seem to match the words the women were delivering. Lam and Julian Palma (credited with film work) could consider switching to a plain backdrop and updating the captions for readability in future iterations of the show.

The set was bare, allowing transitions involving microphones and props to happen smoothly. Prop design allowed for great physical comedy: a beautiful orange scarf transitioning into a runaway laundry line earned audience laughter; the tools used for a section satirising a director’s desire to use “wind, water, earth and fire” to “wholesomely reveal a woman’s body” in his film were equally creative and played nicely into the analysis of the “male gaze” in filmmaking.

While the pace of the hour-long show felt a bit slow at times, the audience involvement kept the energy up: the “repeat after me” section instructed the audience on how to pronounce words commonly used in Bollywood songs (such as “gori” for “fair” as in “fair-skinned and beautiful”) and the learn-to-dance section had everyone smiling as we tried not to hit our neighbours with the lively arm movements. The show even ended with the performers bringing theatregoers on stage to join an impromptu dance party.

And the performers (who were also credited with assisting in show creation and writing, along with Aakrithi Kumar) were the highlight. Choreographer and production manager Lam was particularly eye-catching and expressive; her fellow performers Angela Nair Skinner, Ashwin Singh, Janaki Vishvakarman, and Mugdha Khatavkar equally sent sparks of joy into the crowd from the first beat of the opening lip sync.

Lam and Fa’alafi showcased great diversity in casting, featuring dancers with evocative facial expressions and committed performances. The space was well-used with opportunities for all to shine, particularly with the physical comedy often seen in Bollywood films. This was complemented by the well-produced video clips that allowed the performers to take on their male alter-ego characters, also earning laughs from the crowd. The preview night performance saw a few sections of choreography and dialogue delivered not quite in sync, particularly noticeable in the ‘Sit like a lady’ duet, but presumably improved throughout the show’s run.

The substantially more serious messaging on toxic masculinity and consent also hit home: Singh gave a stand-out monologue. Her repetitious story of implied sexual assault over a slowed down dance sequence delivered by two of the other performers was powerful and changed the mood in the theatre instantly. “He stole something from me,” she said. “And no one came to help me.”

Despite the problems explored in Bollywood film messaging, ‘Item’ ended on a note of adoration for the genre: a flurry of one-word letters thrown onto the stage, with the spotlight landing on “Love”.

Those familiar with the film catalogue (and language) that was celebrated and scrutinised by this production would certainly recognise the in-jokes and satire best. That said, those of us new to Bollywood were given a compelling, thought-provoking glimpse into the cultural phenomenon–in all its beauty and its danger–with ‘Item.’

‘Item’ performed until Saturday 19 August 2023 at Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre. For more information visit Dance Masala’s Facebook site.

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