The lights dimmed and the stage lit up in vibrant colours – hues of orange, red and purple danced along a sheer backdrop with hanging fairy lights. Sarees and sarongs hung from a make shift clothes line. Just as I was absorbing all the detail, the hollering and excitement began. The ensemble jumped on to stage, bursting out into a Bollywood number.
The energy was palpable! Jumping, hip shaking and just the right amount of sass. At the peak of this number, we heard, “Satu kali dua.. DUA, Dua kali dua.. EMPAT, Tiga kali dua.. ENAM, Empat kali dua?? What’s empat kali dua??”
And the play unravelled. Bollywood, heartbreak and two boys who dared to DREAM.
It was early March when my team and I read that the KL Performing Arts Centre was bringing back live performances and their first staging was The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat’s Bollywood Dreams.
We decided to get tickets – amped up about finally getting to witness a live performance after all this time. But we didn’t realise, at first, how special this show was.
Bollywood Dreams, a labour of love by the revered Dato’ Dr. Faridah Merican, is based on Mark Beau de Silva’s Big Head Potato Head and co-adapted by Tilottama Pillai. Pre-production begun in 2019 and the show was meant to hit the stage in 2020.
However, due to the pandemic, they were forced to postpone production. The team continued with online readings but Dr. Faridah made the call to stage her production in 2021. With no silver lining in sight, they decided to opt for an online premier. But just two weeks shy of the recording date, the government announced that live performances would be allowed.
And just like that, Bollywood Dreams would have its on-stage premier!
The ensemble, cast and crew had two weeks to sort everything out and also conduct their first few live rehearsals. Despite the limited amount of time they had to get to know each other, the chemistry amongst them on stage was not lacking in the least.
The show revolves around two young brothers, Pappu and Babu, living in 1980s Sungai Petani with their mother. The two boys would envision big Bollywood dreams whilst studying and going about their chores.
Chairs, stools and broomsticks were stacked up to impersonate Amitabh and Rajinikanth. They turned rocks into mountains and danced to catchy Bollywood tunes with imaginary chorus girls and backup dancers!
However, as stated by their Uncle Gopal, real life is never that easy. Caught in the crossfires of their mother and Aunty Rupa’s 8-year-long feud, the boys began to realise that their Bollywood dreams may only be that after all. Dreams – nothing more.
The seamless intertwining of each character’s story and the frequent Bollywood/Kollywood numbers, left us, the audience, at the edge of our seats.
Pappu and Babu
In the midst of the show, we realised that a story had to be written about this amazing cast, the ensemble and all the people behind the scenes. Although, meet and greets are not allowed, we got hold of their publicist, Maggie and she organised a short interview with the two talented actors playing Pappu and Babu.
Tin Raman (Pappu) and Ian Skatu (Babu), walked out to meet us, looking absolutely exhausted. However, despite this exhaustion, we could tell they had a certain air of excitement and accomplishment. And deservedly so!
We sat on the floor, socially distanced and masks on, in a circle. Ian then quipped, “I love this – it’s like a picnic!”
What was instantly noticeable about the pair was how their on-stage chemistry translated off-stage. Looking to each other before answering a question, certain gestures they made throughout the interview.. it was truly remarkable to witness how these actors had bonded despite the limited amount of time they had for live rehearsals.
Bollywood Dreams was their first live performance in a long while so I wondered how it felt to finally be back on stage.
“It’s actually my first time on Pentas 1 at KLPAC – which is a dream for most performers,” Ian said, with a glint in his eyes.
“I was so excited about it last year but then.. MCO! I didn’t know if I’d be able to live my dream of performing on Pentas 1 but thankfully, KLPAC was determined to produce it. That’s when we went online and began rehearsing.”
As soon as we asked them what their online rehearsals were like, both actors laughed.
Tin explained how when he first started rehearsing on Zoom, it was difficult to get into character as there was a certain disconnect due to the lack of physicality.
“It felt like we were just reading lines. But half way through, we figured it out, right?” Tin said, looking to Ian.
Ian added how they figured it out in terms of lines, meanings and the reasons behind all of it.
“But when we went into physical rehearsals, it was like ‘What are our bodies?’” Ian laughed, flailing his hands about.
The actor began jogging in preparation for their live rehearsals and performances.
“It was all done in reverse! I feel like Babu and I can talk like Babu but how do I move like Babu?” Ian said, looking at Tin.
Tin had the same problem when embodying Pappu. “How does a 12 year old move?” he joked.
In preparing for his live role, Tin began rehearsing in his room, trying to figure out how a child from a kampung would move.
“Would he be more like a kampung boy or since his hero his Rajinikanth, would he move as Rajini?”
“Since I was figuring all this out in my room, when I moved my practices to Pentas 1, it was lovely – all that space!” Tin exaggeratedly said, gesturing at the room.
As both Ian and Tin did not know each other prior to this show, their first physical rehearsal in March was also the first time the two met each other.
“We only started connecting when we were actually performing. Due to SOPs, our rehearsals were held separately from the ensemble’s and all that sort of made connecting more difficult,” Ian said.
When asked how exposed they were to Bollywood growing up, both actors exchanged sheepish looks.
Ian embarrassedly said, “I have to admit I grew up rather white-washed. I wasn’t very exposed to Bollywood.”
Ian’s inspiration of Bollywood actors came from watching other Indian and Eurasian people, like Nicole-Ann Thomas, Anne James and a whole list of Malaysian veteran actors. Their representation was very important to him and Tin as actors.
Ian was, however, drawn to audition for Bollywood Dreams due to the representation of the Indian community.
“The entire audition room was a sea of Indian and Eurasian people and that was so nice to see!”
Tin’s experience was the opposite – he grew up with parents who were movie buffs so he was exposed to all sorts of movies.
“When they brought up all these Indian names, I was like ‘I know these guys and how Rajini moves his hips ONLY all the time’ and that helped me figure out how I want to play Pappu,” Tin animatedly said, chuffed with his ability to recognise these star-studded names.
When asked about their beginnings in theatre, Ian explained how he grew up as a musician, influenced by his father who is also a musician.
It wasn’t until 6 years ago when he went to London to partake in a huge festival, when he watched Wicked The Musical.
“I was instantly inspired and knew that when I went back, I needed to do this.”
He began auditioning for musical theatre and eventually even started teaching musical theatre. He’s also a Strategy Manager but he indulges in his passion for performing arts to “keep him sane.”
Tin was always doing theatre during his time as a student at Taylor’s University. But his first real introduction to the industry was in 2019 when he joined Theatre 4 Young People (T4YP), where he met one of his mentors Mark Beau de Silva. The actor was in fact drawn to audition for Bollywood Dreams as it was his mentor’s script.
He also went to Actor’s Gym during the MCO last year, where he learnt from Nicole-Ann Thomas.
“But I’m still very new and I don’t know what I’m doing for the most part!” Tin laughed.
“Don’t say that!” Ian feigned shock at this.
Both performers did, however, agree that everyone in the industry has to work with Dr. Faridah Merican. They described her as a very flexible director who allows her cast to express their individual creativity in playing their characters.
Curious about how much these talented actors must have learnt from the MCO period and how it devastated the performance arts scene, I asked them if they had anything to say to other performing artists who may be struggling during this time.
Ian highlighted how the biggest issue in Malaysia is the lack of funding and foundation provided for performing arts.
He mentioned how we must start with eduction and gave his own upbringing as an example. Throughout his schooling life, he was never exposed to theatre and he could never appreciate the art form
That changed when he went to a foreign country where theatre was appreciated.
“Why did it have to take that whole journey to make me appreciate what I have here as well?” Ian thoughtfully asked.
“So if you’re starting out, it is going to be tough but in the meantime, practice your craft, attend classes, and when the time comes, you will have all the skills under your belt.”
Spending time with these actors only reemphasised how important the theatre scene is to our country. It allows for the intersection of culture and cultivates a renewed sense of harmony.
However, due to the effects of this pandemic, the performing arts scene is in dire need of our help. Losses incurred were huge as KLPAC is down to 30% of seats as income from ticket sales. Until they regain full operations, we need to lend a helping hand. Attend a show or make a donation if you’re able to!
Let’s all play a part in ensuring the dreams of our young Pappu’s and Babu’s are always within reach.