On Sunday, I joined Aspi and his gaggle of fun friends for the Chicagoland stop of the Unforgettable Tour. (Pitu Sultan's writeup is here. She is v v funny and be sure to enlarge the photos.) Going to one of these shows with friends is definitely the right approach, even if you can't easily share witty comments over the din of the speakers. Aspi's writeup, which has inspired my format even though we disagree on some of the performances, is here.
Perhaps it's not the best idea to call your show "unforgettable." That's a lot to live up to, bypassing the here and now for the very long-term. "Unforgettable" may not even be desirable - plenty of bad things are unforgettable. Bhagban and Dhoom 2, to name some examples involving the cast of this show, are dreadful, which I remember every time I notice them on the shelf at the video store. To the person who named this show, I ask: do you want me to have a fun evening, in the presence of these performers and thousands of other fans, or do you want the show to lodge in my brain no matter the reason? Who knows - but unforgettable it was deemed, so in this light it will be considered.
Of course there were moments of this show that were utterly average in quality or memorableness. I haven't forgotten them quite yet, since the show was only two days ago, but give me a week and I bet they'll have slipped from my brain. Fortunately, I found none of the performers to be just ordinary. Each will be discussed and then given a rating from 1 to 10, with 1 as "Wait...they were there?" and 10 as most definitely unforgettable. (The numbers do not necessarily reflect how much I enjoyed an aspect of the show or how good I thought it was.) More on the stars (who all had solo sets and also participated in multi-star or whole-group numbers) in a minute - let's start with some pragmatics and settings.
venue: Sears Center, Hoffman Estates, Illinois
I pretty much loathe the Chicago suburbs (even though I know a ton of lovely people who grew up there or live there now), and my ire increases greatly whenever I have to deal with the traffic. But Aspi was really nice and let me carpool with him, so all I had to do was entertain the driver and remark at how he kept his cool even though people in SUVs tried to cut in front of us while we queued for the parking lot. Once inside, there was major malfunction and meltdown in the ticketing area. As Aspi reminded me in his post, some strange fellow was bellowing about how parents should refuse to buy tickets for their children, and there were about ten fewer ticket takers than were needed, resulting in a giant mob of people waiting for two poor souls to check their tickets and let them in. We got caught in this crowd for at least ten minutes, not moving, and the pressure growing and growing. Some @(#$&* decided that the right response was to shove, and I found myself making a silent plea to the filmi gods to protect us in what felt like a potential stampede, my mind rushing foolishly to the horrible mela scenes in A Suitable Boy. When some Ali G-lookalike started telling everyone within earshot to start pushing, Abby, ever stalwart, said "I WILL NOT PUSH." She's a lot taller than he was, and he shut up. In my experience, Chicagoland security-type people are not to be trifled with, often built like linebackers and with flat accents that can knock you out with an assault to your aural aesthetics. Ours managed to get things back under control, but not with the force I was expecting. The arena itself was arena-ish, but whoever designed it seemed to forget that audiences need room for their knees. There was absolutely no room to walk past people in your row to get to your seat unless they stood up, and lots of people didn't feel like standing up. I thought I was going to plunge to my death a few times.
venue unforgettableness: 6, but not in a good way
sets and costumes
Really, really cool and fun to look at, especially the giant sheets of fabrics used to various effects and the big grid that Abhishek danced in in "Dus Bahane," I think it was. I'm a sucker for sparklers, so the burst of fireworks at the end of most of the solo sets made me really happy. I thought the costumes were un-fuggable, even for the backup dancers. Everyone looked interesting at the least and, more often than not, classy and/song-appropriate. I must, must, must mention that during one of the multi-star numbers, Preity, Aishwarya, Ritesh, and Abhishek came out in Yaarana-style light-up jackets. Hilarious and cheeky!
(image from the official blog post about the Chicago show)
Nostalgia is one thing, and an affectionate nod to the kitsch of one of your colleagues' perhaps less notable projects is another altogether.
sets and costumes unforgettableness: 9
SUPERWOW! I could see his smile from my nosebleed seat! He had so much energy and was flying around the stage! When it was his turn have the microphone, I believed him when he said "This is my first tour and I'm so excited!" He was at a zillion percent, passing the more often quoted 110 percent the moment he stepped into view. He also looked really stylish in his jeans and silver sneakers. It'd be so easy as the least famous person on the tour just to phone it in and ride a few coattails, and he was so far from that, so much more committed and engaging. I hope this tour helps his career - he deserves some palpable return for his investment on that stage.
Riteish unforgettableosity (yes, he gets his own term): 10
Oh Preity. She were my favorite thing about the Heat show in 2006, but here she was mostly perfunctory. Her outfits were lovely and she did everything nicely, but I didn't get much oomph from her. However, I am very grateful to her for doing "Kiss of Love," one of my favorite songs of 2007. I also like that she admitted to being out of breath when handed the microphone as soon as her solo set ended. Who wouldn't be! Thank you, Preity, for keeping it real.
Preity unforgettableness: 5. I enjoyed her performance, but my impression of her from the show two years ago is much stronger. People who didn't have my expectations might give her 6 or 7.
Overload of cool and good cheer. If I didn't really love Abhishek, this...shtick, I think some might call it (Abhishtick?), would have been incredibly annoying. But I do really love Abhishek, so it was perfect. He entered from the back of the arena, sort of boxer-like, in a leather jacket, with the crowd going completely crazy. As soon as he was on stage, he climbed into a fenced platform and was floated high above the floor, going out over the audience and back again. (Aspi's wife made a really interesting comment about how different this was from the entirely closed-in cages that female dancers are usually put in - a totally different type of power dynamic was being set up, in which he was free to jump out and get close to the audience. Contrast this to women in oversized bird cages, "locked up" with no way out.) He hip-hopped all over the stage, doing his Abhisheky dancing and posing - think of the "Right Here Right Now" mix video during the end credits in Bluffmaster. My personal feeling is that this was all done with a delightful veneer of self-reference and irony, playing on his image as both hep cat and Rakesh (from Bunty aur Babli)-like everyman, which I love. He seemed like a very normal, fun, generous guy who happened to find himself in front of a few thousand people and a ton of speakers and decided just to go for it and do in public the strutting and mugging and singing and dancing that he usually saves for the shower or his own living room. You know, like the act/sing/dance/emote-along-ing I do while watching his movies. It tapped into what I like most about Abhishek, which is that he appears to be this normal but really talented guy who enjoys what he does and can laugh at himself, even when he's being held up as some sort of icon. I ate the whole thing up with a spoon. The montage of film clips that preceded each star's solo set did a lot to hype them up, and Abhishek's included various qualities stuck after the modifier "unforgettable," like "intensity" and "comedy." Mostly I agreed with them, but the last one before he entered the arena was "unforgettable dude." If I had been drinking anything, it would have come out my nose - I use the word "dude" pejoratively to imply that someone thinks he is far cooler than he actually is or is behaving in an otherwise eye-roll-invoking manner. Which brings me back to my caveat about "if I didn't really love Abhishek." If you weren't on board with how he was being styled in this event, you would've rolled your eyes, for sure. Either he's got the best persona (not "personal") managers ever, or he really did enjoy himself and really did love interacting with the audience. Aspi put it well in his review - the man has a flair for dealing with people, and while I think he's fantastic in front of the camera, especially in comedies, now I wonder what he'd do behind it. In short: more please!
Abhi Baby unforgettableness: 11
Side note on Abhishek Bachchan: It's time to admit something that I rarely talk about in clear terms. It's a tight race, but Abhishek is both my favorite working actor (based on my responses to performances on screen and my assessment of talent and effectiveness) and my favorite star (as determined by a highly unscientific, biased, and personal combination of factors, mostly actors' celebrity personas and my vague impressions of the people themselves formed by their works, interviews, general treatment by the press, etc.). He is most definitely the reason I went to this show. Therefore my thoughts on his unforgettableness are wildly slanted, but Abhishek, in general, just does it for me both as an actor and as a celebrity, and it is no surprise that his is the performance I found most memorable (and loved/enjoyed most).
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Now I understand why people accuse her of being an ice princess. Her solo set was lifeless and boring. And when she started to talk, oh heaven help us, I thought I was in the hallways of a middle school. Giggle giggle "thank you for all your blessings" giggle giggle "I love you too" giggle giggle "I love my husband." BLEH. I've always been an Aishwarya apologist, but now you're walkin' on thin ice, princess. Aspi blamed her tight costume, and I'll happily chalk her non-performance up to that rather than admit that someone I have always enjoyed was only capable of being lackluster. She was also oversold by the introductory montage and voice-over, when she was referred to in superlative terms that only people with far more years of experience could possibly live up to. Not her fault, but very damaging to the effect of her set. Her dances in the later group numbers were much better, and "Kajra Re" was totally satisfying, even though I could tell it wasn't as snazzy and sharp as it was in Bunty aur Babli. Does this mean she can't be a solo artist? Say it ain't so!
Aishwarya unforgettableness: 4. I expected a lot more from her. This performance is already fading away, replaced by happier, more striking memories of her on film.
Vishal and Shekhar
My overall impression of the musicians is that they sang out of tune a lot. I'm sorry, I know that's mean, but being on the right pitch is an absolute baseline requirement for singers, and they missed. Now, let me say in their defense that the music was incredibly loud in there, and I have no idea if they could actually hear what they were doing. They were also very energetic performers, hopping around and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to work up the crowd.
V&S unforgettableness: 6. Their energy was admirable but misplaced.
Side note on musical performers: I loved Sa Re Ga Ma Pa's Amanat Ali in the pre-show and found him cool and suave (if overly Ranbir Kapoor-looking) yet engaged with what he was doing and his audience. He gets a 9.
You would never think the scowling, robotic woman on stage had been the star of Guddi - or of anything else, for that matter. She read from a card (nicely printed with the tour logo) a few reasons why we should stop global warming. I couldn't agree more with what she said, but her dour presence and complete lack of conviction made me want to go burn some styrofoam out of spite. The only thing that would have made her spot worse would have been having her text on a Power Point slide projected on the JumboTron while she read it word for word.
Jaya unforgettableness: 7. Her discomfort is seared into my brain.
What can I say? He was the major feature of the show, even though he didn't seem to expend as much energy as much as other people. He got into the spirit of things without losing his dignity - no small feat. He too worked the crowd, in his own "stern but benevolent father" sort of way, ignoring hoots and hollers but pacing his words so that those of us who wanted to listen could do so. I especially enjoyed his version of "Main Hoon Don" (sadly sans the tiger mask) and the tribute to him in which the other stars danced some of his numbers. His dialogues were mostly lost on me but his voice was a treat to hear. In one of the Amitabh-based montages (there were at least two), the voice-over guy built him up into supernova, god, mafia boss, and world leader rolled into one. A bit over the top and completely unnecessary - anyone who comes to a show like this knows who Amitabh Bachchan is, for goodness' sake. At one point, the voice said something like "his greatness is more than the things he does...it's a part of who he is!" and I replied "Oooh, is Gandhi here?" Another segment included a fleeting glimpse of Shashi - woohoo! - so my sarcasm was quickly curtailed in favor of dil-squishy happiness and I sank back into filmified gushing and love of all things Amitabh, just like the show clearly wanted me to.
Big B unforgettableness: 10, of course. I might have given him an 8 if he hadn't displayed such good humor about his own persona.
Side note: I would pay a lot of money and travel many miles to see Shashi live and in person, even in a stupid suburban arena, even if he doesn't do "Kehne Ki Nahin Baat." Shashi-ji, can we possibly tempt you to go on the road? Pretty please? You can just sit on stage on a bunch of comfy cushions and chat with us about whatever strikes your fancy - no performing necessary. That would be unforgettable, I think in the best possible way.
the show overall
I notice I've used the word "persona" a few times in this writeup. That's key to some of what was going on - this was a tightly controlled and orchestrated celebration of popular cinema fame, less of the movies themselves and far more of the faces who represent them. Anthropologists who study contemporary social rituals and religion would have a lot to say about the show, I'm sure: the congregating, the gratifying of the faithful, an acknowledgment of community and a reinforcing of the "we," the lit-up god-like figures front and center granting us a viewing. There were ridiculous amounts of hero worship and ego-feeding (which I suspect are inherent in shows like this), but they were offset by the performances, most notably Riteish's, that were in the true spirit of entertainment. The show was participatory, especially when egged on by Abhishek. There was a chance to engage with the stars, to do what they were doing (that is, singing and dancing, celebrating movies), to move a little bit beyond simply watching them. Just a little bit, of course, but it was there. That generosity is always endearing to me, and it's one of the most lovely trademarks of Bollywood films and culture generally. So well done, Unforgettable Tour, for tapping into what I love about Hindi cinema and creating a fun atmosphere of shared celebration and some genuine entertainment.
overall unforgettableness: 8