As a youngster, Arif Zakaria aspired to be a lawyer but fortunately fate had other plans and he turned to the performing arts. In a nearly 30-year-old career, he has carved a niche for himself in theatre, television, films, writing and production. This March, Arif will be in the UAE with a unique theatrical production, the extremely popular musical Merchants of Bollywood, directed by Toby Gough, an Australian, and named after choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant (also the choreographer of the show).
Mixing dance, drama, music and elements from Hindi cinema, the musical, toplined by a global cast and anchored by a quintessential ‘Bollywood’ theme, is a visual spectacle that has charmed audiences around the world ever since it premiered in 2005. Clocking in over 400 (yes!) shows, from the UK to Australia, the production now travels to our part of the world where it is the prime attraction at the Abu Dhabi Festival that is celebrating India as the Country of Honour. While some of the actors may have changed, Arif, who is currently working on an international project, has remained a constant, travelling with the show and playing diverse parts in it. Ahead of his performance, we had a quick chat with the actor on the enduring appeal of Merchants of Bollywood…
Welcome to the UAE for the Abu Dhabi Festival. What are you looking forward to the most about your visit?
I was looking forward to exploring Abu Dhabi a little – visit the new Louvre and take in the sights and sounds – but unfortunately due to time constraints, all of this may seem difficult. But I am definitely looking forward to interacting with the vast Indian diaspora!
You have had a long association with Merchants of Bollywood. Can you tell us how it all began and what attracted you to it?
It began in 2005 when the producer, Mark Brady along with the director Toby Gough visited Mumbai to put this show together. I was approached by the casting director, Quasar Thakore Padamsee, who set up this meeting. Conversations grew over coffee and muffins, and soon I was on a flight to Sydney to begin preparations for the opening night. It was a great opportunity to be a part of this production which combines live theatre with music and dance. I started with playing a specific character and eventually graduated to playing diverse parts. This exposure helps me as an artiste and gives me an opportunity to travel all across the globe.
How did you interpret your part?
The core element here is to have fun. Of course, rules of theatre engagement do apply, but inherently I try to remember my lines and have fun too in the process.
The show has travelled to many cities. Which performance was the most memorable for you and why?
Performing in front of the Indian diaspora is always tricky. They understand Hindi cinema and are well-versed with its history and nuances, both non-sensical and real. As our show borrows elements from Bollywood, it is always intriguing to gauge their response. We’ve had great applause from Europe and China, where the language barrier was a challenge.
Has the show changed from its original form to make it more contemporary? As a performer, how do you sustain interest in a show that has had such a long run?
The core content of the show and script remains unchanged. We’ve added a bit of humour as we’ve gone along to incorporate topical elements. Consistency is the key to theatre and my job is to keep it same on a day to day basis. That’s the great lesson I learn as an actor: keep it simple yet consistent. I enjoy the different characters, hence they keep me engaged on a day to day basis.
There is often a very stereotypical representation of Bollywood in the West, be it in films or on stage. Given the changes in our cinema over the last few years, do you think it’s time to change the narrative?
We cater to the quintessential Bollywood audience. Those who enjoy escapism, fantasy, fun songs and dance and a slice of family melodrama. There are subtle changes to incorporate the new wave but essentially, we doff our hats to good old-fashioned Bollywood. Those looking for a serious narrative are recommended to carry a book instead!
You are working on an international project, can you share some details about it?
I have completed filming Swords and Sceptres, an English film based on the life of the Rani of Jhansi. It has been shot in Jaipur/Jodhpur and Morocco. I’ve also got Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi releasing in May.