AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN: Hooray for Bollywood: A new musical experience hits Austin stage

On Aug. 3, nearly 1,000 people gathered at the Long Center to attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the largest Bollywood dance party. Though they didn’t quite surpass the record of 4,428 dancers, set by the Indian television show “Dance India Dance” in 2012, the large crowd put on a serious display of flashy moves.

The production company Agni Entertainment held the unique event to promote “Om Shanti — Once Upon a Time in Bollywood,” a new Bollywood-style musical opening Friday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Prakash Mohandas, the founder of Agni Entertainment, will co-direct the show (along with Krishna Shankar) and star in a leading role.

Mohandas was born and raised in the southern India city of Chennai. He performed in his first musical, a production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” at the age of 7. Despite a longtime interest in the arts, Mohandas came to the United States in 2004 to earn a masters degree at the University of Texas in electrical engineering. After school, he worked at AMD and Dell before deciding he wanted to pursue a career in the arts seriously.

“In India,” he said, “the arts are not looked at as a serious profession. Coming to the U.S. taught me that I could do it professionally as long as I could make money at it.” In 2008, Mohandas founded a dance company and studio called Agni Dance, and more recently a production company, Agni Entertainment. He also teaches popular Bollywood dance classes at Ballet Austin.

“Bollywood” is the name given to the Indian film industry that began in Bombay (now Mumbai). The name is a blend of “Bombay” and “Hollywood,” and the high-energy, lavishly produced films often weave elaborate song and dance numbers with melodramatic plots.

In recent years, Bollywood film and dance have been getting more mainstream attention in the United States. Mohandas noticed a big increase in the number of people interested in his dance classes after the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” came out in 2008. The profile of Bollywood dance also was raised when the popular television show “So You Think You Can Dance” named it as an official dance style.

Western theater artists have recently attempted to translate the success of Bollywood film and dance into stage productions. The show with the highest profile was 2002′s “Bombay Dreams,” produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber with music by renowned Indian film composer A.R. Rahman.

In Austin, Austin Shakespeare director Anne Ciccolella attempted to infuse a 2012 production of the bard’s “Twelfth Night” with a colorful Bollywood aesthetic. Mohandas served as that production’s choreographer, and it was there that he met set designer Ia Enstera and lighting designer Jason Amato, both of whom he brought on board to design for “Om Shanti.”

Mohandas, who wrote the script for “Om Shanti,” mixed and matched characters and plots from several major Bollywood movies and included musical numbers from different popular films. Mohandas won’t let on too much about the plot of “Om Shanti,” but he will allow that it’s a love story featuring an over-the-top villain, reincarnation and revenge.

The production features a 120-member cast and crew with 45 dancers, 20 actors, a 20-member orchestra and a choir. The diverse group of actors and dancers are all from Austin, and about half of the cast had some kind of experience with Bollywood dance.

Mohandas explained that Bollywood dance is not a highly structured dance form but is influenced more by the music itself. It can draw on hip-hop, jazz or Indian classical dance, depending on the kind of music. The show’s choreographer, Divya Dinakar, described it as “a fusion of a variety of dance styles,” blending the heavy storytelling of Indian classical dance with the high-energy moves of Indian folk dance and world dance forms.

At a recent rehearsal in the lobby of UT’s Art Building, the intergenerational cast took a moment to close their eyes and focus before beginning a run of the show. Dinakar watched the dancers closely as they whirled across the space performing lively dance numbers. Mohandas alternated between performing and giving the cast direction.

Directing, producing and starring in a show simultaneously would be a difficult task for any theater artist. Mohandas, who has more experience as a choreographer and filmmaker than as a theater director, said that the biggest challenge is in managing such a large cast. He also said that “trying to trail-blaze and create something that’s not there already” has been hard.

But Mohandas, who doesn’t like to sit still, is up to the challenge. In fact, his engineering background has helped him wrangle with the large production and turn it into something manageable.

“I’m really analytical,” he said, “which helps me in a few ways. I love math and I can work easily with patterns and numbers.” His systematic way of thinking has been helpful in many aspects of production, from choreography to forecasting finances.

So far, the Austin arts community has enthusiastically embraced the idea of “Om Shanti.” Though the Indian population in Austin is not as big as that of Dallas or Houston, Mohandas said that it is growing fast and many members of the Indian community are involved in the production.

The show will premiere in the Long Center’s Dell Hall, but Mohandas wants the audience to know that watching “Om Shanti” in this space might be different from watching other productions.

“Expect not to sit in your seat quietly,” he said. He explained that there will be an act at the beginning showing people how to watch a Bollywood musical. “It’s very different from how you usually watch a show at the Long Center. It’s not as prim and proper. We’re really looking for the audience to be part of the whole thing.”