ITEM – Dear Bollywood, I love you, but we need to talk …

ITEM – Dear Bollywood, I love you, but we need to talk …

How do you embrace glorious Bollywood camp while challenging its romantic ideals and gender stereotypes? Beth Keehn chats to creator and choreographer, Drea Lam, about her new show at Brisbane’s Metro Arts – ITEM – which mixes Bollywood dance moves with real voices and stories, stunning visuals, and gorgeous costumes – it’s a love letter to Bollywood, but with a contemporary twist.

Beth Keehn (BK): Drea, how have you made the move from Dance Masala classes to the stage at Metro Arts?

Drea Lam (DL): During the lockdowns in 2020, we couldn’t hold as many classes, so I started creating dance videos and grew a YouTube audience to around 65,000 followers. I have a background in theatre, and a couple of my friends are theatre producers in Brisbane. They encouraged me to develop a show. Naturally, as a dance instructor and choreographer, I love Bollywood. I love its camp side – but I realise that it is underpinned by quite conservative values.

In Bollywood parlance, ‘ITEM’ is the ITEM song and dance, one of the main musical numbers in a Bollywood film – which may or may not have any relevance to the plot of the film! And the ITEM number usually features a sexy girl who is called an ‘ITEM girl’ or ‘ITEM’. That doesn’t always sit well with my punk and feminist side, and so, that was the tension that inspired the show – my personal relationship to Bollywood and wondering how I can invert some of its more regressive messages and flip it choreographically so that the woman holds the balance of power.

BK: How did you get involved with the current Metro Arts creative team?

DL: I met our director, Lisa Fa’alafi, when she and Leah Shelton were presenting APOCALIPSTICK \\ Polytoxic & Friends at Metro Arts in 2020. Lisa and Leah asked me to perform a condensed five-minute version of ITEM as part of that cabaret. From there I developed the show further at Supercell Dance Festival in 2021 at Home of the Arts (HOTA) at the Gold Coast. But now it’s great to be back working with Lisa, who is directing, and Leah is our mentor and dramaturg – and Metro Arts is the perfect venue.

BK: ITEM is a love letter to Bollywood – how did you incorporate people’s stories?

DL: Well, since ITEM’s first performance, we’ve had the #MeToo movement. And, while Bollywood takes many of its cues from Hollywood, and people may be more aware of the issues, I feel like it’s still catching up. And that has changed the scope of the show for me. I wanted to include more real voices, so we did a public call-out to women around the world,  asking them to write a letter to Bollywood. We didn’t know what response we’d receive: would they be love letters, compliments, feedback, or a full-on ‘I’m breaking up with you’ letter?

I approached dancers in the industry – female filmmakers working in the industry in Mumbai, as well as Dance Masala students, and social media followers – and we had a great response with around 100 letters, emails, and 10 follow-up video interviews which we incorporate into the show. There will be projections and immersive elements as well – we are making a large set piece and mapping the projections onto it – it’s really an extra character in the show.

BK: As a keen Dance Masala student and Bollywood fan myself, I have to ask – will there be a chance for the audience to get more immersed in the dance?

DL: I would love that! While not compulsory, there are definitely some elements of the show that people might want to get involved in!

BK: Thanks Drea! I’m looking forward to it!

ITEM will feature the talented Nakhre Crew, hailing from local Bollywood dance company, Dance Masala – Mugdha Khatavkar, Janaki Gerard, Ashwin Singh and Drea also performs, cinematography by Julian Palma, lighting by Steven May. There’ll be an Artist Talk on 19 August after the 3pm performance.

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Images: Jonathan Dass Photography

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