Tobin Thomas does Bollywood in Toronto, trading in the virtual dreams created by this larger than life Indian film industry. Based in Mumbai, it is India's – and the world's - largest film business in terms of the number of films produced, and also the number of tickets sold each year.
With the success of films such as the Oscar winning movie 'Slumdog Millionaire', Bollywood films and dance have taken the world by storm and have now become a global phenomenon. Much of this is due to the Indian diaspora, but a significant proportion also comes from non-Indians who are fascinated by theexotic qualities inherent in it. Stars like Madonna, Shakira and Britney Spears have incorporated the Bollywood style of dance or music into their songs, videos and stage shows.
Bollywood's virtual world of extravagant costumes, lavish sets, melodrama and romance is a cultural construct devoured the world over by an ever-burgeoning audience. But, as cultural theorist Rey Chow asserts, film reception doesn't end with quietly watching a movie in a dark theatre, rather it is 'a mode of performative, and not merely passive, practice'. This performativity is in the reliving of Bollywood through its dances in a variety of formal and non-formal occasions within South Asia and the diaspora in places as far and wide as USA, UK, Africa, China and Canada, amongst many others.
'Doing Bollywood' is about a plethora of activities such as weddings, dance classes and fitness classes; all of which creates a nostalgic space for those in the Indian diaspora and a web of dreams for the non-Asian participants.
This is so true for Tobin Thomas, a young Canadian choreographer of all 'moves' Bollywood. Tobin's family hails from Kottayam in Kerala which has a vibrant heritage of traditional dances. Tobin grew up watching his two older sisters training in Bharatanatyam with teachers based in Toronto. But, it was only during his undergraduate studies at York University that the Bollywood culture overtook him. South Asian students have concocted an entire culture of 'performing' Bollywood within the North American campuses, drawing participation from students from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka et al. With his familiarity with dance, Tobin got drawn into these events. Now, with his events company 'Shadow Entertainments', Bollywood is one of hisdual full-time careers. The other is within the Calvin Klein enterprises.
For Tobin, Bollywood moves are a fusion of Kathak, Bharatanatyam, hiphop, bhangra, tap and contemporary movements from the world over. Though not formally trained, he has participated in workshops by various trainers from India. He also commutes to the heartland in Bombay and hopes one day to get his 'card' as a choreographer and dancer in Mumbai.
Teaching dance to the wedding parties is an interesting addendum. Recently a wedding party required dances to be taught to the uncle and aunts. The ten older couples turned out to have a mind of their own, and hugely added to the creative process with their own lived memories of the 'golden oldies' from Hindi films.
'Why Bollywood?', I ask him. 'It helps me express myself the best with its diversity of forms', is Tobin's quick response. 'I love to try different things; incorporate different moves. More of the creative element keeps the audience engaged.'
And, yes, it's a lucrative business with gigs on almost every weekend. Some days the company, of almost 30 dancers, needs to split to be able to perform in simultaneous events.
Tobin is all praise for Bangladesh's Tahmina Anwar Anika, who does his Kathak choreography, while doing her BFA in dance at the York University in Toronto. 'She's amazing and has a lot of patience while training other dancers'. Here's to Bollywood and its unifying powers!
Tobin is presently working on a Bollywood production which he hopes to premiere in 2018. The dream is to tour with it in America and globally, maybe.