It wasn’t designed this way, but suddenly Bunty Berman Presents…—well, Bunty Berman. Since the fifth preview of this loony, tune-y movie spoof, an insert has been stuffed into the show’s program announcing in the bluntest boldface possible that “The role of Bunty Berman is being played by Ayub Khan Din”—and not just “at this performance,” either. Forever and a day, it would seem.
No mention is made of Erick Avari, the seasoned actor-comedian who was recruited from Los Angeles because a middle-aged Indian man who sings, dances, acts and charismatically holds the show together couldn’t be found locally. Mr. Avari logged up the first four performances of Bunty Berman before he tripped while tripping the light fantastic on a sliding staircase. He didn’t go down completely—two actors broke his fall—but he did manage to grab onto the railing and yank his bad arm out of place. After consulting a specialist, he opted for the exit and California’s soothing sun.
Scott Elliott, artistic director of the New Group and designated driver of this opus, saw more than one man taking a spill; he saw his whole show going down for the count. Panicked, he tore through his mental Rolodex for a plausible—hell, even passable—replacement, lighting on the only possible candidate, who just happened to be sitting right next to him at the time. “You’re on, if I can make it happen,” he vowed.
Long story short, he made it happen with an S.O.S. to Actors’ Equity. “When I called them up, I said, ‘I’ve never called and asked for a favor before, but I want this man in my show,’” Mr. Elliott recalled. “It was pretty apparent that the role was his. They recognized the need, and they obliged.”
Thus, on May 9 when Busby Berman Presents… world-premiered at the Acorn Theater in the Theater Row complex off Ninth Avenue, Mr. Din went out there a book writer/lyricist/co-composer but, as Julian March decreed once upon a time, he “must come back a Star.” Again, real life trumps and triumphs, kicking Peggy Sawyer’s mythic showbiz tale to the curb—the 42nd Street curb, note.
“It’s the greatest theatrical irony I ever encountered,” Mr. Elliott gleefully crowed about this movie cliche turning real and becoming part of a clever spoof which lines ‘em up and knocks ‘em down with an almost scholarly relish and regularity that betrays a life well spent in, er, “research.”
Indeed, the 50-year-old Mr. Din has been on the case since childhood, growing up Anglo-Indian in London amid too much poverty and reality but never far from a life-adjusting “flick fix” when needed.
The suitable cases for satirizing he assembled for Bunty Berman Presents . . . all hail, he said, “from every single film and play I saw about behind-the-cameras/backstage strife. Everything! I’m not trying to reinvent the goalpost here. I thought, ‘This is my first musical, and I’m going to stick within the perimeters of musical theater.’ I really tried to do that too. I also tried to make a really strong book. For what I wanted to do here, I needed to have a strong book with strong characters.”
To that end, he fashioned his title character—a financially strapped movie mogul in Bombay of 1957—after an actual player in that golden age of Indian cinema, a prolific industry 100 years old.
Bunty Berman, in real life, was Guru Dutt, a producer, director and (if need be) actor. “His output was unique and amazing,” declared Mr. Din, a zealous convert. “He tried to change the form of Indian cinema with his lighting and photographic effects. Many of his movies are magnificent in the way he used song-and-dance. It was organic. He’s become very well respected in the West now.”
Mr. Dutt wore all three hats for his masterpiece, Kaagar Ke Phool, which means Paper Flowers and plays like a distinct echo of the 1954 Judy Garland-James Mason A Star Is Born (i.e., Mr. Dutt is a fading film star who lets a pretty starlet into his heart and then, worse, into his camera frame).
“That picture’s kinda the grounding for my whole piece,” admitted Mr. Din, who unexpectedly wound up being the star who is born. This may be a little late for Full Disclosure, but the fact is that writing plays (and, now, musicals) wasn’t what Mr. Din wanted to do with his life. He first picked the acting profession and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts—hence, the impressive bearing and the effortlessly booming voice that wear as well on Bunty Berman as his chronic cigar-chomping.
My Beautiful Laundrette marked Mr. Din’s movie debut—”I auditioned for the lead but landed a smaller role: the student thrown out of the boarding house by Daniel Day-Lewis”—but he nabbed half of the title roles in his next, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. “After that, I did two more leads—one in an Indian art-house film called Bombay, the other in a Canadian film set in India—then, tons of TV.”
During his RADA days, he spent his semester breaks back home, caring for a mother with progressive Alzheimer’s. Writing plays was his way of holding on to rapidly evaporating family history. Five years later, his autobiographical East Is East bowed to acclaim at London’s National Theater. Its central character was a tyrannical patriarch, as it was in his next, Rafta, Rafta, an Indianized rewrite of Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time. Happenstance, perhaps? Not bloody likely: “My father was that kind of figure. He was very dictatorial and ruled the family with an iron hand.”
For the first time anywhere, Bunty Berman Presents…, Mr. Din as a lyricist and co-composer—a gene jump-started in his childhood when his mum took him to movie musicals. At director Elliott’s suggestion, composer Paul Bogaev extended a steadying, professional hand by translating into music the melodies Mr. Din had in mind with each lyric. “It seemed like the perfect match,” reasoned Mr. Elliott. “Paul is a terrific orchestrator, and he really knows how to pull songs into a score.” Mr. Din’s method of composing is much like Mel Brooks’s and Charlie Chaplin’s: “I hum things into a microphone until I’ve got the right melody for the lyrics that I wrote. Mr. Bogaev, somehow, takes it from there.
The proof is in the pudding, and among the more delectable treats is a haunting torch song in which a smitten, bespectacled secretary actually takes off her glasses and sings, “Will He See Me?” And Act One comes to an exuberant end with “Let’s Make a Movie,” one of those jaunty, jubilant numbers that falls all over itself getting to the finish line. Sometimes, it triggers a clap-along within the audience.
An expert, all-Asian cast executes the above with real wit and style, enlarging our window to the world a little more in the process. It seems a whole new set of them will turn up every time The New Group take on the latest Ayub Khan Din. “Because of our work with him,” Mr. Elliott pointed out, returning to crow mode, “The New Group is the Number One employer of Asians in New York’s not-for-profit theater.” How fitting that that list is now topped by the playwright responsible for all this creative explosion of employment!