Bollywood Dreams

What's a white girl like Samantha Riggs doing in a sari?

Once upon a time (okay, about a month ago), there was a woman named Samantha Riggs who so loved Hindi films (otherwise known as Bollywood, India's global cinematic export) that she staged a tribute, Bollywood Love Rules.

Onstage, a chorus of women appeared, wearing traditional saris, and they sang (actually, they lip-synched) a tune that expressed Riggs' undying love for Bollywood -- and, on the down-low, for a guy named Cliff.

The lead character of Riggs' production, Varsha, floated across the stage cradling an oil lamp, which signified her love, and she and her chorus danced in complex formations to a deep, resonant beat, wiggling their hips and snapping their wrists with the attitude of the best Bollywood dancers in all the world.

Don't tell her that love means never having to sew your sari.
Mr. G
Don't tell her that love means never having to sew your sari.
White girls with hope: Samantha Riggs, center, and her Boom Boom Bollywood troupe explore India's cinemusical culture.
Mr. G
White girls with hope: Samantha Riggs, center, and her Boom Boom Bollywood troupe explore India's cinemusical culture.

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Now, one might think Samantha Riggs and her ensemble cast must be of Indian heritage. But, in reality, their pale faces reveal they're just a bunch of American girls, more like goth chicks than the daughters of goat herders from Delhi. Bollywood Love Rules would likely be a smash hit back in India. As it is, onstage at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts on a night in early January, the hundreds in the audience -- some Indians, some not -- don't seem to care that they're not in the land of the Punjabi.

Or that, aside from the narrator with the rich Indian accent, there are no men in the show to play the male parts. Or that all the girls are white.

Nor do they seem to mind that Samantha Riggs looks a lot more like Ani DiFranco, with her dreadlocks and tattoos, than she does Aishwarya Rai, one of Bollywood's biggest stars.

Call it obsession or simply a deep appreciation for cultural diversity, but Samantha Riggs is on a mission:

"To bring Bollywood to everyone."

This is the tale of a girl from Tempe who somehow persuaded two Indian doctors willing to take a chance with their money that Bollywood Love Rules could be a worldwide sensation.

The weird thing is -- maybe it could be.


More than two weeks have passed since Samantha Riggs moved into her small, two-bedroom apartment in Tempe with her daughter, Josephine, and almost a month since she debuted Bollywood Love Rules. But the stacks of boxes and mounds of clutter remain almost impossible to navigate.

"Scatterbrained? Absent-minded? Yep, that's me," says Riggs, 38, walking over a stack of Bollywood DVDs, her tabby cat, Happy, and a jettisoned couch cushion on her way to the balcony to smoke a cigarette.

Riggs is a little hard on herself. After all, she has been pretty busy lately.

"I haven't even had time to hook up the Internet," she says, nodding toward a small PC desk barricaded by even more boxes.

The former computer programmer turned choreographer and belly-dance instructor currently makes a living reading tarot cards, eating fire, and teaching college students, earthy bohemians and hippies -- women, mostly -- how to dance Bollywood-style at Tempe's Domba Studio. (She's also taught workshops out of town, from Indianapolis to San Francisco.)

Bollywood Love Rules, which featured a cast of almost two dozen, including several performers from Riggs' Boom Boom Bollywood dance troupe, premièred January 7 in Scottsdale, for a one-night gig. And now, with the help of a couple of Indian doctors who've put their reputations -- and a sizable bankroll -- on the line for Riggs' production, she and Boom Boom are thinking globally, planning a trip across the pond to Britain later this year.

"There was certainly some trepidation in putting our money behind Sam's project," says Aljinder Mangat, an internal medicine specialist who goes by the hipper "Al," and shares his practice with fellow internist Jatinder "Jay" Soni. "I mean, she's a white girl doing Bollywood, you know?

"That's like putting together a team of Pygmies up against the Phoenix Suns!"

Before she takes her craft abroad -- Bollywood's a proven commodity in London, with its large Indian and Pakistani populations -- Riggs is intent on turning the U.S. on to the phenomenon.

Not the Americanized version, those few Bollywood films from recent years like Bride & Prejudice (a romantic comedy that's more cheap laughs than gushy Indian fable), and The Guru (the Bollywood-goes-to-Hollywood stinker starring Heather Graham, Marisa Tomei and some guy named Jimi Mistry). Those movies tried to cash in on a supposed Bollywood trend that started back in 2002, but has since seemingly fizzled out here.

"The Guru is not Bollywood!" Riggs grumbles.

No, Riggs wants to expose America to authentic Hindi flicks -- the musical tales of love-struck couples dressed in flashy, colorful Indian garb. Bollywood is like Disney come to life, with dream sequences, characters breaking into song in random places, and always a central theme of love. The love-struck are kept apart by conflict -- disapproving parents, cold feet. You get the idea.

Riggs relates to the love story. By her own admission, she falls in love often, hard and fast. Just as regularly, she gets her heart stomped on. Despite her rough exterior -- nine tattoos, bridge and septum piercings, black-blue dreadlocks she refers to as "tentacles," and a muscle car, a 1984 Trans Am that's currently "in between engines" and out of commission -- she's a sucker for romance.

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