Bollywood Dreams

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

"My goal is to bring romance back to America," Riggs says, widening her ice-blue eyes.

In the end, after all the show tunes and big dance numbers, the characters in Bollywood films almost always find true love and live happily ever after. The question is: Will Samantha Riggs?

Doctor, doctor: Jay Soni and Al Mangat are the financial backing behind Bollywood Love Rules.
Mr. G
Doctor, doctor: Jay Soni and Al Mangat are the financial backing behind Bollywood Love Rules.
Male call: Epaul Fischer is the only man in Riggs' 
Bollywood dance class.
Mr. G
Male call: Epaul Fischer is the only man in Riggs' Bollywood dance class.

Bollywood Love Rules.

Actually, it wasn't so much a script as it was an anthology.

"My concept was a tribute to Hindi films," Riggs recalls. "I want the show to educate the American public about Bollywood stories."

Riggs was born and partially raised in Singapore, where Bollywood's "Oscars," the International Indian Film Academy's awards, were held back in 2004.

Hindi films began production around the same time American films did, at the turn of the 20th century. Most were -- and still are -- produced in Bombay, India. Hence, the moniker; Bombay is the Hollywood of Hindi film. Bollywood produces almost 800 films a year, twice the number made in Hollywood, and almost 15 million Indians go to movie theaters every day, according to the BBC.

Riggs was first exposed to Hindi films in the late 1960s and early '70s growing up in Singapore.

"My best friends and I would dress up in Indian clothes and act out Bollywood movies," she says.

Riggs' father was an officer in the Royal British Army, "sort of like Secret Service," she says, stationed in Singapore. Both her parents are educated and cultured, and as a child, "it was because of them that I got into theater and began reading literature."

But the romance of Bollywood flicks never translated to her home life.

When Samantha was 10, her parents divorced -- "Their relationship just kind of died. They probably should have never been married in the first place," she says -- and Riggs and her mother, Barbara, moved to Arizona, specifically to Sun City, on the west side of metropolitan Phoenix, to be near her grandparents. Her father, David, soon followed, moving to the Valley to be close to his daughter.

"It was a big culture shock, moving from Singapore to Sun City," Riggs says. "I didn't really make peace with living in Arizona until about 15 years ago."

That's when Riggs got into the Renaissance Festival, the annual gathering of wanna-be Shakespearean thespians who make their way around the country each year, congregating past Apache Junction for almost two months of homage to the 16th century. (This year's RenFest, as it's known, begins Saturday, February 11.)

Riggs became the director of an English folk-dance troupe back in 1992, performing at the RenFest. She's performed there every year since.

A few years after joining the RenFest, she met her "counterpart," Cliff, a fellow "Ren geek" whom she had "a very romantic relationship with on weekends only." (More on Cliff later.)

From English folk dancing, Riggs progressed into Bhangra dancing -- a raw version of hip-hop that originated in Punjab, India, near the Pakistan-India border -- and tribal belly dance, which is a far less sexy version of the cabaret-style belly dancing found in local hookah bars.

"I really like the group aspect of tribal belly dance," Riggs says. Tribal belly dance then morphed into Bollywood routines, in which Riggs copycats the choreography of her favorite Hindi films, but with precise attention to details.

Last July she started writing in journals she carried into Harlow's as many as seven days a week, eating said cheeseburgers and chugging Coke (although she's "addicted" to the cherry-flavored variety, which Harlow's does not serve). In those bound notebooks, she made a list of some of her favorite Bollywood flicks, including:

Devdas, which she describes as "a classic tragic love story, India's Romeo & Juliet. "

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . . . , "about the conflict between traditional arranged marriages and marriages for love."

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, "the first Bollywood film that really looked at the lives of second-generation Indians living in the U.K. and U.S." (The film ran in Indian theaters for a record nine consecutive years.)

"I wanted to represent the classic Bollywood love story through the most archetypal films in my experience," Riggs says. "What inspires me the most about these films is the sense of bravery in the protagonist, because they have really difficult choices in front of them. Having the courage to go against their only love or their own culture is very inspiring."

Bollywood Love Rules would be a "big show," Riggs recalls thinking, adding that she wanted to "show Bollywood in all its glory." In her journals, Riggs outlined how each scene from different Bollywood films, strung together, would produce one story, adapted for the stage. The cast would lip-synch the Hindi lyrics and mimic the particulars of the choreography.

Those notebooks became a four-inch-thick binder over the following four months, filled with Hindi lyrics for the 12 songs in the show, choreography notes, narration, and the specs on more than 100 costumes, more than half of them eventually made by Riggs herself.

When it came time to cast Bollywood Love Rules, two dozen dancers -- many of them local belly dancers and some of Riggs' students -- showed up for auditions at Domba Studio. Only two didn't make the cut.

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