Bollywood Dreams

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

So Riggs and her show were set. Only problem was, she didn't have the money to produce the show.

Deborah MacPherson, Riggs' close friend and current stage manager and business partner, works as a nurse at a Scottsdale hospital. There, she ran into Dr. Al Mangat.

"Deborah comes to me and says she knows someone who does Indian dance," Mangat says at his office in south Scottsdale, decorated in IKEA furniture and definitely cooler than the average doctor's office. "She says her friend is looking for a sponsor for this show she wants to do.

Sherry Van Goethem plays the lead character, Varsha, in Bollywood Love Rules.
Mr. G
Sherry Van Goethem plays the lead character, Varsha, in Bollywood Love Rules.
Riggs, with Bollywood Love Rules' Aurora Morel and Jennifer Bentz.
Mr. G
Riggs, with Bollywood Love Rules' Aurora Morel and Jennifer Bentz.

"And, of course, I had to get myself into trouble and open my mouth."

After Mangat and his partner, Jay Soni, watched Riggs and her Boom Boom Bollywood troupe perform a short piece at Domba Studio, Riggs and Sherry Van Goethem, Boom Boom's business manager, pitched their plan.

"Jay and I asked ourselves, 'How can these women, these American white girls, who are not supposed to know this culture, do what they have done?'" Mangat says. "Here are people very alien to this culture who have picked up all the nuances of Bollywood.

"How could we say no?"

Bollywood Love Rules opened to a lively -- and surprisingly sizable -- audience at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Not bad, considering that stage has been shared over the years by stars from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Mandy Patinkin.

For a relatively inexpensive rental fee of $3,800 (Scottsdale Center staffers say it's the going rental rate), Boom Boom Bollywood got the stage, the lights, and the sound system -- even ushers. Of course, the upfront costs to Al Mangat and Jay Soni, who formed their own production company, Barefoot Entertainment, as a result of Bollywood Love Rules, were far greater than just the rental fee.

Between the costumes -- colorful reds and oranges, yellows and purples -- publicity and the stage, Mangat figures that he and Soni have already invested $20,000 in the production.

"And that's less than what Samantha and Sherry proposed at the beginning. But I had to be 'Chainsaw Al,' just cut everything in half," Mangat says. "Now that we have the costumes and the initial costs of the show out of the way, that should be the worst of it."

Thanks to an audience of about 500, paying $20 to $50 a ticket and filling the Scottsdale Center for the Arts auditorium to around three-quarters of its capacity, the financial loss was minimal, Riggs says. (Many tickets were given away to friends and family, so it's hard to say just how minimal the loss was.)

Even more surprising to Mangat, Riggs and some of the show's leads was the diversity of the crowd. "About half and half," Mangat says, referring to the percentage of Indians and non-Indians in the audience. "Honestly, I was very surprised by how many white Americans showed up. But that's the great thing about the show; it's not exclusively for the Indian community."

Indeed, part of the entertainment value of the evening was watching the audience: low-key Indians, some much older, others with kids, brushing up against white hipsters, including some in robes and red patent leather clogs, many pierced and tattooed, Riggs-style.

Even Riggs admits that most of the non-Indians at the show had some connection to her or Domba Studio. (Hence, the complimentary tickets.)

So, to whom will Bollywood Love Rules appeal?

"I think it depends on press, and how well it's marketed," says Sherry Van Goethem, who met Riggs two years ago at Domba. Van Goethem is also a co-owner of the Center for True Harmony in Mesa, an OB/GYN practice that combines alternative Eastern and Western medicine. She played the lead character in Bollywood Love Rules. "We have the Indian audience, and then we have the artistic belly-dance community. And I don't think [the latter] would pay to see it. It's too much of a trend thing."

Marketing Bollywood in the U.S. has been a difficult task. While its popularity is unmatched outside the States, American audiences have yet to -- and may never -- really catch on.

But the Indian community, both Riggs and Mangat say, has embraced attempts by American film companies to copy the product, even if the end results, like The Guru, have been flat. In Boom Boom Bollywood, local Indo-Americans appear to have finally found something authentic.

"It was very surprising to see Samantha and her troupe perform Bollywood so well," says Sangita Gulati, the cultural director of the India Association of Phoenix, who booked Boom Boom for performances at the 2004 Duvali Festival and later for the India Festival 2005. "I think that's why people enjoyed it so much. To Indians, [Riggs] is exotic. She has embraced our culture, and that's very exciting."

Before performing at the Duvali Festival, Riggs admits she was nervous about performing in front of such a large Indian audience.

"It was pretty nerve-racking," she says. "Not just because we're all white, but because the Indian community loves their Bollywood. They watch it, they study it. Everything's got to be flawless. It has to be precise."

After Boom Boom's set at the Duvali Festival, Riggs recalls an elderly Indian man who had just moved to Phoenix from India. She says he approached her after the show, squeezed her hands and expressed gratitude.

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