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.
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.
"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?
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"He told me that he was missing India so much before he came to the show," Riggs says. "And then he started to cry. He told me that we made him feel at home.
"That moment made it all worth it."
As Samantha Riggs leads her Wednesday night Bollywood dance class at Domba Studio (the class is one of a kind here in the Valley, but Riggs says there are a few other Bollywood instructors around the country), her ponytailed dreadlocks bounce above her neck, which is tattooed with what she calls "Pictish spiralwork."
"The Picts were a tribe of extremely fierce people from Scotland [actually pre-Scotland]. They were a Mongoloid subspecies," Riggs explains, adding that the Picts are part of her own heritage. "The Romans had to build Hadrian's Wall [in Britain] because they couldn't beat the Picts' asses."
Her bare midriff reveals a huge tattoo that covers the base of her back. If you've seen The Matrix, you might recognize the creation; if you're a Matrix devotee, like Riggs, the design is unmistakable.
"It's a Sentinel," Riggs says, referring to the assassin-like machines from The Matrix that sought out to destroy those who inhabited Zion, the last place on Earth occupied by humans. Riggs is such a huge Matrix fan, she says her friends call her "The Oracle," after the omniscient computer program in the film that takes the form of a wise, chain-smoking grandmother.
"I got this tattoo because I don't want to be separate from the 'system.' I identify more with the computer characters in the movie than with the humans in Zion," Riggs explains, adding that she still has work to be done on the tattoo, including finishing its tentacles. "I was created by a machine, that machine being civilization.
"But somehow I've broken my programming. And now I want to change the machine from within."
Sounds like a lot of hippie nonsense.
"Nah," she says. "Hippies think I'm too dark."
Epaul Fischer must be the exception. The 41-year-old gem artist who lives near Tolleson -- and bears an uncanny resemblance to David Van Driessen, the bearded and spectacled schoolteacher from Beavis and Butt-head -- drives to Tempe every week for the Bollywood dance class. He's known Riggs for nearly 20 years, since before they first performed as Morris dancers together at the Renaissance Festival back in 1989.
He also happens to be the only man currently taking Riggs' class, a problem Riggs says she encountered when putting together the cast for Bollywood Love Rules. The show features but one actual male -- the narrator of the story, Abhinav Puri, who also happens to be the only Indian.
"I expected it, though," she says. "It's not really that big a deal. We just get women to play the parts of the men."
"I've never understood why more men don't do belly dancing and Bollywood dancing," Fischer says, once the hourlong class wraps up. "The Bollywood dancing is really a lot of fun and flirtation.
"In fact, I guess it's better for me to be the only guy here."
Other students in the class say they've become just as enamored of Bollywood films as Riggs, thanks to her energy and enthusiasm for the genre.
"Sam is just one of the best Bollywood performers around," says Kyla Kahn, 37, a Bollywood student originally from New York. "She's been doing this for so long. At the end of every class, she's always smiling . . .
"Which is how every Bollywood movie ends."
"Sometimes, I feel like my life is a Bollywood movie," Samantha Riggs says on a recent Thursday afternoon, after having lunch in downtown Tempe with one of her students, a mother of two who came all the way from the U.K. to spend a week taking private lessons from Riggs.
Riggs' friends would agree with her self-assessment.
"Yeah, that fits Sam pretty well," Epaul Fischer says. "Her romantic life is all about the love that's not quite going right. All her relationships . . . we're all waiting for the ending."
Riggs has had a difficult time with relationships, she says, and she's had plenty of them. Most of her significant others, though, remain in her life today.
"All my exes are still part of my community," she says. "They are part of my creative family. I've been able to keep them all close to me."
None more so than the father of her 11-year-old daughter Josephine, if not in proximity then at least by default. Riggs' relationship with the actor and professor, who now lives on the East Coast, was a brief one, she says. Much like her own parents' relationship, Riggs says her short-lived romance with Josephine's dad simply wasn't meant to be.
"But there aren't any hard feelings there," she says.
Nor was she about to get married simply because she was pregnant. That's just not her style.
"I've never been married, and I'm not sure I ever will be. I'm just not the marrying kind," she says.
But isn't that contradictory to the theme of so many Bollywood films -- a romance that almost always leads to marriage?
"Well, I'm a mass of contradictions," she says.
Riggs doesn't regret not staying with Josephine's father. After all, had they stayed together, she never would have met her "counterpart," as she calls him, an actor and performer named Cliff.
Riggs met Cliff in 1994, both of them filling roles in the Renaissance Festival as actors and dancers.
"He understands what needs to come out creatively, that to be honest and creative you have to rip your guts out for all to see," she says. "He's witty, he's intelligent, he laughs at life . . ."
And he's in Missouri.
"Yeah, that's the part that really sucks," she says.
They e-mail each other, and call as often as possible.
"If I think about him hard enough," she adds, "the phone just rings."
"We both have our own communities. We both are passionate about our work, our art. And I have my other love here, Josephine," she says.
"I pine sometimes, I do. But for the most part, it makes me feel uplifted just to know that there's someone else out there for me."
Almost every Wednesday night after her dance classes, Riggs and a few of her Boom Boom Bollywood-ers perform tribal belly dance at Mythos, a Greek restaurant and bar in south Scottsdale that caters to college students and Middle Eastern hipsters. Riggs eats fire off the tips of flaming swords, while a pair of artists do live paintings, and Riggs' friend DJ Rani "g" spins an eclectic mix of house, Mediterranean and world music.
"This isn't really my scene. It's just my work," Riggs says after her performance, as well-groomed metrosexuals in tuxedo shirts and designer jeans smoke hookahs on velvety couches.
The "scene" is counterintuitive to Riggs' Bollywood sensibilities. There's little romance at Mythos, unless you count the one-nighters borne of cocktails and hormones. This crowd's too cool to break out in song and dance.
But Riggs is a trooper, a soldier of love. She fantasizes that one day she'll star opposite Shahrukh Khan, one of Bollywood's most famous leading men and the star of her favorite film, Devdas. Maybe with Al Mangat's help -- he and Jay Soni are also working together on a film about intermixing between Indian men and American women -- it'll happen.
Riggs at least sees the possibility that she and Boom Boom could tour the real Bollywood -- from Bombay to Punjab and down to Delhi -- if not someday become part of the on-screen genre.
"Oh, to tour India," she says, "that would be the coolest."
For now, Samantha Riggs will live in her own little Bollywood, drinking her Cherry Cokes, smoking full-flavor American Spirits, and pondering her sci-fi philosophies.
A creature of habit?
"Actually, my life is more like obsession," she says. "For love."
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