Dazzling costumes, sweeping dance performances and all the melodrama of Bollywood – Sunderella brings queer glamour and romance to the stage for Sydney WorldPride Festival.
Uma was just a little boy when he dressed up like a girl and started dancing to the hit Bollywood track, Ek Do Teen.
It was the late 1980s and Indian film star, Madhuri Dixit had just delivered a sensational dance routine to the song, electrifying cinemas across the Subcontinent. Everyone from Mumbai to Delhi and back was either listening to, dancing to, or simply talking about that song and that dance.
The Bollywood superstar’s performance was so influential it reached all the way to Fiji, where Uma was growing up in a Fijian-Indian family.
“The day I saw Madhuri perform on Ek Do Teen, my life changed,” he says. “I just wanted to dance like her.”
Fast-forward to 2023 and Uma is ready to step into the spotlight to perform one of the Bollywood star’s other hits, Dola Re Dola, in front of a live audience during Sydney WorldPride Festival.
“Even in my wildest dreams as a four-year-old, I could not have imagined that one day, dressed in sparkling costume and jewellery, I would perform a Madhuri Dixit track in front of hundreds of people… but here we are.”
Uma is one of the 17 performers taking to the stage for Sunderella. A queer Bollywood adaptation of Cinderella, the theatre production will run from March 1st to 4th, at ARA Darling Quarter Theatre, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
The sequin-studded show will feature foot-tapping music, dramatic scenes, comic characters, dazzling costumes and jewellery, and several male actors in drag, including Uma. And, in true Bollywood style, there will be sweeping dance sequences, with the cast lip-syncing smash hit songs from Bollywood productions.
“But at the end of the day, Sunderella – just like Cinderella – is a story of love and acceptance,” says director, Bali Padda. “And it’s more relevant to the divisive times we live in today than ever before.”
Set in 18th Century India, the play revolves around Sundar – a pious and sweet-natured young man who lives with his evil stepmother and two self-centred stepsisters.
“As the fairy tale goes, Sundar’s fortunes change when a celestial force transforms him into a gorgeous woman called Sunderella and sends her prancing to the prince’s palace,” says Padda.
A striking set by Soham Apte – supported by an ambitious lighting design by James Wallis – will transport the audience to the colourful bazaars of British India complete with snake charmers, fortune-tellers, eunuchs and a handsome, strapping young prince played by recent NIDA graduate, Nickin Alexander.
Beyond the glitz and glamour and the sequins and saris of Sunderella, there’s another reason why the show is being tipped as one of the top cultural highlights of the Sydney WorldPride Festival. Bali Padda’s debut as a professional director in early 2022 with the National Theatre Of Parramatta’s Guards At The Taj, was something of a sensation.
“It’s not just that directorial debuts don’t come any stronger than this, few productions of any sort do,” The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about Padda and the show, giving the production four-and-a-half stars.
The arts community is, therefore, waiting with high expectations to see what Padda produces this time around.
“When I direct a play, I work closely with each of my performers to understand what their interpretation is of the character they’re about to play,” he told DNA. “I point them in the right direction when I need to – I may even push them in the right direction,” he laughs, “but I strongly believe I can only extract strong performances from them if I draw on their strengths and their understanding of their characters.”
This project – and the creative process – is particularly poignant for Padda, who grew up as a queer person of colour in Australia, facing challenges many of the queer South-Asian cast members of Sunderella may have faced at some stage in their lives in Australia, and continue to face today.
“For some of the performers – particularly the male performers playing drag roles – this show is not just about dressing up and having fun, it’s a way for them to express their creativity and gender identity,” says Padda.
“There are not a lot of shows like Sunderella in Australia that allow queer South-Asian community members to be themselves. That’s what makes Sunderella – in my opinion – the most unique and culturally diverse show of the Sydney WorldPride Festival.”
The show ticks all the boxes for Trikone Australia, the primary producer of Sunderella. Trikone is a non-profit, volunteer-led social support group for South-Asian LGBTQIA+ people living in Australia. Its founding director, Alan Maurice, says Trikone’s most important objective is to raise the profile of South-Asian LGBTQIA+ people – a minority within a minority.
“We do this by organising a whole range of events, from marches and thought-provoking panel discussions to Bollywood parties and theatre productions like Sunderella,” says Maurice. “This allows our community to feel respected, safe and secure. It builds confidence, relationships and friendships. It enables individuals to shine, and it gives them a real sense of belonging in Australia,” Maurice says.
Sunderella will run at ARA Darling Quarter Theatre in Sydney’s Darling Harbour from March 1-4, 2023 as part of the Sydney WorldPride Festival. Tickets.
GET SOME BOLLY WOOD
Australia’s biggest queer Bollywood dance party, Bar Bombay, is kicking off the Sydney WorldPride festival with a bang on Friday 17 February at Home The Venue in Darling Harbour. Sweeping stage shows, dazzling pyrotechnic displays, sari-clad drag queens and hot Subcontinental hunks are just some of the things party-goers will be treated to. Grab your tickets before they sell out by visiting Bar Bombay.
Tickets for Bar Bombay are available here.