THEATRE / It has to be Bollywood or bust: Asian audiences are at last being tempted into the theatre, reports Georgina Brown

At the Theatre Royal in Stratford East, London, the audiences often get better reviews than the plays. It's excitable, uninhibited and out to party - a very distant relation of the cool, collected and polite customers in the West End. And, not surprisingly, writers such as Mike Leigh are lining up to try it out.

It's a remarkable success story. In the Fifties, Joan Littlewood put local Cockney bums on seats with her blatantly populist Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be and Sparrers Can't Sing. Since then, the changing complexion of Newham has been reflected by the theatre's audience.

Philip Hedley, the Theatre Royal's artistic director and engineer of this little revolution, is justifiably proud that so-called 'white' shows reliably attract an audience that is 10 per cent black, and the two most recent 'black' plays played to 70 to 80 per cent black audiences. The fact is, however, that the local population is 10 per cent Afro-Caribbean, 30 per cent Asian, 30 per cent white.

Asians lag far behind the rest in their attendance at the theatre, despite Hedley's efforts to stage one specifically Asian play a year. The current show, Moti Roti, Puttli Chunni ('a Hindi film drama set on stage - a popular romance which will touch your heart 10 times'), could prove to be a turning-point. At the first preview, an overwhelmingly sari-wearing, turbanned audience cast the smattering of paler faces well into the shade.

Asian resistance to theatre, Hedley says, is partly explained by the fact that the wave of Afro-Caribbean immigrants preceded the influx of Asians. Consequently, there are many more Afro-Caribbean writers examining being black-British. Until the Asian community can be persuaded that there is something that directly concerns them happening in the theatre, most would prefer to sit at home with a masala movie.

The spectacular posters of Moti Roti are tempting bait, reeking of the crude and colourful hand-painted billboards that hang outside every Hindi picture palace. The smoulderingly contemplative hero looms large, holding the gaze of the observer; the luscious heroine poses, the villainess recoils from her weak-willed husband, the widow looks wheedlingly, a pair of young lovers dance and the buffoon grimaces with typical silliness. All that's missing is the rattling skeleton. Who's who (and what's what) is instantly clear. The reason for bothering to sit through it, as with any Hindi movie, is to see how it will wrench your heart before coming to its predictably moral conclusion. This is precisely what the Hindi movie-goer will expect. A masala movie conventionally combines elements from every Hollywood genre - thriller, melodrama, social documentary, fantasy, horror, soap - with Indian mythology and religious allegory, and is dished up to an audience that demands value for money, from a spectacular as well as an emotional point of view.

A key attraction in Moti Roti is the requisite movie-star. Heart-throb Nitish Bharadwaj is very big in Bollywood (Bombay's answer to Hollywood) and well known to many as Lord Krishna, hero of the telly-marathon Mahabharat. He plays the businessman, lecherous and corrupt, until redeemed by the love of a Good Woman (Casualty's Mamta Kaash).

The material for the play evolved from a series of workshops involving six Asian writers. Scriptwriter Diane Esguerra was given the title (which translates as 'Thick bread, thin veils', broadly suggesting domestic incompetence and loose morality) and the task of arranging the conventional plot lines and the sentimental celluloid stereotypes - the broken husband, the idealised heroine, the villainess, the poor widow - into a theatrical shape. Into this she incorporated the flashback film sequences (which stop when kissing starts) and the show-stopping mimed song and dance routines, both intrinsic elements of the Hindi movie. The two strands of the tale - exploitative rich and exploited poor - become inextricably tangled until both get their just deserts and the poor find wealth and happiness in Bollywood.

While gently subverting the escapist mentality of the genre, and spoofing its melodrama and the flowery, image-heavy language, Esguerra also intends to celebrate its sincerity, all this while slotting in substantial snatches of wholly extraneous Hindi/Urdu chat which will amuse those in the know without alienating those who aren't. 'Moti Roti introduces the genre, but it also comments on it,' she says. Aficionados should not be offended. 'I hope I'm building bridges. And I hope I'm providing more challenging parts than the Mr and Mrs Patel television stereotypes these actors usually play.'

The director Keith Khan, who conceived the idea, intends Moti Roti to offer all the spectacle and entertainment of the Hindi cinema with the additional thrill of enjoying it live. 'Most theatre addressed primarily to the Asian audience is classically rooted and retrospective, catering for a generation that came over here in the Fifties and Sixties. It's very middle-class. Moti Roti should have a much broader appeal. Second generation Asians and those like me who can't speak Hindi or Urdu (Khan was born in Trinidad) shouldn't have a probem. And if you've never seen a Hindi film before, you'll want to after this - they may seem apparently unsophisticated, but they are very clever, beautifully crafted and full of tension.'

Philip Hedley believes that the piece has become something more than was intended: 'What often happens when you put a popular form into a different frame is that it throws a new light on it. In this case the Hindi movie has become quite sophisticated camp.' His principal intention, nevertheless, remains that of turning the Asian audience into regular theatre-goers, something he considers to be as much a matter of good social engineering as an artistic imperative. 'Our local people pay locally as well as nationally for their theatre and therefore we have a duty to bring them in. But there's something purely artistic going on here too. Theatre exists in its relationship between audience and stage, and different groups within a single audience respond differently at different times. The more mixed the audience in terms of age, race and class, the greater the resonance a piece of theatre can have. That has to be the ultimate goal.'

'Moti Roti' is at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, E15 (081-534 0310) until 17 July

(Photograph omitted)

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