x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A feast for the Bollywood lover's soul at Dubai dinner theatre

Dubai is famous for shiny new restaurants, but one businessman has been bringing Bollywood to the table for 18 years at Moghul Room.

Vivek Varma, a Salman Khan impersonator at the Moghul Room in Dubai, makes sure his look is perfect in the dressing room before hitting the stage. He lip-synchs and dances along to songs from the Bollywood star.
Vivek Varma, a Salman Khan impersonator at the Moghul Room in Dubai, makes sure his look is perfect in the dressing room before hitting the stage. He lip-synchs and dances along to songs from the Bollywood star.

The Al Nasr Leisureland in Oud Metha, Dubai, is a strange place. Built in 1979, it has an old-school charm, out of place with the tall, gleaming towers and malls of the marina and the inappropriately named Old Town. It's a sprawling edifice that houses an ice rink, a bowling alley and various other sporting and leisure activities for the whole family.

But across from the ice rink, in through a nondescript doorway and up a narrow flight of stairs, there's more fun to be had, a completely different kind of fun; and a completely authentic peek into the dancing, singing and spirit of Bollywood.

Rajan Sippy is the owner of the Moghul Room, a Bollywood-themed dinner theatre that features shows every night until 3.30am. And he knows Bollywood; not only has Sippy acted in 14 films and produced one, but he also comes from a long line of filmmakers in India. Tomorrow, a distant relative of his, Ramesh Sippy, who directed the blockbuster 1975 film Sholay, among others, will be honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the International Indian Film Academy awards.

Rajan Sippy first came to the UAE to promote a travelling Bollywood show from 1989 to 1994 and saw an opportunity for a permanent dinner theatre in Dubai. Many of these shows were held at Al Nasr, which gave him the space to set up shop and, in the 18 years since, Sippy has worked hard to achieve success at the Moghul Room.

"I don't want to feel like the owner. I own the team, I head the team, but I believe in working as part of the team. I do the choreography myself, all the technical parts, right from designing the costumes and creating different props, even programming the lighting, that's all done by me. It's like I am the sweeper, I am the cleaner, I'm part and parcel of every division."

Before I take in the Friday show, I drop by early for a chance to talk with some of the performers. The room itself, while not fancy, is festive. There are set tables around the stage, a low ceiling for an intimate atmosphere and photos of Sippy's famous family hanging on the walls; the stage is dark. I'm warmly greeted by Kalpana Iyer, a matronly woman dressed in a traditional white sari with a mobile phone constantly in her hand. "So nice of you to join us," she smiles, directing me to a table.

Iyer's soft attitude belies her own Bollywood roots; she was the first Miss India in 1979 and went on to become a model and have a career in film and music in the 1980s and 90s. She joined the Moghul Room 12 years ago.

"I knew her in the industry for a long time," says Sippy. "When she was done with all that I asked her to join us here. Now, she manages the relations between the stage and the guests. She receives each and every guest who comes in, makes sure they are comfortable and attended to properly. And because we have women and children, she makes especially sure that they are comfortable here."

After I have a few sips of a delicious lassi, Iyer finally takes me through the bustling kitchen to the cramped men's dressing room. It's here, among the hanging costumes and the small chairs that I meet two of the performers for the show, in the final stages of preparing their costumes.

Srinivas Mysore will play Amitabh Bachchan tonight. But before that, he'll go out and sing a few songs to warm up the crowd, under his own persona and dressed in a casual corduroy jacket. The 48-year-old has been with the Moghul Room for eight years, but had been performing in his native Bangalore since he was a boy.

"I had a grandmother, she was very fond of singing," he says. "Usually, in middle class families, people usually become engineers, doctors. But she said: 'You are very good, why don't you try music?' And money was very good then; there was no other entertainment, there was no TV. Then I got married and had children, so now I do it for my family.

"I came to Dubai for money. They used to say money is good in Dubai and we used to hear about Mr Sippy; his style is different. He presents the show like in movies. He creates a concept, he creates a story with the song. We present it that way, and it's quite interesting that way."

Iyer interrupts us; another part of her job is to make sure the show gets going, and it's Mysore's time to start. As he leaves, I turn to another impersonator getting ready. Sitting relaxed in a chair is Vivek Varma, a muscular 31-year-old dressed in a tight T-shirt and green trousers, one of the many costumes he'll use as he goes out on stage to act out Salman Khan songs.

"Salman is a very big star in the industry," says the talkative Varma, who hails from Punjab. "And people are shocked when they see me. They say 'Salman Khan is coming here!' "

In costume, Varma does look somewhat like the Bollywood star known for his chiselled body - with a little imagination, at least. He works hard to keep the appearance by lifting weights after the show, sometime around 5am before he goes to sleep around 6am. Varma doesn't sing but acts out the scenes while lip-synching to songs, something he's done for the past eight years here. He's also done some TV work in Mumbai and thinks his act will help kickstart a career in Bollywood.

"I met the original Salman Khan because of Mr Sippy, he's a friend. It was a dream come true! He has seen my show, and he said: 'Oh my God, who is this guy?' I have made many contacts because of Mr Sippy; so many actors, so many directors, from India they are coming and seeing me. They take my number, they take my contacts. It is very good for me."

It's time for me to take a seat out in the restaurant. It's still early, the seats are almost half full and I find the stage now lit up with coloured lights, with a cascading water fountain and large TV screens behind it. A woman in a sari posing as Lata Mangeshkar, the famous Indian recording artist, is calmly poised at the microphone, singing some of her famous songs. But as the night progresses, the entertainment bcomes more animated and lively; Varma comes out to rapturous applause as he prowls around the stage, chest out, arms flexed, lip-synching to a Salman Khan video on the screens behind him.

Female dancers come out afterwards, twirling and gyrating to both new and not-so-new Bollywood tunes. Then Mysore and another male performer come out to comedically act out more songs with the female dancers. The music is non-stop, one song after another, with the performers leaping on and off the stage. All the while Iyer is there watching and occasionally clapping along and keeping an eye on the guests, who all seem engrossed in the entertainment. I grab some food from the buffet; from last month the Moghul Room has celebrated the Punjabi Sindhi Mela (festival), and the delicious fare reflects the regions. The festival will continue until the restaurant closes for Ramadan.

About 11pm, Sippy enters the restaurant, dressed in a sport jacket and black T-shirt; he stands by the stage, cheerleading the dancers. Occasionally, he will duck into the sound room or wander around talking with guests, shaking their hands.

And it truly is a family atmosphere. Among the crowd is an Indian family, including grandparents, parents and three young daughters around the ages of seven to 10 years old. The young girls sit transfixed by the beautiful, whirling female dancers.

The daughters are brought home around 12.30am by their parents, but the rest of the table stays. About that time, a group of three young Indian men come in and find a seat beside me. They are enjoying the dancers, too, and their smiles, cheering and dancing in their seats are infectious. They will be here at closing time, which they assure me will be standing room only and "good fun". Just a brief look around the now filling-up room reveals that everyone already seems to be having fun. As am I - the show is delightfully cheesy in full Bollywood style.

Sippy has plans for the steady expansion of the Moghul Room around the world. This year, he will open a restaurant in Singapore, and hopes to open more. But right now, he is concentrating on keeping the shows at the Dubai location ever changing and, more importantly, entertaining.

"So far, it's a success, but this is one business where you don't have a contract with the guest that he's going to come back tomorrow. So every day is a new day and a new struggle to keep the performance fresh, eight nights a week - not seven nights, we call it eight nights. You've got to keep refreshing the songs, keep refreshing the performances. If you come one night and then you come another night, you should not see the same show.

"The way we feel - this is a family place," continues Sippy. "Every person who works there looks after anybody who comes in as if they have come into our own houses and we are hosting them. We treat them like our family."

That sentiment is shared by Varma, who engages the crowd and feeds off the applause and cheers during his five or six performances each night.

"After the show, I feel great," he enthuses. "People are very happy, they are going home happy. When people are enjoying, I am enjoying also."