Bhangra Nation: a joyous celebration of music, dance and who we are

Birmingham REP
February 27, 2024

Directed by Stafford Arima with choreography by Rujuta Vaidya and music by Sam Willmott, and based on the book by Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew, Bhangra Nation delves into the world of American university bhangra competitions, bhangra being an athletic form of Punjabi folk dance from India and Pakistan. It’s two-and-a-half hours of boundless energy and joy; a feast of song and dance that, while fast-moving, is also well paced with several quieter, more thoughtful moments.

But there’s much more. The bhangra is also a vessel for questions about tradition and modernity, belonging and not-belonging; and especially about identity, what it means to be of mixed race and how having two different cultures meeting side-by-side in childhood impacts on beliefs and thinking.

Redeveloped and renamed from an American show premiered in San Diego in 2022, Bhangra Nation is set at the fictional East Lansing University in Michigan, where the bhangra team, the T.I.G.R.E.S., have made it into the national finals.

Zaynah Ahmed (Preeti, centre) and the T.I.G.R.E.S.
Photo Craig Sugden

But all is not well. Team member Mary wants T.I.G.R.E.S. leader Amit to let her to add some of her late mother’s kathak to the group’s routine. Vehemently opposed is bhangra purist Preeti, who feels that the team should stick to what she sees as tradition, the obvious flaw in her argument being that tradition is not, and never has been fixed. To add to the discord, Preeti’s parents are both Indian, while Mary has mixed Indian and American parents and heritage, a point Preeti makes very pointedly as if it gives her some sort of cultural superiority.

Cue fireworks, a split, and Mary, with the help of roommate Sunita, assembling her own untrained, very diverse bhangra team, the Wood Ducks, the only criteria for joining being a desire to dance. A real ragtag, cross-generational bunch whose dancing is initially awkward, they nevertheless use a family connection to get into the nationals representing Nebraska. And what scope the diverse characters give for humour, which Arima takes full advantage of.

The ELU Wood Ducks
Photo Craig Sugden

Vaidya’s choreography includes not only bhangra, but also kathak, Bollywood, hip-hop, jazz and ballet. The ensemble numbers in particular are exuberant, upbeat and high-energy, none more so that the fabulous and very colourful finale.

Willmott’s score is similarly a foot-tapping, hand-clapping fusion of Broadway, pop, Latin, hip-hop and even rap, supplemented with Indian dance music. The on-stage playing of the dhol (a double-headed drum) by Parvinder Kaur and Juggy Rihal are highlights, but the whole ten-piece band are terrific throughout.

There are many fine ensemble songs, among them the hilarious ‘Khaana, Khaana,’ a number about the food on the menu at the Samosa Hut restaurant, owned by Wood Ducks’ dance coach Rekha.

Jena Pandya (Mary, left) and Siobhan Athwal (Sunita) in Bhangra Nation
Photo Craig Sugden

Best though are three duets including ‘Eat Each Other’ by Amit and Sunita, who find they have much in common, which is followed immediately by ‘Dot Dot Dot’, a clever skit on social media messaging, by Mary and her gently romantic interest, the Dominican American Billy, played by the super-voiced Iván Fernández González. Mary and Billy’s earlier number, ‘Toledo,’ in which they bond over their mixed backgrounds, doubts and frustrations of failing to measure up as they see it to cultural expectations, is just as good.

The characters are largely well-crafted, although there are one or two, too over-the-top, too clichéd musical theatre tropes along the way.

Jena Pandya is wonderfully sincere as Mary. She shows us someone racked with uncertainties and struggling to figure out who she is. She leaves us in no doubt about her emotions as she tries to square her two heritages, her desire to honour her deceased Indian mother through her dance, and how she fits in.

Zayah Ahmed (Preeti, centre) and company
performing ‘Ve Leja Mainu Pind Wal Tu’ (The Preeti Ballet)
from Bhangra Nation
Photo Craig Sugden

Despite her uncompromising attitudes to culture and people, in Act Two especially, Zaynah Ahmed evokes some sympathy as Preeti, who, deep down, is battling much the same issues as Mary. She’s just coming at them from a different angle.

Stealing almost every scene she is in, Siobhan Athwal is a real pocket powerhouse as the ebullient Sunita, Mary’s roommate, who sees the Wood Ducks as a chance for revenge over the T.I.G.R.E.S. Sohm Kapila is elegant as Samosa Hut owner Rekha, but who also comes with plenty of neat one-liners that sometimes really cut to the chase.

Elsewhere, Mervin Noronha is bright and boyish as Amit, while the hugely experienced Bob Harms is a delight as the good natured and sweetly clumsy Wallace, a widowed professor who joins the Wood Ducks, it seems to find company as much else.

Michael Taylor’s set designs are a treat. Sections slide in and out with ease, transforming the scene from college gymnasium to student dorm to restaurant with ease. Nick Richings’ lighting, Linda Cho’s costumes and David Bengali’s projections all make fabulous use of the rich colour of the dance.

Bhangra Nation
Photo Craig Sugden

Bhangra Nation is not quite perfect. Some of the deeper themes are raised a little clunkily on occasion, especially in one or two spoken monologues that just do not sound natural. In a way, it also seems a shame that the British version hasn’t been given a British setting, but then the whole idea of competitive college bhangra is much stronger in America, and maybe the sense of distance makes it easier to deal with some of the cultural issues.

But that’s nitpicking. Bhangra Nation is super entertainment. It’s effervescent, the music and dance infectious, the characters relatable to. A tour is surely only a matter of time.

And yes, the two teams do face off against each other. But that’s as much as you get. Saying any more would spoil the show.

Bhangra Nation is at the Birmingham REP to March 16, 2024.