Culture Editor Ilina Jha and Digital Editor Halima Ahad review Bhangra Nation, praising the dance numbers and cast performances in this new musical

Images by Craig Sugden

Bhangra Nation is a brand-new musical written by Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew (with music and lyrics from Sam Willmott), receiving its UK debut at Birmingham’s very own Repertory Theatre (playing until Saturday 16th March.)  The story begins when the ELU Tigres find out they have made it through to Bhangra Nation, the USA-wide inter-university bhangra competition. But everything changes when a clash between teammates Preeti (Zaynah Ahmed) and Mary (Jena Pandya) results in the latter leaving to form her own bhangra team. Humour, epic dance battles, and heartfelt emotion ensue in this uplifting story about dance, identity, and community.

Perspective One: Ilina Jha

Everything about the set design of Bhangra Nation is in keeping with the show’s bright, colourful aesthetic, from the gold sign for Rekha’s (Sohm Kapila) Samosa Hut restaurant to the details of Mary’s cosy university bedroom (yes, I did spy a Taylor Swift Eras Tour poster on the wall). Lighting is used superbly throughout the production, covering the high energy of the bhangra routines through to more subdued lighting and spotlights when characters are dancing and/or singing during particularly emotional moments.

When it comes to having a great plot for a fantastic comedy musical, Bhangra Nation ticks all the boxes. Big upcoming competition? Check. Identity crises? Check. A burgeoning romance? Check. Friendship difficulties? Check. Characters resolving their differences and coming together for an uplifting and heartwarming end? Check, check, check.

Never before have I seen so many Desi actors on one stage

But Bhangra Nation offers more than this. Never before have I seen so many Desi actors on one stage; never before have I seen so many people (Desi or not) celebrating the Indian dance styles of bhangra and Kathak. The show also asks complicated questions about the nature of heritage and culture: how should bhangra be done, and who gets to decide? What makes you ‘Indian’ enough? This latter question particularly resonates with me, just as it does for the character of Mary (who, like me, is mixed-race). In the song ‘More Than Enough,’ Mary wonders whether she is really Indian enough after being hurt by an ill-judged remark from Preeti. Despite the assurances of her best friend, Sunita (Siobhan Athwal), that she really is ‘Desi enough,’ Mary’s insecurity about her identity and her place in Indian culture persists, which is something I can really relate to. What helps Mary – and what I find particularly moving – is the discussion of the Hindi-Urdu word ‘kal,’ which means ‘one day away’ and can therefore signify both yesterday and tomorrow. In this way, Bhangra Nation shows that tradition and new possibilities need not be considered as opposing concepts, and instead can be brought together as one. The entire musical score of Bhangra Nation is excellent – the tunes range from fun and full of energy to slower, more emotional numbers, but all are highly engaging and very catchy

This isn’t just a show – it’s a showstopper

The cast members of Bhangra Nation are all outstanding. Pandya, Ahmed, Athwal, and Kapila all stood out to me in their solo vocal and dance performances, as well as within duets and group numbers. The characters are played so effortlessly, and the dancing – let’s just say that the dance numbers absolutely blow the roof off. Fantastic costumes, of course, help these routines to shine – the vibrant bhangra outfits create a rainbow of colour on stage, while Mary’s Kathak skirt adds a beautiful flow to her solo dance that truly elevates the piece. 

The cast and crew behind Bhangra Nation received a standing ovation on press night, and for good reason. This isn’t just a show – it’s a showstopper. I clapped until my hands ached and my arms were weary. Bhangra Nation may be a new musical, but it deserves to take its place in history as one of the greatest of all time.

Rating: 5/5

Perspective Two: Halima Ahad

Colourful; dancing; belonging. These are the three words I would use to describe the iconic musical that is Bhangra Nation. I went into the show with high hopes and left with an exhilarating bounce in my step. This musical has everything Birmingham needs and more.

The characters, and musical actors and actresses behind them, definitely do not disappoint. I resonate a lot with the female protagonists, Mary and Preeti, as they both question their identity throughout the show. It can be hard to live in Western society and live up to your traditional roots, but both characters show that it is okay to be your true self.

This musical has everything Birmingham needs and more

I have many favourite dance sequences throughout the whole show, but my most favourite definitely has to be ‘Kal Mein Ishq Talaash Kare (The Momtra)’ in Act One. In this dance, Mary shows her bhangra team’s DJ Billy (Iván Fernández González) her love for Kathak (a traditional dance that her mother performed), and does so with elegance and grace. The use of the set within this dance sequence left me lost for words – Mary dances gracefully facing the mirror, and her mother’s spirit appears in the mirror to join her halfway through the dance. The beautiful sound of the Indian instruments made me feel so emotional as Mary connects with her late mother through the song. Another similar dance sequence of the show, which is also done beautifully, is Preeti’s traditional bhangra sequence with her family back home in Chandigarh in Act Two. Preeti dances with elegance and grace as she aches to make her family back home proud of her.

I absolutely adore the effortless comedy throughout the whole show. The witty jokes from the male protagonist Billy are unforgettable, especially during the Bollywood dance sequence in which Mary shows him the fun behind the scenes of the iconic staple of Indian cinema. The immersive set in Billy and Mary’s song ‘Dot Dot Dot’ in Act Two put a huge smile on my face: the audience gets to see the aftermath of their intimate dance through texts and the suspense behind the … of each other on the phone screen. Another comedy sequence I love is ‘Khaana, Khaana’ (meaning ‘Dinner, Dinner’), which is performed by prestigious coach Rekha ji and her backup dancers. It is very funny to see iconic Indian dishes put on show as the audience are introduced to The Samosa Hut restaurant.

The immersive set in Billy and Mary’s song ‘Dot Dot Dot’ in Act Two put a huge smile on my face

However, one thing which has stuck with me since watching Bhangra Nation is the meaning of ‘kal’. Rekha explains that the word means ‘one day,’ which is why it can be used interchangeably to mean either today or tomorrow in Hindi and Urdu. The use of Hindi is so beautiful in this sense as it relates back to Mary’s inner conflict about maintaining tradition – she learns that she can make her mother proud in the present and the next day through using the graceful dance form of Kathak within bhangra, rather than trying to stay with what she had with her mother in the past.

Bhangra Nation is an absolute treat and a show definitely not to be missed. I absolutely adored every single part, and I hope to have the chance to see it again soon.

Rating: 5/5

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