Glee meets Bollywood in OMNI TV’s Bollywood Star

Judge Richie Mehta sees underdogs with lots of conviction in reality series, which debuts April 6 at 8 p.m. on OMNI.

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Hopefuls await their turn to audition for OMNI's Bollywood Star.View 2 photos



Hopefuls await their turn to audition for OMNI’s Bollywood Star.

By: Staff Reporter, Published on Sat Apr 05 2014

Toronto filmmaker Richie Mehta is known for making small, intimate films with big ideas, detailing the most universal of human conditions: the little guy trying to make good.

So it is no small irony that he finds himself in the judge’s chair for OMNI TV’s four-part reality show Bollywood Star, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. The premise, is after all, Glee meets Bollywood, where dreams do come true — at least for one Canadian who will be offered a major role in a Bollywood movie.

But it seems that this filmmaker’s inspiration is more Simon Cowell than Paula Abdul, at least when it comes to judging.

“I really think it would take too much time to get you where I’d want you to go,” says Mehta to one contestant. “What am I going to see today that will change my mind?”

On this day in Toronto, Mehta and actor Rupinder Nagra (Amal) and actress Anita Majumdar (Murder Unveiled) are sitting in a nearly deserted auditorium at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre on Spadina Ave.

They are vetting 16 finalists who will be whittled down to eight by the end of the day. The top six finalists will then head to Mumbai for a Bollywood boot camp with the industry’s top choreographers and directors.

Onstage is Sukhi Atwal from Terrace, B.C., a small town near Alaska. She is wearing a sparkly silver bodice and a pink chiffon sari. When she was 4, she moved to Toronto to live with her grandparents. She now lives in Thailand.

Like all contestants, she must recite a monologue she has written, then perform a Bollywood dance that she has choreographed.

Atwal’s monologue is about growing up ugly. It is not entirely convincing, because she is tall and striking. And the judges aren’t so sure about it either.

“The emotion was pure. I’m not sure if it was a performance though,” says Mehta.

Mehta’s words are tough. But they are on point.

It is easy to dismiss Bollywood Star as a cut-rate Dancing With the Stars. But the production is greater than the sum of its parts, chiefly because it offers insights into the actor’s workshop, with a unique hook: the effervescent dancing that is Bollywood, as it looks at television through a distinct cultural lens.

It also gives insight into the cutthroat world behind the glamour.

“I just feel that if you don’t belong in this business, I’m doing you a service by dismissing you,” says Mehta in an interview after the auditions. “This is an incredibly tough business and I don’t think people really understand how tough it is.”

In the basement, Atwal waits to hear whether she will be cut.

She runs a health-care business in Thailand and only heard about Bollywood Star while watching TV on a visit with her grandmother.

She is already one of the fortunate ones. More than 200 turned out in auditions in Toronto and more than 100 in Vancouver for the chance to perform.

“I’m not sure if they liked what they saw,” says Atwal, who, perhaps surprisingly, comes across as less starry-eyed ingenue and more tough-minded realist.

Weeks before her performance, she learned Bollywood dance watching YouTube. Her sister also became her instructor.

“It’s just an incredible opportunity to do something different,” she says.

Like Atwal, competitor Melanie Chevrier of Vancouver says she is looking for “a deeper level of freedom” in becoming the next Bollywood star.

She saw her first Bollywood movie when she was 14. She was hiking in Nepal. And she was hooked.

“It really spoke to me that you could say so much through dance,” says Chevrier.

Despite going through the casting process hundreds of times for his films, director Mehta says he is constantly amazed at the motivation of would-be stars. “They want this so bad, when the odds are completely against them. The amount of hard work is incredible.”

The industry, of course, portrays Bollywood as the ultimate dream factory: bubbly escapism that has appealed to viewers on a global scale. The reality is that it takes a lot to make that trifle, a point that is underscored all too well in Bollywood Star.

As for Mehta, sitting in the judge’s chair has also become inspirational. For a director known for championing the downtrodden in his films, it seems a perfect fit.

With his breakout movieAmal, he followed the life of a New Delhi rickshaw driver finding a better life. In Siddharth, he took us into the world of the families who mend broken zippers on the streets of India.

“In Bollywood Star, you are seeing underdogs where the odds are completely against them. And my work is about intent. Circumstances may be completely against you, but intent will guide you. And I’m seeing a lot of conviction and intent here.”

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