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Bollywood hopefuls head to karaoke tryouts

A BollyStar competition in Lakewood offers a chance to land in a yet-to-be-announced production.

July 16, 2009|August Brown

One rarely expects to be moved to tears at a karaoke competition in a Lakewood strip-mall movie theater. But Neil Sheth, a whippet-thin 20-year-old from Palos Verdes Estates, had the crowd on the verge as he auditioned for BollyStar 2009, an open tryout for a singing role in a mainstream Bollywood film.

His a cappella take on "Tadap Tadap," from the 1999 Hindi film "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam," was a heartstrings-snapping read of a tune that's something of a "My Heart Will Go On" for South Asian film fans.

"The movie is about two lovers, and because the man is half Italian, the woman's parents don't approve and he's forced to leave her," Sheth said. "He sings this song as he's walking away from her."

A singer's knack for maximum melodrama is the currency of BollyStar, an "Idol"-like online competition put on by the Bollywood distribution company Saavn. Contestants can upload videos of themselves performing their choice of Hindi hits, and fans vote for a winner who will, ostensibly, land a singing role in a Bollywood production (though the exact movie hasn't been nailed down yet). For those who needed more of a live audience to summon their inner Hindi balladeer, there were in-person auditions in New York, New Jersey and last Sunday in Lakewood.

Online auditions can still be submitted until 5 p.m. Eastern time on July 28.

A year after the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" refashioned Bollywood tropes in its rags-to-riches-to-elaborate-dance-sequences tale, and as M.I.A. runs up the pop charts with riffs on Sri Lankan rebel movements and illegally printing visas, the time seems right to try to bring wider American crowds to Hindi and South Asian film and music.

For longtime fans of Bollywood, however, "Slumdog's" success only affirmed the genre's often giddy pleasures.

" 'Slumdog' really opened up a lot of new audiences to Bollywood, and it reignited the core South Asian community," said Diana Nasello, director of communications for Saavn. "But for this community, there's always been so much more than that. No one here is going to be singing ["Slumdog's" iconic song] 'Jai Ho.' "

At the Lakewood auditions, the contestants ran the gamut from older women in saris to skinny-jeaned teenagers who could probably have held their own on "Idol" (Sheth says he tried out for the most recent season and got a callback in an early round, before eventually being cut).

Arefa Shaikh, a 26-year-old from Orange County, performed a wrenching ballad from Pakistani singer Shazia Manzoor. But she admits that the obstacles to bona-fide Bollywood fame are considerable, requiring a lot of hustling even by L.A. standards.

"You really need a connection, or for your parent to have been a star first," Shaikh said. "I'm more of a shower singer, but I love Bollywood and want to be a part of it."


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