Bhangra Nation: Musical moves to its own beat in exploring identity

Show has been modified for UK audiences, says Bhangra Nation co-writer Rehana Mirza

Rehana Lew Mirza with her husband
Mike Lew

Amit Roy

THIS may seem a little ironic, but the Birmingham Rep’s new bhangra musical is an American import.

Bhangra, a joyous harvest festival, first came to Britain from the Punjab with the first generation of Indian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, and developed British roots in and around Birmingham. And about two decades ago, bhangra made its way from the UK to the US.

A version of Bhangra Nation: A New Musical was first tried out in California in 2022 at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego under the title Bhangin’ It. It has been substantially modified for the Birmingham Rep version, but the book, which is co-written by Rehana Mirza and her husband, Mike Lew, remains set in America.

As a young student, Mirza was bitten by the bhangra bug as the dance form developed a fan following in US college campuses.

Bhangra Nation is very much “my baby”, she told Eastern Eye, adding that it tells the story of two competing girls, Mary and Preeti, at the fictional East Lansing University in Michigan.

Mirza said, “We tried to think of all the great musicals that have great dancing. We often mentioned West Side Story.

“The story we hung it round is [that of] Mary and Preeti, who are part of the mixed college bhangra team, but have different visions of what they want to bring to the team.

Jena Pandya as Mary

“They have a disagreement, and it sends Mary off to making her own team. That begins a journey of joy and figuring out who you are and finding your community and who you are responsible to.”

The musical Mirza has in mind is Wicked. She remembers how she fell in love with bhangra growing up in the US.

Mirza was born and brought up in New Jersey and studied dramatic writing at New York University. It explains why she has been active as a playwright and first wrote her bhangra story as a film script.

“The reason I wrote this is because I am a terrible dancer. I would go to Basement Bhangra (sessions) that DJ Rekha would put together, where they would have a dance lesson in the very beginning. I would do that, but I would hide in the corner and dance in the back while the better dancers would be in the centre.”

In her family, “I am the sole American in the bunch,” she said.

Zaynah Ahmed who plays Preeti, in Bhangra Nation

“My brother and sister were born in Canada. My mom was born in the Philippines and moved to Canada where she met my dad. He was actually born in Lucknow, then went to Pakistan after Partition. He went to London for school and then at a young age moved to Canada.”

Mirza explained how the US show evolved into the version being performed at the Birmingham Rep.

“We learned a lot from its first production,” she said. “So, before we even knew we were coming to Birmingham, we had done a ton of rewrites. There are four or five new songs.

“We started from page one and started refining and honing it and really trying to make sure our message was clear. When we realised we’re coming here, Sam Willmott, our composer/lyricist, started working with Kuljit Bhamra on orchestrations and additional music material.

“And Kuljit is a legend and generous musician and artist in his own right, who has done so much for the bhangra scene in the UK. That got infused into the score.”

With the opening night a week away, the cast is busy in rehearsals.

Mirza said in order to sound authentic, “we have a dialect coach. We’re working on American accents for most folks.

“There are some characters who come from India, and they’ll have Indian accents, but everyone will speak in English with a little bit of Punjabi and a little bit of Urdu mixed in.

“We’re still making minor tweaks and changes in the choreography. Everyone has been dancing all day and learning new dances. They are still learning their lines, the songs and the choreography.”

Mirza’s core group expanded to include Parambeer Samrai (a bhangra consultancy) along with Rebecca Howell (additional choreography and musical staging, and Rujuta Vaidya (choreography).

“Parambeer has such strong Birmingham roots with a bhangra specialty, and Becky has done so much musical theatre within the UK. I think the musical itself looks very different from the production that was in the US,” said Mirza.

She revealed what she wants audiences to take away from the show: “I want them to have a lot of fun. Our audiences (in America) tend to range from folks who grew up with bhangra, to those who have never encountered it. I want everyone, despite their backgrounds, to come together and be able, by the end of the show, to really have a deep love for bhangra in the same way that I do.

“And also have a greater understanding about how everyone contains multiple identities and that we all can form community with one another.”

For those unfamiliar with the background to her musical, Mirza said, “Bhangra came from India and Pakistan; basically, it came from Punjab. Farmers would do bhangra to celebrate a good harvest.

“And then it came to the UK and evolved into the dance halls. It was defined by dhol beats or dholak. That’s the defining feature of it. It got even more of a beat. And then it went to the US where it continues to evolve to this day.”

The Rep has described Bhangra Nation as a “powerful and pulsating new show about competitive bhangra dancing”.

Artistic director Sean Foley said: “I am beyond thrilled to be welcoming the amazing cast, the award-winning producing team, the extraordinary international creative team, and this spectacular show, to the Birmingham Rep. In a city that has a claim to be the modern centre of bhangra.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the show connecting with both our south Asian communities, and with all audiences looking for a great night out. The Rep is a theatre for everyone, and I hope many people who perhaps will have never been to the theatre before will come along to enjoy the sheer talent involved in this feel-good new musical.”

Bhangra Nation: A New Musical is on at the Birmingham Rep from next Saturday (17) until March 16.