Izod Center, NJ
Bollywood Trio Extraordinaire
When I arrived at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey at 7 o’clock this past Saturday night with a friend, hundreds of Bollywood fans from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and beyond were already lining up for the first concert stop in Bollywood musical trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s (SEL) worldwide Inspiration: Aman Ki Aasha tour. As we waited for the doors to open, young girls wearing salwars and cholis snapped MySpace-style photos of each other in various emo poses while parents exhorted their children to smile. (“Say ‘cheese.’ Okay, now say ‘samosa,’ beta!” said one parent.) A couple of older men spontaneously broke into song while in line, amusing their friends with renditions of Kishore Kumar songs.
They were all there to see SEL, the group comprised of Shankar Mahadevan as lead vocalist, Ehsaan Noorani on guitar and Loy Mendonsa on keyboard, which has been creating hit songs for Bollywood films for almost 13 years. Basically, if you’ve ever seen Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan or any other Bollywood star prance across the screen lip-syncing a song that has caught your fancy, more often than not it’s going to be an SEL song. This past year, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy created the soundtrack for a number of successful Bollywood films, including Wake Up Sid, My Name is Khan and Karthik Calling Karthik.
When we walked into the Izod Center, the first thing that hit my nostrils was the pungent smell of Indian fast-food. (Which didn’t pacify fans searching in vain for beer.) The first thing that we noticed was the high number of empty seats in the arena; the seats were barely half-filled. At first, I thought it had to do with the infamous desi-people-time (that is to say, at any given special event, desi people will arrive an hour or so after the designated time), but later we decided perhaps the high ticket prices ($40/$60/$80/$100/etc) had deterred some fans. Either way, a smaller venue would have sufficed.
The concert opened shortly after 8PM with Bollywood playback singer Richa Sharma, who teased the eager crowd with a line from her hit song, “Sajda” from My Name is Khan. Clad in a red and gold churidar pajama suit, the musician easily exchanged playful banter with the crowd, while wowing them with her strong vocals. By the middle of her set, dozens of fans (including a group of tween fans who repeatedly declared their love of Shankar) were dancing in the aisles. Of the half a dozen or so full songs she performed, none were received better than her cover of Asha Bhosle’s “Dum Maaro Dum,” Nusret Fateh Ali Khan’s, “Kina Sona,” and Malkit Singh’s “Gori Naal Ishq Mitha.”
After Sharma, the crowd was treated to the mellower sounds of Pakistani singer Shafqat Amanat Ali, who sang a number of songs influenced by classical gazals, including the soulful “Ankhon Mein Saager” and “Bin Tere.” I wanted to pay attention, but I was more than a little entranced with his Jerri-curl pompadour. My friend was likewise distracted by the hair, I later found out. He tweeted, “This guy looks like a brown Michael Landon…The mullet is fantastic.”
Other than a few terse thank-yous, Ali rarely interacted with the audience, inexplicably keeping his back to the crowd for most songs. The few phrases he did speak in Urdu were about the ways in which music bridges the gap between Indians and Pakistanis. But his lackluster, lethargic performance prompted a heckler to shout, “You’re putting us to sleep!” Some of the dancers in the crowd were not quite willing to exchange their bhangra moves for swaying and repeatedly yelled, “Sing a fast song!” In response, Ali closed with “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar,” which quickly had the crowd back on their feet.
By then, it was almost 10 o’clock and fans were buzzing with anticipation for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. The MC came onstage and made a few Pakistani/Indian jokes before introducing the trio. (“So who’s more beautiful? Indian women or Pakistani women?” he asked the crowd, which booed after he said Pakistani women were more beautiful.)
When SEL finally emerged on stage, the excitement was almost palpable. As soon as Ehsaan hit the first note on his guitar, the dancers in the crowd were on their feet. SEL began with “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom,” from the film of the first name and went on to “Dil Chahta Hai,” the soundtrack that cemented their reputation as composers back in 2001.
Arguably their best performance of the night was “Pretty Woman,” the rock-influenced remake of Roy Orbison’s 1964 hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” that was used in the 2003 film, Kal Ho Naa Ho. (Although they may have tried too hard to embody rock. My friend tweeted “The only explanation is their luggage was lost and they had to stop at an Ed Hardy store on the way here.”) The song perfectly showcased the trio’s individual talents and had strangers in the crowd throwing aside their inhibitions and dancing with each other. (Keep in mind the venue wasn’t selling any alcohol.) Later, SEL played the sad rendition of “Kal Ho Naa Ho” and the crowd brought out their cellphones and lighters and sang along.
In the middle of their set, SEL brought out Mahalakshmi Iyer, a petite singer clad in a pink kurta who sang “Chup, Chup Ke” from Bunty Aur Babli and “Aaj Ki Raat” from Don. As the concert came to a close, the crowd started yelling out for “Kajra Re,” from Bunty Aur Babli. When SEL finally played the song, the rows in front of me erupted in wild applause.
Towards the end of their performance, the performers brought out the concert promoters, who in turn brought along their mother/sister/cousin/neighbor/random stranger on stage with them. At that point, the audience was treated to a long-winded rant from one of the promoters who thanked everyone from his niece to his “lovely daughter,” and emphatically promised that the next time SEL came to town, all the seats would be filled. It was an odd, uncomfortable, out-of-place monologue in an otherwise fun evening. The crowd predictably began booing “Get off stage,” especially since SEL had yet to perform their most popular songs and it was already 11:30.
For their encore, the trio brought Sharma back to belt out “Saajda” and Ali for “Mitwa.” I wish I had taken more notes around this time about the depth and timbre of Shankar’s voice and how perfect the timing was between Loy’s synthesizing and Ehsaan’s rock chords, but unfortunately I had long since ditched my notepad and pen and was unabashedly dancing in the center aisles with the other Shankar fans. At the end of the night, fans quietly exited the Izod, slightly exhausted from dancing (perhaps that was just me) and replete with enough SEL to keep them happy till the next concert. Many were still softly humming SEL melodies under their breath. (Again, perhaps that was just me.)
If you’re a Bollywood fan and you get a chance to go to an SEL concert this summer, definitely take advantage of the opportunity because the group doesn’t disappoint. You’ll hear all the SEL songs you expect to hear and then some. But wear comfortable shoes because it’s inevitable that you’ll end up dancing in the aisles at some point.