Saloni Sonawala on Bollywood in step with the Tattoo’s martial tune
Bollywood Love Story

Saloni Sonawala thought she was really going places – until she was offered a role in a unique cross-cultural collaboration, writes Kelly Apter

Saloni Sonawala had dreamed of visiting the Bahamas since she was a child, and now it was finally happening. The cruise tickets were booked, six other families were joining her – and then she saw it. An advert which turned her head so far, the Bahamas drifted out of view.

The Edinburgh Mela was staging a large-scale show and needed local dancers to take part. Not only that, but those dancers would appear at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo each night throughout August, broadcast to an audience of millions.

“It was a hard decision to make,” says Sonawala. “But I had to go with my gut instinct and think, ‘What will bring me maximum joy?’ Well, the Bahamas aren’t going anywhere, but this will probably be the only opportunity I’ll have to do something like this. I had to grab it – so I cancelled my ticket.”

Sonawala is one of 40 dancers from the Edinburgh area recruited to play the supporting cast in Bollywood Love Story, a collaboration between two of the city’s largest cultural events. She’ll be joined on stage by 12 professional dancers from India to tell a classic love story through fast-paced, energetic and (if the section I saw was anything to go by) utterly joyful dance.

The production came about after the Mela’s artistic director, Chris Purnell, and David Allfrey, producer of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, discovered some mutual ground.

“The Mela has big links with India and Pakistan, and there’s a historic military connection with those countries,” Purnell explains. “So I approached David and said it would be interesting if we could do something together.”

Shortly afterwards, on a trip to India, Allfrey was invited inside a Bollywood studio. He returned home to Edinburgh convinced the style would work perfectly for the Tattoo’s 2015 theme, “east meets west”.

“The initial problem for David was scale, because the Tattoo needs large numbers,” says Purnell. “But flying 50 dancers over from India for two months would be prohibitively expensive. So I suggested we get the supporting cast of dancers from Scotland.”

Bollywood stalwart Sanjoy Roy was recruited to direct the show, and a simple love story was written to frame it all.

“It’s very Shakespearean,” says Purnell. “Classic girl meets boy, father doesn’t like him, there’s a bit of a ruckus, boy redeems himself in eyes of father, father accepts boy and there’s a big wedding finale.”

At the Mela, the love story will take 50 minutes to play out, while the Tattoo will fast-track the romance and go from eyes meeting to wedding banquet in five minutes. Both events get what they need, and for the Mela, Bollywood Love Story ticks two big boxes.

“It’s a physical manifestation of what the Mela does,” says Purnell. “Which is bring people together and engage with communities. There’s a real multicultural mix of dancers in this show, and their enthusiasm is incredible.”

Equally incredible is their level of commitment. Rehearsals for the Tattoo have run throughout July. The group will meet three afternoons a week to rehearse for the Mela at the end of August, as well as performing six nights a week at Edinburgh Castle.

For Sonawala not only has that meant waving goodbye to her Caribbean cruise, but putting in extra hours at her day job as an application scientist.

“I’ve had to take time off work to come to rehearsals, which has been a bit of a juggle,” she says. “I had to do a month of overtime in advance to get all my current projects finished. But if you really want to do something, then you make it work, and to be part of the Mela is a very prestigious thing.”

Sonawala danced regularly in her native Dubai, before moving to Edinburgh three years ago. Rather than baulk at the time commitment Bollywood Love Story demands, she’s already offered to give up even more hours.

“A few people in the show have never done anything like this before, so I suggested we meet up outside dance hours to go through the steps,” she says. “That will help build a rapport between us, and if you’re comfortable with each other, it’s easier to be confident on stage. I’ll help as many people as possible to gain that confidence and stamina.”

Watching the community cast perform, the combination of smiling faces, upbeat music and energetic choreography can’t help but raise a smile. If it feels joyful to watch it, what does it feel like to be part of it?

“You know the feeling when you go down a roller coaster?” asks Sonawala. “Well I get the same thrill from dancing.”

Each year, as you stroll from tent to tent at the Edinburgh Mela, taking in music and dance, or sitting in the Global Food Village, Leith Links melts into one big community. For Purnell, that’s an important aspect of the Mela’s entire existence. And shows such as Bollywood Love Story, which bring different ethnicities and cultures together – both on stage and in the audience – are a large part of that.

“There’s so much negativity surrounding ethnic minorities, immigration and the Muslim community,” says Purnell. “So I think it’s really important that events like ours try to redress that balance. Because the more people understand about each other’s cultures, and are exposed to each other’s differences, the more we realise our similarities.

And if the Edinburgh Mela can play just a small part in bringing this kind of joyfulness to people, then we’ve achieved something.”

  • Bollywood Love Story (short version), Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, 7-29 Aug / listings
  • Bollywood Love Story (full version), Edinburgh Mela, 30 Aug / listings 

Main image: David P. Scott