September 2013
#Gurgaon , 243 Views
The Keys to the Kingdom

Byline: Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Photographs: Vikas Maurya

It may have the novelty draw of being the first of its kind in India, but is Kingdom of Dreams here to stay, or a fleeting mirage?

Back in 2010, none of us knew what to expect when Kingdom of Dreams opened to mass fanfare and media hype, boasting a brand ambassador no less than Shah Rukh Khan. What is this Kingdom of Dreams thing, my friends and I asked each other—is it a show,is it a theatre? The Times of India carried an early report calling it “India’s answer to Sydney’s Opera House, Paris’ Moulin Rouge,” as well as other world-class entertainment venues, which didn’t much help our attempts to define it.

What it is—in the words of its management company—is “India’s first live entertainment and leisure destination” which, upon a first look around the walled-in promenade a short walk from the IFFCO Chowk metro station, translates into a kind of Disneyworld without the rollercoasters, a Las Vegas without the casinos.

The first stop through the entry gates is a building straight out of an imagination obsessed with the Arabian Nights. It’s called the Culture Gully, and inside is 100,000 square feet filled with eateries serving over 250 regional dishes cooked by 140 chefs representing 14 Indian states.

It is an idea of India that doesn’t exist anywhere outside the movies, if even there: an India where a Lucknowi qawwali is performed across from Mumbai’s Rajabai Clock Tower; where the smells of a Hyderabadi biryani waft across a sandy children’s playground to a bar on the deck of a Kerala houseboat; where you can watch a Rajasthani puppet show from the glassed-in IIFA Buzz café, with portraits of Bollywood stars shining at you from behind the bar.

India has never seen anything like it, and it’s not in Delhi, it’s in Gurgaon. Kingdom of Dreams director Viraf Sarkari says they cater to anyone from five to 70 years old, but “our target audience is really foreigners.”

Travel website tripadvisor.com rates the Kingdom of Dreams first among 13 main attractions in Gurgaon, but despite Sarkari’s claim and the early press about what a draw Kingdom of Dreams would be for foreign travellers on the Delhi-Jaipur-Agra circuit, the site’s reviews are mostly from Delhiites, and a foreign presence wasn’t very evident when I had the opportunity to visit, just a few white men in suits being shown around on what was obviously a corporate outing. Indian families carrying babies, dragging along grandmas, wives ignoring husbands, etc, all roamed the length of the indoor street with its painted-on sky overhead. Coos in various Indian dialects were directed at just-taken cellphone photographs, and young, decidedly desi love occupied many of the dining tables. It was all very lovely, all very manufactured—all very Indian. But still, I got into the kitschy spirit of it.

I helped myself to a plate of biryani, browsed a shop selling Cottage Emporium style knickknacks, and across the way, up the stairs, there’s a second level where I came across the more adult-specific sections. First, the Mystic Centre, where a palmist and a tarot card reader sat chatting, waiting for customers. I paid for my fortune to be told, and had my face read. (I was meant to be getting married by now. I want my money back.)

Past the psychic fair there’s a section full of massage tables and chairs, and at the other end of the hall, a mini-bazaar selling jewelry that leads into a bar covered in more shiny reflective things than the Shish Mahal in Agra. It might have even been called the Shish Mahal, but I was too blinded by bling to ask. Still, not a bad idea to get people loaded, impulsive, and have them walk out through a jewelry store.

Back outside on the walled-in boardwalk keeping the realities of Gurgaon away, more tourists took more photos of each other in front of the turbaned greeters, a child threw a tantrum, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the multi-storey ersatz palace further down on the left. Inside is the Nautanki Mahal, the 800-plus-seat theatre, tricked out with a sound system by India’s arm of audio giant Harman, so far the only one of its standard in the country. AR Rehman is a brand ambassador for Harmon’s JBL brand, and when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, the composer’s song written for the Games was launched here.

The theatre’s lobby is something out of a Masterpiece Theatre set on Mars—all kingly chairs, chandeliers, near-mirror marble floors, and while you wait in line to get in, there’s a bar with liveried waiters to take your order, and another first for India: you can take your drinks into the theatre with you.

The main attraction is an ongoing musical, Zangoora, the Gypsy Prince, featuring a rotating cast of Bollywood actors, music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and a screenplay by Javed Akhtar, meant to be the live show to end all live shows. The reviews have been mostly positive, online as well as off. The one place that seems to stick with friends who’ve been is the cost of a decent seat, but maybe tickets are priced more for those tourists toting currencies of higher exchange rates than the rupee?

Observed from my medium-priced seat, behind the premium rows of leather armchairs that provide a perfect line of sight to the stage, the production certainly spared no expense in its bid to be over-the-top, and nothing looked at all cheap. The actors and dancers’ moves were in sync, and while it might be a somewhat simplistic story—a kidnapped prince for a hero, a beautiful gypsy girl as a token of redemption and so on—my Indian friends who’ve seen it think the show hits its mark. But when I asked Margherita Stancati, an Italian journalist who lives in Delhi her thoughts, she became visibly annoyed while describing Zangoora: “It was like a badly made children’s production! I thought it was going to be a Bollywood musical but it wasn’t at all. I don’t think they know who their audience is.”

The Kingdom of Dreams Facebook page is inundated with people asking to audition for the next show, so that, at least, is one bit of the Bollywood process the place has managed to bring to Delhi. Viraf Sarkari doesn’t exactly clear up the confusion over target markets though, saying that when they bring in “out-of-town shows [like a circus or a magic show], we first make sure they suit Indian sensibilities.” So who then, is Kingdom of Dreams for?

Last October, before I visited and began to ponder the simple question, a quiet story in The Times of Indiareported that it may not matter for very long. The administrator of the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) was quoted as saying, “Kingdom of Dreams has already been given notices regarding the pending payment dues and the agreement will be cancelled if it is not paid.” The outstanding debt was said to be Rs 12 crore. An article on the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog estimated the cost to produce Zangoora at Rs 250 crore. When the Hindustan Times reported on non-payment of rent in January 2012, Kingdom of Dreams’ managing director Anumod Gagan Sharma claimed to be running into severe financial losses. “Many people consider Kingdom of Dreams to be another multiplex where they could buy tickets at Rs 200,” he said, but “actually, we are a cultural hub with a lot to offer. They find our entry ticket rate of Rs 750 very costly.”

Sharma declined to comment for this story, on the grounds that the rent dispute is in a delicate negotiation stage, but it’s clear that Kingdom of Dreams is currently in PR mode. Bombarding my inbox for weeks have been press releases about the latest show, The Legend Of Kung Fu, featuring a Chinese troupe that has performed all over the world, as had announcements for a harvest festival featuring three different regional celebrations—Lohri, Makar Sakranti and Pongal—and there was the New Year’s Eve party with special puppet shows for the kids.

Is all this is a sign that Kingdom of Dreams is shifting its focus? The foreign tourists who wouldn’t think twice about paying a 750-rupee entry fee plus tickets for a show aren’t coming in their expected droves. Maybe the language in future press kits will be a little more India-oriented?

Money troubles or not, Kingdom of Dreams’ India-orientation is expansion. “Of course Mumbai and Bangalore are next,” says Sarkari, but “it’s such a flexible model that we can change as much as we like.” And then, Sarkar comes out with something surprising: “Our dream,” he says, “is to eventually have a Kingdom of Dreams in Las Vegas.” Or maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising.