Rain & Sunshine in Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding: The Musical’

Monsoon Wedding comes to a close exactly as its name suggests. Rain, falling in steady streams around the celebration, encloses the wonderful ensemble of characters in rectangular reverie. Carnations swing from the balcony, and rows of unfurled drapery hang in vibrant orange and reds. The show’s fused families, not assured that this wedding would take place at all, twist their hands in careful flourishes that rival even the most classic of Bollywood movies. Watching men in pink turbans and golden-clad women, one can confidently say that Indian culture has finally found a home Off-Broadway. 

Based on the successful film of the same name, Monsoon Wedding opened on May 6th at St. Ann’s Warehouse, but has had a much longer journey to Brooklyn. Director Mira Nair first thought to bring the story to the stage in 2006, making it through both a series of workshops and a 2020 pandemic postponement before arriving on the New York theater scene. 

The multi-faceted plot is conducted in the backdrop of the arranged marriage between Aditi Varma (the clear-voiced Salena Qureshi) – a “South Delhi Girl,” as her introductory song puts it – and Hemant Rai (Deven Kolluri), a banker who lives in Hoboken. The Varmas, an extended family large enough that audiences might sometimes have trouble telling who is who, give rise to most of the show’s disparate threads. We see a romance between their wedding planner, Dubrey (hilariously played by Namit Das), and maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan, with an outstanding soprano). The show opens with unmarried and NYU-bound cousin Ria (Sharvari Deshpande), and a stomach-churning secret regarding their prominent uncle that will be revealed before the night is up. 

In the director’s note, Mira writes that the musical is something like Fiddler on the Roof for Southeast Asians, and the two share more than just a marital theme.

In the director’s note, Mira writes that the musical is something like Fiddler on the Roof for Southeast Asians, and the two share more than just a marital theme. The show dives headfirst into Indian culture without waiting to make sure that its American audience is up to speed – and why would it?

In the same way Fiddler expects us to learn as we go, we are immediately immersed in a world that treats vibrant colored saris with the same hand as it does sparkling purple boots that glitter in the stage lights. Characters are fast-talking, and American-born Hemant is the only one without the hint of an Indian accent. While white viewers might miss a word here and there while their Hindi-speaking peers chuckle, this is not a story that has been catered to them: too much has been already. 

On two sides of the thrust stage sits the orchestra, visible on elevated platforms in an attempt to mimic what a band at a wedding might look like. In fact, Monsoon Wedding begins with a ‘prologue’ before audiences even enter the theater that sees the so-called Monsoon Band parade out into the lobby in a jubilant procession. 

Tubas and trombones make their way out to the Brooklyn waterfront, and one can imagine that an Indian bride or groom might make an appearance behind them. This strictly brass hoopla, however, is unusual – the show is marked primarily by traditional Indian sounds, including the silvery reverberations of a sitar always visible on the side of the stage. Even in songs that have a contemporary influence, a number of the cast have clearly been classically trained in Indian vocals, coloring the music with a focused vibrato that makes the score as resonant as the instruments that play it. Namit as Dubrey and Anisha as Alice, in particular, garner even the simplest of their numbers with the hefty weight of tradition. 

The writers give us a three-dimensionally modern take on a culture that white audiences all too often think of in terms of custom, complete with sexually active aunties and WhatsApp-using mothers.

And yet, at the same time, the writers give us a three-dimensionally modern take on a culture that white audiences all too often think of in terms of custom, complete with sexually active aunties and WhatsApp-using mothers. The show begins, perhaps most authentically, with two lines being traced on a screen, colliding and overlapping until we see that they form two faces (you might have seen them gracing the cover of the Blu-Ray edition of the film). From this very first instance, Monsoon Wedding wants you to know it is about the intersection of disparate things. 

We have the mix of American and Indian cultures in the bride and groom, religious differences between Hindu Dubrey and Christian Alice, and class separation between the workers and main family. In what is perhaps the best number of the show, Dubrey’s mother recounts how the Hindu/Muslim divide during the great schism between India and Pakistan separated his grandmother from her love. As an ensemble mounts a fabric partition between the two, perched atop ladders pointed in different directions, divisions feel contrived and differences reconcilable. 

For its attempt to tackle pressing cross-cultural issues, however, the production never seems to do so with a strong enough hand to do justice to any of them (with the notable exception of Dubrey’s amended relationship to religion after “The Heart Knows”). An initial song cataloging the wealth disparities between the classes, complete with projected rupees on the theater’s back wall, never seems to be relevant beyond its designated number, even when the Varmas are dealing with money problems of their own. 

We never truly feel the difference in culture between Aditi and Hemant, with only banal proclamations about how being in India is like the American discovering a hidden piece of himself. Their Act One breakup, when the man she had been having an affair with dramatically proclaims himself her boyfriend, registers as a miscommunication that would be damning regardless of continent or citizenship. “Neither Here Nor There,” Hemant’s song here, speaks to belonging in two different worlds beautifully, but it seems we will never know how having an Indian wife will affect it. 

Viewers unfamiliar with the movie might be surprised to notice that something sinister is lurking underneath the set’s warm-toned facade.

The second act takes a sharp left turn from where audiences might suspect – the two reconcile just four songs in, and it seems the wedding is back on with forty minutes of runtime still to go. Viewers unfamiliar with the movie might be surprised to notice that something sinister is lurking underneath the set’s warm-toned facade.

The first act features a few uncomfortable interactions between Uncle Tej (Alok Tewari) and young cousin Aliya (Rhea Yadav), but it only comes out in powerful, if lyrically underdeveloped, “Be A Good Girl,” that he had groomed Ria and is doing the same to Aliya now. The young girl speaks with distressing authority about how ‘old people kiss.’ This plotline, as important as it is overlooked in modern media, transforms the show away from its initial celebratory overtones. A wedding must take place in the dark shadow of what has happened.

And yet, the tonal shift is a one that proves difficult for even the most well-crafted musical to overcome. When Ria returns to the wedding, the trauma seems to have vanished– the banishment of Tej from the family, written with depth and complexity, leaves the two victims dancing without a hint of hesitation. 

While they should not be defined by their suffering, the absence of any kind of reckoning leaves the final celebration, bursting with vibrancy, lopsided. The show seems to deal with an unspeakable horror only in the throes of chaos, leaving it to the side when the plot demands joy. Quieter and less dramatic devastation goes unexamined as Ria puts the whole incident behind her.  

Monsoon Wedding, much like its title, contains elements of both delight and downpour. There are moments – Dubrey’s hysterical hobby horse chase to Alice’s train, for example – that glimmer with the promise of what Mira and the creative team wanted to bring to the stage.

The highlights are high, and just seeing Indian music and dance where it has never been before is profoundly gratifying. And yet, it is not enough to completely recover the show from its plot-filled pitfalls. With a bit more workshopping, one imagines it could live up to its potential. It just needs some revisions first. 

Rain is coming, the musical begins. And despite the moments of bright sun on the horizon, we are unable to avoid getting wet. 

© Catherine Sawoski (5/30/23) – Special for FF2 Media®

LEARN MORE / DO MORE

To check out the remaining performance dates for Monsoon Wedding, visit St. Ann’s Warehouse.

To watch the original film Monsoon Wedding, visit Amazon Prime or Google Play.

Read our SWAN of the Day tribute to Mira Nair.

Check out FF2 Media’s Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner’s interview with Mira Nair. And click here to read Jan’s review of The Namesake.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: The Monsoon Wedding ensemble. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Bottom Photo: Anisha Nagarajan and the Monsoon Wedding ensemble. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Images courtesy of St. Ann’s Warehouse & used with their permission.

Catherine Sawoski is a rising Senior at Barnard College (NYC). She is the Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. Her passions are theatre and literature. Brava, Catherine!

Catherine at Monsoon Wedding: Second to the left in the white dress. (From left: Taylor Beckman, Catherine Sawoski, Dayna Hagewood & Shreya Udayashankar.)

 

Tags: Alok Tewari, Anisha Nagarajan, Bollywood, Brooklyn, Deven Kolluri, Fiddler on the Roof, Mira Nair, Monsoon Wedding, Musical Theater, Namit Das, Off-Broadway, Rhea Yadav, Salena Qureshi, Shavari Deshpande, St. Ann's Warehouse

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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