Monsoon Wedding the musical is a sharp, modern take on Mira Nair's cult film

Sandip Roy

May,23 2017 15:06 23 IST

Behenc***!

The epithet lands like a perfectly lobbed spitball among the cushioned seats of the Berkeley Repertory Theater where Monsoon Wedding — the musical is having its world premiere.

There’s a gasp of disbelief followed by some nervous titters. And then someone guffaws. As the desis in the audience look at each other and chuckle, it’s a moment of delicious recognition. It’s as if the so-called model minority in America can for a moment let its collective hair down and stop being so darn well-behaved.

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(L) At Berkeley Rep, Namit Das (PK Dubey) in the world premiere musical Monsoon Wedding, based on director Mira Nair’s 2001 film. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre; the poster of Mira Nair's film Monsoon Wedding.

“It’s a big recognition, especially for Punjabis,” laughs actor Namit Das who is himself half-Punjabi. “But even for the Americans. The word is placed in an interesting context. They will recognize that this is something out of the system.”

Das plays the wedding planner in Monsoon Wedding. The epithet comes from the harried father of the bride. In 2001, Monsoon Wedding, the movie, was a surprise hit and Golden Lion winner. 16 years later director Mira Nair brings the musical to American stage with dreams of hitting Broadway next.

The 2001 film was a groundbreaking moment in depicting an India that was neither Raj-nostalgia nor Bollywood-fantasy nor Eat-Pray-Love spiritual tourism.

It showed a changing India, a Hinglish India, a cockily confident India where lowly wedding planners had aspirations (and mobile phones). It kept it real.

Sixteen years later it’s still trying to keep it real. “When we made this film, we were painting a portrait of globalizing India,” Nair says in the programme notes. The India of Monsoon Wedding the musical has had to be upgraded as well. P K Dubey, the wedding planner now has three mobile phones instead of one. The aspirational car brand is now a Lexus. But the change is deeper than consumer goods.

“Modi, Trump, the rise of nationalism and religion has changed something,” says Sabrina Dhawan who wrote the original screenplay as well as the musical. In the movie, Dubey’s romance with Alice, the maid, hits a hurdle because she thinks he is spying on her and his people think she’s stealing. In the musical, the issue is religion and the idea of conversion. She is Christian and he wants her to convert. There’s even a musical re-enactment of Partition driving home the point about religious polarization.

Dhawan says the changing world is reflected in the background chatter. In the film, someone talks about Arundhati Roy and the idea that you could become a millionaire by writing books. In her original script for the musical, the ancillary chatter is about “racism Indians in America have towards blacks and how they think and talk about Muslims in their homes.” That bit did not make it to the current version on stage. Producers worried it was too sensitive.

That nervousness too can be seen a marker of the times.

As Nair says in an interview with Hollywood Reporter, the film was a “portrait of globalization” while the musical comes when “in the time of Trump, doors are literally closing between borders.” When the groom’s family invites the bride’s family to come to America, they wonder if they will be allowed in. “My apologies for America,” replies the groom.

The other thing that has changed dramatically in the last decade is the idea of America itself. Namit Das who plays Dubey in the musical says when he landed in New York City for the first time to rehearse for the musical, America did not “hit” him the way it struck his parents two decades ago when they visited the US for the first time. They brought back star-struck stories of a country with 24-hour electricity, huge departmental stores and fabulous chocolates.

India has come a long way since then.

In a way India’s upper-middle class affluence has made India “weirdly more homogeneous, closer to America” reflects Dhawan. “The Vermas (in Delhi) could easily be a suburban American family in so many ways.” Even going to America (or the American groom) does not have the same cachet it once did. “You don’t get extra marks because you come from America,” says Dhawan.

At Berkeley Rep, Jaaved Jaaferi (Lalit Verma) in the world premiere musical Monsoon Wedding, based on director Mira Nair’s 2001 film. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

America itself becomes more of a character in the 2017 musical than it was in the 2001 film. In 2001, the groom Hemant was an immigrant like Dhawan herself. Now she is more comfortable in her own skin in America. She’s raising her son there. The new Hemant is Indian-American, an ABCD type, the son of immigrants. “They are the Americans in the show and also embody the idea that being American does not mean looking white,” says Dhawan.

Socially, India has also changed a lot since 2001. In the film the great taboo was talking about sexual abuse in an upper middle class family. That’s still a taboo but not as much as it was back then. The gayness of the son, Varun, was just hinted at. Now it’s more matter of fact. While writing for the stage, Dhawan realised she would have to have Dubey and Alice talk in English because unlike a film, stage does not easily lend itself to subtitles. “Weirdly the fact that Dubey in 2017 speaks in English does not feel as much of an anomaly as it would have in the film,” says Dhawan. “There it would have sounded inauthentic.” This Dubey probably goes to malls, talks to waiters and might even read some Chetan Bhagat and Ravinder Singh.

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The ensemble cast of Monsoon Wedding. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

But still conveying all this nuance in a musical is tough. Vishal Bhardwaj did the score, Broadway veteran Susan Birkenhead did the lyrics. Das says he balked at first. “I had my issues with an Indian tune which is raag-based, which sounds so India and the lyrics were in English.” But he soon realized this is “ a very special project – an Indian story being told in an American form.” Dhawan agrees, saying, she spent her time reading Fiddler on the Roof to study the form, not watching Bollywood films.

It’s still a balancing act. Dhawan acknowledges anything desi-flavoured comes with the expectation that it will be “colourful and musical and also weirdly that it will be deep.” That’s why she’s written a gossipy loud Shashi-auntie into the show. “People assume I must be deep coming from this ancient civilization. You know I am Punjabi, my people can be shallow, they like gossip, they aren’t particularly deep,” she chuckles.

Yet a lavish musical with Broadway dreams cannot shrug off all expectations. Dhawan says she told herself “Don’t pander, don’t dumb it down too much.” However she concedes “certain amount of dumbing down has happened.” But she is optimistic that the packed houses, even for the preview runs, mean something, especially in these times when immigrant-bashing feels on the rise.

“It definitely feels more meaningful to put up a brown show now. In a way I didn’t think of it as a brown movie in 2001,” says Dhawan. “When Obama was president in a weird way it would have less meaning to go see it than it does now. Now it feels like some kind of way of pushing back.”

Or as the double-entendre of a song in the musical goes, the aunties are coming. Watch out.

Published Date: May 23, 2017 15:06 PM | Updated Date: May 23, 2017 15:13 PM