Review: Soggy Film-to-Stage ‘Monsoon Wedding: The Musical’

Director Mira Nair turns her own layered 2001 film into a sitcom that transitions awkwardly into musical numbers. 

Sharvari Deshpande, Gagan Dev Riar, and the ‘Monsoon Wedding’ ensemble. Matthew Murphy

Monsoon Wedding | 2hr 35mins. One intermission. | St. Ann’s Warehouse | 45 Water Street | 718-254-8779

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In the Hindu faith, Shiva is known as creator and destroyer. Director Mira Nair’s clumsy stage translation of her hit movie Monsoon Wedding may not demolish the property, but she gives the many-armed deity a run for his money. On disc or streaming we’ll always have the splendid film to savor, but its maker does the material no favors cramming it into musical form.

A disclaimer: I won’t try to honestly judge the authenticity of Monsoon Wedding: The Musical as a portrait of contemporary Indian society and traditions. Still, cultural competency runs both ways. Has Nair directed a cohesive, Western-style musical? Or a delirious Bollywood-style spectacle? A powerful family drama? An exciting hybrid? None of the above.

My disappointment is sincere. Twenty-two years ago I was utterly charmed by the movie, which revolves around the shaky nuptials between a restless, middle-class Punjabi daughter and her arranged groom, an Indian banker raised in America. The girl’s no innocent; she’s having an affair with a married man. And the boy, while charmed by tradition, is no cardboard patriarch. The film is populated with a couple dozen contentious family members, a blustery event planner, and the demure family servant with whom he falls in love. Sabrina Dhawan’s screenplay layers romantic comedy, third-wave feminism, assimilation anxiety, and a sexual-abuse shocker all in one hectic chronicle of several days in rainy Delhi. Such a pileup of subplots and revelations could have flattened into soap opera, but Nair’s cool, documentary-like camera and an attractive, talented cast bring out the shared humanity in the jostling genres. The film was a crossover success, a wise and sensual cinematic dance.

Which makes the cheap parts and awkward assembly of the musical all the more painful to witness. It may be perfectly obvious that this story “sings”—but how, exactly? Vishal Bhardwaj is an accomplished soundtrack composer who blends traditional Indian forms (such as raag, khayal, and thumri) with easy-on-the-ears synth pop. But the music he writes for sitar, percussion, brass and Western instruments—a theoretically delightful mix—comes across as so much sonic wallpaper rather than character-specific tunes. 

Namit Das (center) with Savidu Geevaratne, Jamen Nanthakumar, and Bhaskar Jha in ‘Monsoon Wedding.’ Matthew Murphy

The generic quality of the music is compounded by earnestly dull lyrics full of lazy rhymes. When the servant Alice (Anisha Nagarajan, adorably hangdog) learns that her Christianity is a problem for Dubey (Namit Das), she laments, “So I am not a Hindu / Why does it matter to you?” The arranged fiancés Aditi (Salena Quereshi) and Hemant (Deven Kolluri) muse on what life in America would be like if they actually did marry. She: “If I missed home, you’d buy / samosas, bring me chai.” He: “I’d love you more each day / if this were not goodbye.” Frequent Hindi phrases lend the score a whimsical vibe, but straining to understand what’s being sung while not really caring about the song itself makes you wish Nair had conceived of a drama that incidentally drifted into song, like the film.

Dhawan and book co-writer Arpita Mukherjee have slimmed down the screenplay by eliminating a few characters, but for some reason they turn Aditi from a complex and pro-sex young woman into a spoiled, materialist brat. Lalit, spending more money than he has on the wedding, and trying to maintain order in a fracturing household, barely rises above exasperated suburban dad clichés. Indian characters from America are harshly caricatured as shallow snobs. Alice and Dubey’s below-stairs romance survives with some charm intact. But generally, Mair presides over a sitcom that transitions (awkwardly) into musical numbers. 

So what’s to love? Costumes you want to eat. Arjun Bhasin swaddles the ensemble in every conceivable hue: tangy lime greens, mouthwatering marigold and cherry reds, honey yellow, plum, pink and blueberry. During the final jubilant scene—the wedding (this is a comedy, after all)—luscious red and orange cloths drop from the flies and billow benediction on the dancers below. The drapery kisses your eyeballs with waves of chromatic joy. And, yes, it rains. You leave some musicals whistling your favorite tune. Others you exit humming the scenery. After Monsoon Wedding, all I can buzz about is the color palette. 

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Review: Soggy Film-to-Stage ‘Monsoon Wedding: The Musical’