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When It Rains, It Pours: ‘Monsoon Wedding’ Delivers on High Hopes

Mira Nair’s stage adaptation of the 2001 Bollywood film gets raves at Berkeley Rep. 

 

By the time the lead actors had taken their final curtain-call bows Friday night at Berkeley Rep, Mira Nair, the esteemed film director of Mississippi Masala, Salaam Bombay! and, of course, the 2001 hit Monsoon Wedding, was up off her seat, dancing in the aisles to the sound of the live dhol drumming coming from onstage. The audience, many bedecked in bright Indian sherwanis and sarees, clapped and danced right along with her. I believe every single person in attendance was smiling.

It was a fitting conclusion to the world premiere of Nair’s stage adaptation of Monsoon Wedding, which felt at least for one night like a triumphant celebration. In many ways, that’s precisely what it was: During her closing remarks, Nair reminisced on what a long time coming this production has been—her agent had been suggesting a stage adaptation since shortly after the film’s opening at Venice in 2001, and plans for a Broadway run have been discussed going back at least five years.

Beyond that, Friday’s opening had the feel of an Indian-American coming-out party. In the Bay Area—and particularly the South Bay—South Asians make up the largest percent of the total population of any metropolis in the country. Friday night’s crowd reflected that: I couldn’t help but notice many in the audience chuckle at a few jokes that flew over my head. Onstage, 18 of the 20 principal actors were South Asian—the result of Nair and her team’s scouring the globe for multitalented Indian and Indian-American singers, dancers, and actors. (Evidence of how far afield that search was conducted: None of the principal actors had ever appeared at Berkeley Rep before.) 

Palomi Ghosh as Naani and Namit Das as PK Dubey.

That, of course, points to what we might call the Great Desi Hope for the almost-certainly Broadway-bound Monsoon Wedding: that it can do for South Asians what recent shows like Hamilton, The Color Purple, and On Your Feet have done for black and Latino actors and audiences on Broadway. And while those productions, especially Hamilton, have done wonders for diversifying the upper reaches of live theater in this country, Asian-American, and particularly South Asian, actors are still a relatively rare sight in title roles. Earlier this spring, understudy Shoba Narayan filled in as Natasha in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—and in the process became the first South Asian on Broadway since Bombay Dreams closed in 2004, and the only one onstage currently. 

The stakes then, for Monsoon Wedding are already high—and the excitement for it has been reflected in ticket sales—Berkeley Rep announced that its first two weeks of previews had sold out, and that the show is being extended for eight more performances, now through July 2, after which it’s expected to make the leap to Broadway

None of that would matter, however, if the show were a stinker, which, thankfully, it isn’t. Monsoon Wedding takes place in the several days leading up to an enormous arranged Punjabi wedding between the daughter of an upper-class father and an Indian-American living in New Jersey. Under the (literal) canopy of the wedding, there are also several subplots playing out: A working-class wedding planner falls in love with the maid; Ria, a cousin, confronts an abusive uncle; Pimmi, the reluctant bride, reveals an affair with a married boss at work; the Indian and American families bicker over expenses. 

Throughout, the unifying theme is one of bridging cultural divides: In one of the most striking song and dance numbers (and one that wasn’t in the film version), the grandmother of Namit, the love-stricken wedding planner, scolds her grandson for demanding his would-be bride convert from Christianity to Hinduism by recalling how the 1947 British-mandated partition between Pakistan and India quashed her romance with a Muslim boy. 

Other divides are similarly studied: Between the ultra-rich Verma family, who trade Gucci and Hermes gifts, and their destitute domestic staff; between the native-born and the diaspora; between traditional Indian custom and modern practice; between branches of a family in crisis.

The stage version of the play has also made a few socio-political updates on the 2001 version: The audience had a hoot when Lalit, the family’s patriarch, is invited to visit his new in-laws in the States. “Will they even let us in?” he asks, pausing for a beat as the crowd erupts.

Without question, and unsurprisingly, Monsoon Wedding’s greatest moments come in song. (Music for the show was written by Vishal Bhardwaj, with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.) My favorite was “Goddess of the Light,” a duet between PK Dubey (played by Namit Das, a veteran Indian TV actor) and Alice (Anisha Nagarajan), a seductive and dreamlike candlelit interlude between otherwise raucous and celebratory numbers.

Not everything here is pure gold, and there are a few numbers that drag a bit. Keeping track of the characters and plot points can get a little thick, too, especially for a non-Indian viewer unfamiliar with some desi familial terms (auntee, for instance, refers to any older woman friend of the family, meaning there are a good half-dozen auntees onstage at most times). Then again, no wedding goes off perfectly, yet they’re almost always a good time. And though I might expect a few tweaks between this run and wherever the show winds up next, Monsoon Wedding ultimately passes the most crucial test of any Indian wedding: It’s heavy on the masti—the Hindu word for “indubitable fun.”

Evidence? As my wife and I strode out of the theater and toward BART comparing notes, I couldn’t help but notice I’d kept right on humming that dhol drum beat the whole time.

 

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