‘Monsoon Wedding’ is a hit film, but not a great musical
The Daily Beast
May 22, 2023
“Monsoon Wedding” the musical features a central couple you don’t care much about, and an intense abuse storyline that almost overshadows its big song-and-dance ending.
What strange weather the musical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding (St Ann’s Warehouse, through June 25) is. On one level it is an unsurprisingly faithful adaptation of Mira Nair’s acclaimed and award-laden 2001 movie about families gathering for an arranged marriage in Delhi, India, with various personal and culture clashes attached; Nair has conceived and directed this production, with a book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan (who wrote the screenplay) and music by Vishal Bhardwaj.
Some of the key revisions have reportedly been around elevating female voices, particularly around a harrowing storyline of child molestation. “We’ve made a concerted effort to have the women question the patriarchy and speak up,” Nair told The New York Times. “Other characters who are afflicted by this don’t shove it under the rug; they make decisions in their own lives that reflect that they will not accept this behavior, which we didn’t have before.”
But the issue isn’t the voices and what they say (in fact the plot mechanics in that storyline still ultimately defer to a key male voice and patriarchal power); it is that the storyline itself feels so bizarrely tacked on to a musical otherwise lightly focused on romance and the craziness of organizing a flash set of nuptials.
The abuse storyline is an intense, well-acted gut-punch. With some dashes of prior signposting, it fully flashes into life near the end, inevitably capsizing everything around it and is then strangely resolved (read: not really resolved), and then shunted aside in a dash for a colorful, music and dance-filled happy ending.
The musical—with excellent costumes by Arjun Bhasin—begins promisingly. At first it seems Aditi Verma (Salena Qureshi), proud of her shopping and shallowness, will not be easily wed to her intended, Hemant Rai (Deven Kolluri), her Indian-American beau. Qureshi emanates a bracing spikiness in the opening scenes, which sadly is all-too-soon planed off for scenes of moony, repetitive angsting.
Hemant seems nice, and really that’s about all one can say. While his mom Saroj (Meetu Chilana) is a snob, Hemant is gentler and more open to what is being planned for him. Sadly, on stage he and Aditi have zero chemistry; so much of the musical is about them, yet it is hard to care about them, other than they seem like pleasant characters who you want things to work out for. The musical does not sell their compatibility or a sexual or romantic spark; they, and we, seem to be being cajoled into being convinced they should go through with the ceremony because it could work, they might like each other.
The families mingle and bustle, but—without camera close-ups and cuts—it all feels stiff and belabored on stage. There is no sense of high-stakes, or even low-stakes for Aditi, Hemant, or their families; no narrative grist around them making this decision for a set of truly convincing reasons, or asking what they really want. Theirs is a woefully under-conceived central relationship to base a musical around. When they sing the duet “Could You Have Loved Me” it rings not just implausible but pointless; they never seemed that into each other. There is no yearning or mystery or intrigue. They seem pretty dullsville as a couple.
A secondary romance, comprising broader comedy and general ebullience, occurs between wedding planner PK Dubey (Namit Das) and the Vermas’ maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan). This has a few sparky numbers attached to it, including one set to a harum-scarum train ride and horse pursuit, using the best of David Bengali’s on-stage projections. The song, “Aunties Are Coming,” featuring all the female characters, is another audience-pleaser, until the male characters annoyingly enter, and cut it dead.
Another puzzle is what the musical isn’t saying about the Vermas’ son Varun (Kinshuk Sen). It makes a big enough deal about his effeminacy, and his father Lalit (Gagan Dev Riar) grumbling he doesn’t want a son “like this” to imply that he is gay, but doesn’t say that. The story has him flouncing around, and occasionally angry at how he is treated, but he is not given the words to express who or what he is.
Why, in 2023, in a musical set in India—where consensual intercourse between adults of the same sex was only decriminalized in 2018, and where a Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage is presently pending—is a probably-gay character being as cagily written as this? If there was a reconsideration and rewriting of female roles, why not of Varun too? He is beached between figure of campy fun, and the misty narrative territory of what-is-going-on-with-that-surely-gay-character-on-stage?
The “tapestry of music” that Nair writes about in the program—combining many genres of Indian music—is well orchestrated (by Jamshied Sharifi and Rona Siddiqui) and played by a band conducted by Emily Whitaker.
The most engaging comedy in the show comes simply from watching a large family being a family. This warmth and closeness mean that it is a genuinely powerful moment when Ria (the excellent Sharvari Deshpande) confronts Tej Puri (Alok Tewari), Lalit’s brother-in-law, about his abuse of her, her painful memories stirred by his promise to fund her studies in New York City, and watching him begin his sinister grooming routine on another young female relative, Aliya (Rhea Yadav)—and then to watch its after-effects ripple into the family.
But it is such a huge story, why is not threaded throughout the musical? What about the drama around family members’ initial denial of what has occurred, and what that might mean to Ria? And why is Tej’s banishment from the family—as conducted by another man, head-of-the-household Lalit—seen as punishment enough for such a heinous crime?
A blink later, Monsoon Wedding pretzel-twists itself to an upbeat ending; a simulated rain shower drenches the stage, and there is wonderful music and stage-filling dancing by the cast (Shampa Gopikrishna’s choreography is an energetic, visual treat throughout). But does it map easily from what we have just witnessed? No. Ria’s pain, and her determination to craft her own life, deserve much more of our time. Her story and presence were—for this audience member—much more interesting than the coupling of Aditi and Hemant. Indeed, many characters—the underwritten parents especially—could bloom in the empty spaces of this musical. Oddly, the wedding in Monsoon Wedding is the least interesting thing about it.