How Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ became a musical

Salena Qureshi (center) with Sharayu Mahale, Devina Sabnis, Manik Singh Anand, Savidu Geevaratne, Rhea Yadav and Kinshuk Sen in “Monsoon Wedding” at St. Ann’s Warehouse. MUST CREDIT: Matthew Murphy

BROOKLYN – The 2001 film “Monsoon Wedding” was still running in theaters months after its release when acclaimed Indian-born director Mira Nair began to imagine it as a Broadway musical.

In many ways it was a perfect fit: The film, the story of a lavish family wedding in Delhi, had infectious music and dance, vibrant costumes, and a classic love story.

Nair had conceived “Monsoon Wedding” as a low-budget attempt to capture the raucous joy of the Punjabi weddings she experienced as a child growing up in India, and audiences around the world responded in kind. The film eventually won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and remains one of the most successful Indian films ever in overseas markets.

Namit Das (center) with Jamen Nanthakumar, Bhaskar Jha and Savidu Geevaratne in “Monsoon Wedding” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through June 25. MUST CREDIT: Matthew Murphy

But the transition from screen to stage has not been easy for “Monsoon Wedding: The Musical,” which had its New York-area premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn this month.

With pandemic delays, the loss of one of its Tony-winning producers to a brain aneurysm and other roadblocks, “it has been a long journey,” Nair said in an interview.

Along the way, Nair and her writing partners have revised the musical to reflect changing times – expanding themes of the dislocation of the global diaspora, inequities between rich and poor, and female empowerment in the #MeToo era.

But at its heart the tale still centers on the upper-class Verma family and the arranged marriage of their daughter, Aditi, to Hemant, an Indian American from New Jersey – a meditation on love and a universal story that speaks to the “‘other’ in all of us,” as Nair puts it.

Nair said she hopes the audience will respond to the musical as moviegoers did two decades ago, which is to “recognize in this family – which happens to be a Punjabi Delhi family – your own family and your own people and what is important, which is to embrace life with big arms and live in that fullest way.”

The show opens a few days before the arranged marriage of the Vermas’ daughter, Aditi (Salena Qureshi), to American tech worker Hemant (Deven Kolluri) as family members from around the world return home to Delhi for the festivities.

The family patriarch Lalit (Gagan Dev Riar) is running out of money to pay for the lavish affair, the wedding planner is falling in love with the maid, and more than one family member is hiding a dark secret.

Qureshi, 26, who met Nair when the director cast her in the Disney Plus series “National Treasure: Edge of History,” said she was drawn to the musical because of the way it reflected the internal conflicts of the Indian diaspora and her own immigrant experience.

She grew up in Columbus, N.J. – a “predominantly White town” where many residents had racist attitudes – downplaying her South Asian identity after classmates and others abused her, ridiculing everything from the food she ate to the color of her skin.

“One of the most horrible moments was just being on the playground and being called a terrorist. It made me feel that I had to shrink and hide,” Qureshi said. “Now to be put into this new family celebration and be loved for who I really am fills a hole in my heart – and is also the heart of the show in my opinion.”

Nair, now 65, had already directed an Oscar-nominated film when she conceived the idea for “Monsoon Wedding” in 1999, which she envisioned as a “reality check” on over-the-top Bollywood wedding sagas. She filmed it in just 30 days in Delhi for around $1 million, using a friend’s modernist house for a set and enlisting family members and her neighbors as actors. Her mother did the catering.

Nair teamed with New York University screenwriting professor Sabrina Dhawan, then a film student, to develop the project, which was inspired partly by Dhawan’s desire to write a story about sexual abuse in India’s upper middle class based on her own experience. Friends and the film’s investors were skeptical of including what was then such a taboo subject in an otherwise lighthearted wedding film, Dhawan said.

Sargam Ipshita Bali (center) with Miriam A. Laube, Salena Qureshi and Meetu Chilana in “Monsoon Wedding” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. MUST CREDIT: Matthew Murphy

“The [financier] was concerned that it was hard to end happily with a disclosure of sexual abuse,” Dhawan recalled. But, “Mira said, ‘be truthful.'”

They were inundated with other survivor stories once the movie became a global hit.

“I had no idea how cathartic the movie would become,” Nair recalled. “It was unbelievable, like the prison of silence was now shattered.

“Now it’s very timely,” she continued. “It’s interesting to be opening the musical in this moment when people are absolutely aware and refusing to be cowed down by silence. But for us it was an old door that had to be broken.”

After the movie’s crossover success, Nair, at the suggestion of her longtime agent, began pondering the film as a possible musical. She teamed with Broadway producers Stephen and Ruth Hendel (of “Fela!” fame) and tapped well-known Bollywood composer and director Vishal Bhardwaj to create the songs, combining the traditional ragas of Indian classical music, sitar and tabla with the pulse of pop.

An earlier version of the musical that premiered in 2017 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre was a commercial success but received mixed reviews, with a critic from Variety writing that the show “will require considerable fine-tuning before facing tougher NYC audiences, let alone critics.”

Workshops continued, and a later version planned for London in 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic. The musical was performed in November in Doha as part of the cultural activities during the FIFA World Cup.

Associate director Arpita Mukherjee, an Indian immigrant who grew up in Chantilly, Va., said that she, Nair and others have worked in recent years to expand the women’s roles in the book as the #MeToo movement convulsed America.

They expanded the roles of the wife of the abuser and the housemaid, and female cast members join in a previously all-male number where the male wedding guests tie their turbans in advance of the big ceremony.

“There was really much more of a concerted focus on all female characters,” Mukherjee said. “I think people will be surprised by how women respond to the sexual abuse storyline. They have much more of a voice in this stage musical.”

“Monsoon Wedding: The Musical” eventually made it to St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater in an old tobacco warehouse near the Brooklyn Bridge. Nair has long seen St. Ann’s, with its focus on international companies and emerging artists, as a “temple of inspiration” for her own work, she said.

The venue announced on April 28 that the show would be extended for another three weeks, until June 25, due to high demand for tickets.

Now the plan – or the dream – is that “Monsoon Wedding” will head to Broadway later this year or early next, although nothing has been finalized.

“We will have to see how it plays out,” said Nair. “There’s a lot of interest in making the transfer.”

In the meantime, the show’s producers hope that the company of South Asian actors and this show inspired by traditional Indian music and dance will create an immersive experience for theatergoers, making them feel as if they were actually wedding guests.

Audience members entering St. Ann’s urban garden foyer before the show will be serenaded by a brass band – a ubiquitous feature of Indian weddings – and see the finale through a shimmering curtain of monsoon rain.

Nair hopes the audience will walk away with a sense of the intoxication of life, “a feeling you have lived and you have felt and you have sung and you have danced – and also I hope with some level of catharsis.”

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“Monsoon Wedding,” music by Vishal Bhardwaj, book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan, lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead. Conceived and directed by Mira Nair. Through June 25 at St. Ann’s Warehouse. stannswarehouse.



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