BERKELEY, Calif. – The much-anticipated stage arrival of Indian American director Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding,” based on her 2001 film, delivered a lavish, full-throttle evening at its world premiere here May 19 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
The full-capacity crowd was treated to a night of elaborate dance and song, combined with extravagant staging and costumes. Despite elements of darkness in several plotlines, the play remained exuberant throughout, with songs featuring frothy lyrics by Susan Birkenhead set to the music of Vishal Bhardwaj.
In a conversation with India-West in San Francisco last February, as she was casting the role of young Aliya, Nair said: “Fifteen years ago, ‘Monsoon Wedding’ captured an India in its first stages of globalization. Now, India is full of wealth and depravity. This is a polarizing moment for India and the world, and this play reflects that moment.”
Nair’s attempt to contemporize the story – based on a book by Sabrina Dhawan – was most evident in the song, “Aunties Come,” in which a gaggle of middle-aged women revealed their still-in-full-bloom sexuality. Another nod to contemporary India was the openly-gay son Varun – played by Rohan Gupta – who added many light-hearted moments to darker scenes.
“Monsoon Wedding” is the story of the boisterous Verma family, whose oldest daughter Aditi – played with charming coquettishness by Kuhoo Verma – is about to marry NRI Hemant Rai, played by Michael Maliakel. The stereotypical one-upmanship of family weddings was unerringly captured by Nair in the stage production, as the Rais and the Vermas passive-aggressively battle over which family has given the most to the wedding couple.
Veteran Bollywood actor Jaaved Jaaferi held court as the scion of the Verma family – Lalit – shouting out his increasingly-extravagant wedding preparations to the harried and overpromising wedding planner, P.K. Dubey, played by Namit Das. Lalit must also confront his values and affinities in a dark story line in which Uncle Tej – Alok Tewari – is accused of being a child molester.
Tej’s molestation of his niece, Ria – played by Sharvari Deshpande – was harrowingly explored in the film version of “Monsoon Wedding,” but skimmed over in the onstage production, an important issue often unspoken of in Indian families.
One of the most touching story lines of the play was Dubey’s courtship of housemaid Alice – played by Anisha Nagarajan. The wedding planner’s proposal to his beloved set another chain of events in motion, when she refused to convert to Hinduism.
In another nod to modern India, Dubey’s grandmother – played by Palomi Ghosh – gave the wedding planner a metaphoric slap, as she encouraged the young man to follow his heart in a song in which she told the story of losing her beloved during Partition.
Throughout the play, Dubey’s contemporary Naani amusingly used her cell phone to wield stock tips, encouraging her grandson to sell Apple and buy Ali Baba.
In one of the best stagings of the production, travelers sat on blocks and rocked back and forth, depicting the movements of a train, as they ate their rotis and read their newspapers. Dubey rode up alongside the train, on another block of wood, to give his heart to Alice.
Aditi and Hemant’s romance also wielded complexities: the young woman has a secret – a married boyfriend – that she believes she must reveal to her groom before marriage.
“The bride is dreaming in India of becoming an American wife. The groom is thinking he’s going to get a good Indian girl,” Nair told India-West, noting that the play explores the question of transnationality, as Hemant ponders the dilemma that many Indian Americans face: of being perceived as an Indian in the U.S., and as an American in India.
“Monsoon Wedding” will run at Berkeley Rep through July 2. It is then expected to open in New York this October.
“I love the Zen of theater, the complete and overt preparation. The ephemeral moments of theater are quite antithetical to movies, which are several months of work,” said Nair.