Monsoon Diaries

New characters and tunes and ‘constant singing’ in the ‘Monsoon Wedding’ musical version

Palomi Ghosh and Namit Das speak about their roles in the stage adaptation of the 2001 hit film.

In Mira Nair’s universally acclaimed Monsoon Wedding, an affluent Delhi family prepares for the daughter’s nuptials. The 2001 hit has been turned into an English-language stage musical with the same title. The muisical featuring an ensemble cast, including Namit Das (as PK Dubey) and Palomi Ghosh (as Vijaya/Naani). The production was premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California on May 19.

Composer-director Vishal Bhardwaj has been roped in to score the music with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Ghosh, whose breakout performance in the Konkani jazz musical feature Nachom-ia Kumpasar (2015), earned her praise and a special mention by jury members at the 62nd National Film Awards, joins the Monsoon Wedding cast with Das, who juggles between television, music, theatre and film. The two actors spoke to about how they got their parts, the rigourous acting workshops, and the vocal lessons that helped them prepare for their stage musical.

How did you land a role in the ‘Monsoon Wedding’ musical?
Ghosh: I was at the New York Indian Film Festival in 2016 where Nachom-ia Kumpasar was the opening film. Mira happened to watch the film and loved it. At the post-film Q&A, I was ecstatic when she asked festival organiser Aseem Chhabra to invite me on stage as she cheered on from the audience.

Later that night at the opening gala dinner, I was asked if I would sing a song from Nachom-ia Kumpasar along with the jazz band playing that evening. I readily agreed, of course. I think she liked the song since I saw her moving to it as she recorded it. When we finally spoke at length, Mira was so full of affection and very kind with her appreciation. She mentioned Monsoon Wedding the musical and I told her I had recently tested for it in India with casting director Nandini Shrikent. She asked me to meet her and our producer Margo Lion the next day. That is how it began. It was unexpected and absolutely surreal.

Das: Some five years ago, a friend and me were casually discussing how Monsoon Wedding, the film, was soon going to turned into a musical. My friend said that I would be great for the role of Dubeyji [played by Vijay Raaz in the film]. In 2016, I got a call from Nandini Shrikent asking if I could audition for the part. I did and Mira Nair liked it. It felt like the universe was telling me something.

Namit Das as Dubey in the Monsoon Wedding musical.
Namit Das as Dubey in the Monsoon Wedding musical.

What is your role in the musical?
Ghosh: The entire cast slides in and out of multiple roles, including myself. It is exciting to switch between some of these characters that are decades apart in age. For instance, one of the roles I play is of an 86-year-old granny with a wacky yet wise view of the world through her “soda-bottle” glasses. She is all about revelations of love and the stock market.

How is the play different from the movie?
Ghosh: Its basic premise is the same. Yet it is different. Songs in the film were part of the story, while songs in the play are the story. A shift in medium changes a lot both in terms of new possibilities and constraints.

The biggest difference to me is of the process itself. A stage musical must tightly knit all its layers together simultaneously. There are no re-arrangements on the edit table. This means constant flux and a readiness to adapt to change for actors, creative and technical teams alike. Which is awe-inspiring at the same time. Its stage craft is like nothing one has experienced before. Music, choreography, and blocking are constantly finessed to hit the sweet spot that we hope leaves audiences happy.

Das: It is very different. It’s in the English language. Musicals are a three-way attack, you have to be a dancer, a singer, and an actor. The process becomes very different and in the workshop Mira had an amazing process of finding the character through me once again. She had a version, and through my entry, we formed the character through an improvised style.

Has Vishal Bhardwaj replaced all the songs from the film?
Ghosh: The play retains key musical themes from the film. However, since the story is told through music, there are mesmerising new songs that are the soul of the musical. For those like me who fall in the percentage of population that experiences musical chills, there are some hair raising-moments within these songs by Vishal Bhardwaj. He is a magician. It is thrilling to be singing his compositions live. He teams up with Susan Birkenhead, who could easily be mistaken as being Indian for how the ethos of a great Punjabi wedding shines through in her lyrics. And Lorin Latarro’s choreography gives the songs such life, it feels delightful to be performing them.

Palomi Ghosh (right) with director Mira Nair.
Palomi Ghosh (right) with director Mira Nair.

Could you describe the songs you are singing?
Ghosh: Yes. There is constant singing. My favourite song is set within a memory of the Partition. As Naani (grandmother), I re-live moments of this batwara when the love of my life was torn away from me for being a Muslim boy. The song sets an example for the grandson as a way forward at a crucial juncture in his life where he must ensure love transcends boundaries of religion, something his Naani’s love could not achieve. The song is testimony of Naani’s liberated ideals ironically earned through loss of freedom and love. It is a new strand in the story as it did not feature in the film.

Das: There is one song composed in the raag Bhopali called Neither Here Nor There, a beautiful composition that I found tough and challenging to sing as the rhythm was quite tricky. I have a lot of duets with my co-actors, all of which are very competent. I had to go through a lot of workshops for singing. I have a background in Indian classical music but it is not what they look for in Western music. Indian classical form allows a lot of improvisations but here the accent is more on accuracy. You cannot go off the music bars and notations, musicians will not save you, there is an orchestra playing, your cues are sharper and you have to keep looking at the music conductor and follow the rhythm.

When is the musical coming to India?
Das: The musical version is a stunning and beautiful production which will hopefully soon be seen on Broadway next year. Mira wants the musical to become a phenomenon. She is planning a UK version, she wants an Indian version, in Hindi, which of course will be very different from the American version that we are currently performing. She wants it to become a bigger story than what it already is. No dates have been decided for now.

The cast of the Monsoon Wedding musical.
The cast of the Monsoon Wedding musical.
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