On ‘Monsoon Wedding: The Musical’ at St. Ann’s Warehouse
Mira Nair’s 2001 film “Monsoon Wedding” was an explosion of marigold and mirth, particularly for Western audiences. But mingling between those kaleidoscopic gyrating hips was an excoriation of an emergent Indian bourgeois culture ten years after neoliberal economic reforms had minted wealth — an India that was struggling to reconcile modern aspirations with traditions of caste, class, misogyny and matrimony. As newlyweds, my Hellenic wife and I reveled in the film’s near contemporaneous release with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” bookends to the multi-cultural life New York had so unconditionally bestowed upon us.
Nair’s current remake, now on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse as a largely English-lyric musical, brings all the marigold but little of the meaning. The decades-old script has been updated with references to Snapchat, TikTok and Zoom. An openly gay character has been introduced. The core story, of families and their sexual secrets, remains, as does the sparkling romance between a Christian housemaid and a low-caste Hindu wedding planner. Too little of Mychael Danna’s original soundtrack has survived — luckily the now classic “Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa” closes the show with an unbridled joy that much of the rest of the production lacks, save for a double-entendre number entitled “The Aunties are Coming” that yields the climax of the first act.
What troubles this New Yorker isn’t Nair’s spotty attempt to revive her own classic but her inability to update it not just for the technologies we use but for the times we inhabit. It is more than 20 years on, yet the revived production still imagines in its finale a wealthy Delhi family singing and dancing alongside a newly married, multi-faith, lower caste servant couple as if Narendra Modi had not all but extinguished the liberal secular India once promised by Nehru and Gandhi. It was this very update that I anticipated on the F-train riding to St. Ann’s, that miracle of a venue where years ago, “The Jungle” tore me emotionally limb from limb. I wanted to once again feel the brilliance Nair brought to “Mississippi Masala,” when Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington electrified the screen with race, sex and what it means to be an immigrant.
Watching Bollywood dance numbers emanating from Delhi is a bit like listening to hip hop emanating from Washington D.C. — both cities were designed from scratch with formal axes to impose power, not celebrate the arts.
Instead, I got Delhiwood. Unlike Bombay, now Mumbai, after which the term “Bollywood” was coined, or Calcutta, now Kolkata, India’s historic hotbed for the arts, New Delhi as the nation’s capital produces little by way of original culture. Beyond possessing the seat of power and some fine historical sites, its main claim to fame is as an epicenter of urban sexual violence compared to other cities around the world, including those throughout India. Watching Bollywood dance numbers emanating from Delhi is a bit like listening to hip hop emanating from Washington D.C. — both cities were designed from scratch with formal axes to impose power, not celebrate the arts.
But the overarching issue with Monsoon the Musical is less this particular production than the whole shuck-and-jive that Indian culture has come to serve up for both the West and its now increasingly culturally vapid self. Public Enemy in its relentless classic “Fight the Power,” sang “‘Don't Worry Be Happy’ was a number-one jam. Damn if I say it you can slap me right here” not because the band didn’t believe in happiness, and not because they, or I, want to be buzzkills, but because there has to be a point at which the culture we produce transcends a McCulture that simply satiates people’s lowest common denominator expectations.
Last year, the film “RRR” — loosely based on two anti-British revolutionaries who are depicted as a cross between the Avengers and the Rockettes — reached worldwide acclaim, grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and inspired a copycat dance number with Jimmy Kimmel at the Oscars, but never managed to mention that the depredations of the Raj included the death of over 35 million South Asians and the looting of some $45 trillion by some respected estimates. The musical never bothers with the fact that South Asia, when the Brits arrived on its shores, had the largest shipbuilding and textile industries in the world and controlled over a quarter of the world’s GDP. Nah, let’s just dance and pretend that the folks who own Downton Abbey earned it through Protestant work ethic and Anglican ingenuity. Jai ho!
Increasingly, it feels like we non-resident Indians — for whom New York and London, however gentrified, remain the multi-cultural havens we had hoped India would become — hold truer to the dreams of India’s secular democracy than those we left behind.
Perhaps the pinnacle, or nadir, of this concocted cultural voyeurism is the cringe-worthy Netflix debacle, “Indian Matchmaking,” which can only lead viewers to believe that the world’s soon-to-be most populous nation and its largest democracy centers its values on those of “The Bachelor.” Folks, I beg you, if you want to experience the real thing, watch the riveting Netflix drama “Delhi Crime,” starring the transcendent Shefali Shah (of OG “Monsoon Wedding” fame), immerse yourselves in the masterworks of Satyajit Ray, watch some more recent films like “The Lunchbox” or “The White Tiger,” or read from the fountain of literature overflowing from across South Asia and its often Gotham-based diaspora, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Suketu Mehta to Amitav Ghosh. Increasingly, it feels like we non-resident Indians — for whom New York and London, however gentrified, remain the multi-cultural havens we had hoped India would become — hold truer to the dreams of India’s secular democracy than those we left behind.
Or perhaps, just get in one of New York’s yellow cabs, where you will likely find a real South Asian from whom to learn, such as Sunny Singh, the taxi driver who recently schooled the camera-shy yet omnipresent estranged Royals, Harry and Megan. There are more than 300,000 of us in New York City. Doctors. Dancers. Newsstand owners. Even architects. Some of us love Bollywood, some of us loathe it. This author dances to Panjabi MC, sings to Roberta Flack, and enjoys biting into the occasional New York strip. Most of us, at one point or another, have experienced unspeakable racism, and yet we march on quietly, invisible in this nation that talks about race in largely black-and-white terms, despite the fact that it was the need to justify colonialism that necessitated the very idea of race and its hierarchies.
As immigrants in an immigrant city, the monsoon rages inside each of us, and the deluge is as sweet as it is slippery, leaving us in a liminal zone that puts us, in Nair’s telling, “neither here nor there,” except in New York City, where we must insist upon being everything, everywhere, all at once.