“In India, there is so much religious strife,” Ms. Dhawan said in a recent interview. But that’s not the whole explanation for the new sequence: She and Ms. Nair said they were looking for a way to theatricalize a minor rift that troubles the film’s secondary romance between a beleaguered wedding planner, Dubey, and a maid, Alice.
Credit Joel Dockendorf/Berkeley Repertory Theater
In the film, the two lovers have a falling out over a class-based misunderstanding, but in the musical the authors make the dispute devotional: She’s Catholic, he’s Hindu. The batwara dream ballet arises when Dubey’s grandmother invokes India’s great sectarian split as a way to warn her grandson against such division.
How does this thorny episode fit into an ebullient musical about an American-Indian arranged marriage? The “Monsoon Wedding” film faced a similar quandary.
Ms. Nair said she intended her film to be a “reality check” on such Bollywood trifles as the popular “Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (What Am I to You?)” Inspired by those films’ populist appeal, and by the gritty, less-is-more Dogme 95 approach, she shot “Monsoon Wedding” in 30 days for about $1 million, mostly at a friend’s home in Delhi.
But Ms. Dhawan, who was a young film student at Columbia University when she wrote the screenplay, her first, remembers it a little differently. “I wanted to write a movie about sexual abuse in an upper-middle-class family,” she said, “and Mira wanted to do a fun wedding film. We thought, well, maybe we can put those two together somehow.”
The film’s abuse subplot, based on Ms. Dhawan’s own experience with an older relative, isn’t the only conflict she revisited in writing the stage version. The concept of arranged marriage — a practice both she and Ms. Nair have personally avoided — also presented a new chance for revision.
“I’ve been part of the diaspora for 20 years,” said Ms. Dhawan, who was raised in Delhi but has lived in New York City since college, “so I’m much more interested in the immigrant experience.”
Credit USA Films
That’s why she has changed the film’s Hemant, an American groom traveling to India to meet Aditi, his arranged bride, from a first- to a second-generation Indian-American for the stage version.
If “Monsoon Wedding” the film aimed to offer a more realistic version of a Bollywood fantasy, the stage musical returns the material to a heightened realm. As Ms. Nair pointed out, it is a natural fit for musical theater — the story “has music in its bones,” she effused — but she has at her side collaborators, including Ms. Dhawan, who are unlikely to turn it into a frothy confection.
The musical’s composer, Vishal Bhardwaj, is an accomplished film director in his own right, part of a generation of Indian filmmakers who have rethought some Bollywood conventions.
“What used to happen in Bollywood is, when the song came, the narrative stopped,” Mr. Bhardwaj said. “But filmmakers of my age, we started experimenting with having the story and narrative not stop but move forward through the songs. That’s what happens on Broadway, so that helped me.”
Mr. Bhardwaj has been writing songs with the lyricist Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”) in a long gestation process with Ms. Nair and Ms. Dhawan that goes back to 2006, when the far-flung collaborators began work on the musical.
The show’s choreographer, Lorin Latarro (“Waitress”), said she’s drawing from old-school Bollywood films, as well as from her own study of traditional Bharatanatyam and Kathakali dance forms, for “Monsoon Wedding.”
But her biggest asset might be the triple-threat Indian cast members. “They all grow up dancing,” Ms. Latarro marveled. And not just dancing: “On breaks, our cast breaks into song. When we need a transition, someone just starts singing something, and we’re like, ‘There it is.’”
Much of the “Monsoon Wedding” story has been similarly serendipitous. The film’s success both in the United States and India came as a pleasant surprise to its makers. And Ms. Nair acknowledged that the notion of turning it into a musical didn’t originate with her.
“It was Sam Cohn’s idea,” she said. Mr. Cohn, a powerful I.C.M. agent, had offices across the street from the Paris Theater on the Upper West Side, where the film ran for months, and he made a habit of dropping in on it several times a week. “He told me he regarded ‘Monsoon Wedding’ as an antidepressant; he said it saved him a lot of treatments. And one day as he was hanging up my coat at the Cafe Luxembourg, I’ll never forget it, he said, ‘Mira, you really should think about making “Monsoon Wedding” a musical.’ And it was like bing! A penny dropped.”
Though it’s her first work on the stage since her collegiate days working with Badal Sarkar, a radical Bengali street-theater director in Kolkata, Ms. Nair has taken to the new medium with gusto. She is one of four producers on the show, along with Margo Lion (“Hairspray”) and Stephen and Ruth Hendel (“Fela!”).
With a staging that aims to put the audience inside the building of a traditional Punjabi wedding tent, this “Monsoon Wedding” represents a return to Ms. Nair’s roots in another way. Born in the state of Odisha in India, where the local cinema had limited offerings, the first dramatic narratives she saw weren’t onscreen at all.
“When I was around 13 or 14, the mythological theater would come through town — the Jatra, which means literally traveling theater,” Ms. Nair recalled. “It was bare props, a set of stairs in a school field. Whole tales from our ancient books, from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, would be told with just three actors. It was this form that really enthralled me — the fact that you could take people into an amazing story with nothing except the words and the performance.”
It’s a long way from that bare field to a Broadway-aimed musical, let alone Hollywood filmmaking. But “Monsoon Wedding” takes up one of Ms. Nair’s pet themes: continuity in the face of rupture. As she put it, “It’s really about the unbroken line of family, and the rock and roll that happens within that.”