May 4, 2017

'Monsoon' Overflow

Vishal Bhardwaj.
One of the joys of reporting on the upcoming Monsoon Wedding musical, apart from the chance to chat over chai with one of my idols, director Mira Nair, was that everyone involved could have been the subject of their own feature, not only Nair herself or writer Sabrina Dhawan but also Namit Das, the actor who plays Dubey, who comes from a family of classical musicians and is best known in India as the star of its version of "Everybody Loves Raymond" ("Sumit Sambhal Lega") or Palomi Ghosh, who was the star of a film about Goa's answer to Edith Piaf (Lorna Cordeiro). I could go on, seriously, this cast and company are an embarrassment of riches.

Possibly my favorite under-explored subject was Vishal Bhardwaj, the show's composer, who I learned is a major Indian filmmaker in his own right, known for his musical adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. I was intrigued to learn that he started as a composer but became a film director for the same reason many screenwriters say they do: because they crave more direct creative input. As Vishal put it to me, he realized at a young age, "If I want to express my kind of music, I need to become a filmmaker." This is at least partly because, as he also pointed out, Indian popular music is Bollywood music, and vice versa.

He also told me that when he writes songs for the musical, he likes to go for a walk or have tea with the lyricist, Susan Birkenhead, and he makes sure to compose with the whole tune before he ever sits down at an instrument. (I told him this was Cole Porter's method too, minus the lyricist.) But by far the favorite quote from anyone I couldn't use in my story was this:
Before I became a composer, when I was in college, what I used to do before my exams was, when I had to remember four pages of an answer, I would compose a paragraph, so the melody could remind me of the lines I had to remember. That’s how I started to enjoy my studies. Now, today, if you give me the front page of The New York Times, I will musicalize it.