Revisiting Mira Nair’s 'Monsoon Wedding' 20 Years On
Mira Nair's 'Monsoon Wedding' completes 20 years.
The opening credits of Monsoon Wedding, abounding with bursting bright shades of orange, red, and blue, follow an unbroken doodling trail through each name and frame, as if it were a family tree, inviting us to a big fat Indian wedding.
2001 was a pathbreaking year for Hindi cinema. It gave us Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Gadar, and the mother of all family flicks—the highest-grossing film of the year—Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. But summoning a silent revolution was Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding—a film so unabashedly desi among the otherwise glaring NRI fixation in Bollywood at the time. It was a 360-degree spin from the family dramas that we had known so far. The Indian audience had already found comfort in Suraj Barjatya’s consortium of weddings and bonds of blood and family. Monsoon Wedding embraces all of it—the sudden breaking into a dance, a constantly worried father-of-the-bride, an entire village of relatives—and places at the heart of celebration an uncomfortable truth that makes our guts churn.
Monsoon Wedding was the recipient of Venice Film Festival’s highest award, the Golden Lion—the second Indian movie to have won this accolade after Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito in 1957. It also won the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film.
Nair's portrait of a modern, upper-middle-class dysfunctional family in Delhi is not your typical wedding story. It takes you in while allowing you to be an outsider when necessary. All the characters are so familiar, you have either met them at a wedding or tried to run away from them at one.
The first few minutes of the film introduce us to the two most prominent men of the film—first, an ever-anxious father, Lalit Verma, played by a spectacular Naseeruddin Shah. He’s either pulling out all the stops for arranging enough money for the wedding or yelling curses in a mishmash of languages; my favourite of which remains one he flings at a nephew—"Kis tarah ka bewakoof hai. Bloody number one most stupid duffer." The other is the event planner, Parabatlal Kanhaiyalal Dubey or P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz), as he likes to call himself. He is the perfect representation of an India adapting to new ways, trying to move up the class ladder. He makes calculations on his wristwatch, is always hollering on his phone, and unlike his superb comic timing, is late everywhere—"ten minutes exactly and approximately.”
Around the premise of a wedding, the story tries to unfold different shades of relationships while uncovering buried family secrets. The film simultaneously tells five different tales of love and suffering, each progressing at its own pace, one never overshadowing the other. While we get a sincere portrayal of the old-shoe love devoid of a probable former passion between the parents of the bride, we are also shown flickering bouts of young infatuation at a wedding.
Then there is a hesitant soon-to-bloom love between the bride (Vasundhara Das) and the groom (Parvin Dabas) while she is still reckoning desires with a former lover, a married man. When this triangular conflict is put to rest, we are hit by an appalling revelation. The older cousin Ria, played by the stunning Shefali Shah, exposes the patriarch of the family—the rich uncle from abroad—of having sexually assaulted her as a child. When she sees him repeating the horrors, she decides to break her silence.
Monsoon Wedding was one of the earliest Indian films to talk about child sexual abuse and paedophilia, especially among an upper-middle-class setting with the offender being from the family. It’s daunting, to position a subject so sensitive in the midst of the merriment of a wedding and still retain its integrity. In the final scenes, the initially helpless and sobbing father stands up for his daughter, giving us a resolution that is optimistic but required. The reverberating “these are my children; I will protect them from myself if I have to” will move you, in all its earnestness.
The story is written by Sabrina Dhawan, who was a teaching assistant to Nair at Columbia University where the latter was faculty at the time. In Scripting Bollywood—Candid Conversations With Women Who Write Hindi Cinema, Dhawan expressed that the story drew heavily from her family, her community, and her early formative years in Delhi. The Character of Ria was carved out of her own experiences. “…the revelation about sexual abuse is autobiographical. However, I didn’t get the happy ending shown in the film," she said. “I guess, it was my way of coping through fantasy.”
The life of Monsoon Wedding, however, has to be the sweet and lingering tale between Dubey, the event planner, and Alice, the housemaid, which is the first-ever time we saw the terrific Tillotama Shome on screen, who was only 19 then. Her role as the demure Alice was a delightful foreshadowing to her outstanding performance in Rohena Gera’s more recent Sir.
The rendezvous of Dubey and Alice is a thing of beauty. With Mohammed Rafi's Aaj Mausam Bada Beimaan Hai from Loafer (1973) playing in the background, it is an apt harbinger of the monsoon. Theirs is a story deeply heartwarming, seeping through the social bands of their employers; magical, as Nair rightly describes it.
One of the dozen other reasons as to why the film is so important is that it led to the discovery of a multitude of great performers that we were going to witness flourishing in the years to come. The ensemble cast boasts of seasoned veteran actors as well as young newcomers. Alongside Shome, the film featured Vasundhara Das, Randeep Hooda, Parvin Dabas, Neha Dubey, Ishaan Nair, and Ram Kapoor in a fleeting appearance. Vijay Raaz found his breakout role as Dubey in the film.
Despite the colossal ensemble of 68 actors, Monsoon Wedding has enough room for the women and their arcs. Aditi, the bride, is given complexity with immorality. She is not punished for her desires. She speaks of settling down and profound passion in the same breath. The older unmarried cousin Ria is courageous. In the end, with a single hopeful look towards a possible courtship, the filmmakers trust us to absorb that it is perhaps the beginning of her healing from abuse. The mother handling all the responsibilities of a wedding house is also seen smoking secretly in the bathroom and possessing sexual yearnings.
Monsoon Wedding is a testament to Mira Nair describing her films as obsessive acts. The end credits finish with an amusing note—We are like that only, 40 locations, 30 days, exactly and approximately. Shot entirely with handheld cameras by American cinematographer Declan Quinn and his crew, the movie plays out like making us feel like we are guests at the wedding. The chaotic bustle with too many people in a room, all talking at once, is beautifully captured, giving the film a very intimate touch. "It's like you are sitting at my dining table in Vasant Vihar," says the exceptional director.
Monsoon Wedding's brilliance lies in its many layers of authentic representation of contemporary life. The seamless infusion of class, three different languages, people of different ages, and multiple subplots is soaked in excellence. The film exhibits unapologetic Punjabi exuberance and opulence but also takes us to the narrow lanes where Dubey lives with his nagging mother, obsessed with the stock market. We are steered through his longing for companionship as he sits alone on his terrace overlooking the panorama of old Delhi. The city remains a crucial part of the narrative, showing its many colours—rich and poor, urban and traditional, vexed with scorching sun and then drenched in rain.
Nair’s masterful craft of this melange is not peculiar to Monsoon Wedding. The themes of globalism, immigration, and the many worlds that exist within a country are well-explored in her documentaries—India Cabaret, So Far From India, and Migration. Monsoon Wedding, in many ways, is coming together of her several works. Most of Nair's films give life to the push and pull of old and new, of modernity and rituals, of freedom and convention. The film does not preach familial values, neither is it trying to be an Indian cultural ambassador to the West. It presents life as is, a hybrid of sundry lifestyles and mores. The poetic exploration of family and home is only found later in 2006 that she does so movingly in The Namesake.
As much as the film is ‘Bollywood' in all its glory, it is also Shakespearean—the web of sub-strata, the coming together of the elites and the commoners, the challenge to the powerful, putting up a spectacle ending in song and dance and glee. In the climactic scene, we are given two weddings instead of one. The rain—usually a nuisance—is an equaliser, adding to the jubilation. The quaint and gorgeous wedding of Alice and Dubey under a marigold-clad umbrella is straight out of a fairy tale. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; in monsoon.
The universality of dysfunctional relationships and the spirit of family is what makes Monsoon Wedding so familiar and unanimously loved. You laugh at the family, and then you laugh with them. It makes you shed a tear and then dance along. The film's appeal lies in its intimate telling and brave endeavours, making it relevant even after 20 years—exactly and approximately.
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