Monsoon Wedding

A wedding is in many ways the penultimate dramatic premise—a family gathering on a large scale that is invariably accompanied by significant tensions, along with the requisite celebrations. It offers unlimited potential for old family hostilities to resurface, romantic sparks to fly between members of the wedding party, other than the betrothed, and for plenty of other ‘backstage’ intrigues. Given such varied possibilities, it is hardly surprising that weddings have featured consistently on the cinema screen, and no more so than in recent years. From Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and the British hit Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) through to mainstream offerings such as P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997); connubial bliss has provided a rich source of contemporary melodramatic and comic inspiration.

Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) is the most recent contribution to the burgeoning nuptial film genre. Winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, Nair’s success was the first time in more than four decades that an Indian production had won the award. (1) The film also marks something of a change in directorial perspective, representing the filmmaker’s first concerted exploration of the middle class New Delhi milieu of which she herself is a product.

The wedding in question is an arranged marriage between an affluent, young New Delhi woman Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) and Hermant Rai (Parvin Dabas), a Houston-based engineer. The film opens with preparations in full swing in the final days leading up to the ceremony. Extended family members arrive from all over the globe, wedding planner P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) supervises the lavish decorations to the Verma family home, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not well with the bride-to-be.

Aditi has only reluctantly agreed to the marriage following a lengthy but ultimately unhappy relationship with her married boss. When Aditi’s older cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) questions her motives in agreeing so hastily to an arranged marriage, Aditi herself begins to have increasing doubts about committing to life in America with a man she has only just met. Meanwhile, Aditi’s devoted father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) struggles not only with the escalating financial costs of the wedding, but also with the realisation of his daughter’s imminent and permanent departure from the family. His wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey) attempts to allay his concerns on both accounts while herself trying to keep on top of a house overflowing with family guests and barely repressed tensions.

Monsoon Wedding, as is increasingly the global arthouse fashion, has a multi-strand narrative that interweaves and contrasts a series of relationships. (2) The troubled dynamics between the future bride and groom thus resonate in various ways in the hesitant courtship between wedding planner Dubey and the Verma family’s young maid Alice (Tilotama Shome), in Lalit and Pimmi’s longstanding but perhaps passionless marriage and in the slow burn attraction between Aditi’s attractive young cousin Ayesha Verma (Neha Dubey) and Indian-born Australian student Rahul Chadha (Randeep Hooda).

Despite some clunky moments in the opening scenes, Nair’s film quickly settles into a series of chaotic and comic short scenarios, establishing the main locations, familial relationships and basic dynamics between the central characters. As much an Indian comedy of manners as a family drama, many of the initial, broadly humorous moments in the film revolve around the buffoonish character of wedding planner P.K. Dubey. With his mobile phone permanently attached to his ear and his wily ability to do minimal work while extracting increasingly large fees from his clients, Raaz makes Dubey an instantly recognisable character type. With his elastic, expressive face and idiosyncratic ways (including the absent-minded consumption of marigolds, the central decorative element of the wedding decorations), Dubey seems destined to provide strictly light relief in Nair’s film.

But scriptwriter Sabrina Dhawan takes the character in interesting and at times surprising directions. Rather than remaining one dimensional, Dubey’s growing infatuation with Alice allows his character to develop in dramatic as well as comic ways. Dubey’s transformation from smooth talking entrepreneur to love struck Romeo makes him an engaging mix of humour and pathos, a combination that is in fact representative of Monsoon Wedding as a whole. Nair’s film is thus a skilful blend of the colour, movement and joie de vivre accompanying traditional Punjabi wedding celebrations and a serious drama that tackles topics traditionally proscribed on the Indian screen, including adultery and paedophilia. (3)

While most analyses have focussed on the seductive visual and comic appeal of the film (more of that later), what is of equal interest is the way in which Nair has managed to incorporate some of the overtly politicised themes and issues central to her earlier films, in the unlikely setting of middle class New Delhi family life. Nair’s body of work, both fiction and non-fiction, has hitherto consistently addressed what could be loosely categorised as the plight of the underprivileged—individuals and groups disenfranchised in terms of class, gender, age, nationality and/or economic status.

Nair’s second film, So Far From India (1982) is an early expression of this preoccupation with marginalised individuals. The documentary follows Ashok, a recently married young Indian man, and his attempts to balance work in America with family commitments in India. Ashok’s increasing sense of alienation, caught between but never entirely part of two cultures, foregrounds an enduring Nair theme—the examination of the ongoing effects of the Indian diaspora.

Nair’s third documentary, the multi-award winning India Cabaret (1985), explored the lives of female exotic dancers in the Bombay nightclub scene. The complex sexual politics of the film and Nair’s refusal to present the women unambiguously as victims attracted both acclaim and opprobrium from the ranks of film critics and social commentators, in India and elsewhere. Where some critics decried the film’s exploitation of its female subjects and implicit voyeurism, others contended the film was “the first direct articulation in a documentary film of the contradictions inherent in the attitudes toward women in India”. (4) Her follow up documentary, Children of Desired Sex (1987), examined an equally provocative topic—the increasing levels of female foeticide in India as a result of the inappropriate application of sex-determination tests.

When Nair eventually tired of the documentary form, she moved on to feature films where she could make things “happen in a controlled way, in a way I wanted—the light, the gesture, the story” (5). But her fundamental interest in representing the disenfranchised carried over into fiction. In subsequent films Salaam Bombay! (1988), and the American features Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Perez Family (1995), Nair has addressed the plight of street children and prostitutes in Bombay, racial tensions between the African-American and Indian-American communities in the American South and romance in the Miami Cuban immigrant community respectively.

The director has been described as an “important contributor both to the collective Indian identity in diaspora and to the Indian cinema” (6). And she been embraced, particularly by feminist and post-colonialist scholars and film critics, for the ‘decolonising’ and feminist strategies at work in her films. (7) Equally, her films, principally the Cannes-winning and Oscar nominated Salaam Bombay!, have been criticised for portraying an over-simplified and romanticised view of Indian society and culture from a privileged and exilic perspective. (8)

In light of the ambivalent reception her India-based films have received in recent years, Monsoon Wedding represents an interesting and perhaps special case in Nair’s oeuvre. Rather than overtly “championing the underprivileged”, Nair wanted to set her drama squarely in the distinctively privileged milieu of the New Delhi middle classes. (9) It is a setting which literally reflects the director’s own background, given most of the film was shot in Nair’s own house and the cast included family members. But within this setting, the themes that have dominated Nair’s work—issues of class, gender and generational difference and the ramifications of the Indian diaspora—find continuing, if circumscribed, expression.

The film opens with family members returning to New Delhi from different parts of the globe, including Australian-based student Rahul and the Houston-based groom-to-be, Hermant. Considerable comic mileage is made out of the various cultural differences that manifest themselves through these returning expatriates. It is a muted but nevertheless significant expression of Nair’s continuing fascination with Indian diasporic communities, with which she herself identifies strongly. As Nair has observed, she has “always been drawn to stories of people who live on the margins of society; people who are on the edge, or outside, learning the language of being in between; dealing with the questions, ‘What, and where is home’” (10)

But where Monsoon Wedding derives most of its dramatic strength is in its diverse array of female characters. Since Salaam Bombay!, Nair’s fiction films have increasingly focussed on issues around the social and cultural representation of women. The well-received Mississippi Masala and the little seen but much criticised Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) have contributed to the director’s growing reputation for being “refreshingly unafraid to depict beautiful, lustful women who openly express their desires”. (11) In Monsoon Wedding, Nair’s feminist agenda is underscored in the various dilemmas in which her female characters find themselves. Her earliest motivations as a documentary filmmaker—the desire to present the position of women in India in a way that was hitherto “unknown in India cinema”, finds unexpectedly complex expression in Monsoon Wedding. (12)

Aditi’s predicament foregrounds generational and cultural shifts in contemporary urban Indian society, where the urgent pull of an increasingly socially and sexually progressive middle class is mitigated by traditional cultural practices such as arranged marriages. In Ria, beautifully played by Shafali Shetty, Nair highlights the ingrained hypocrisy of a still determinedly patriarchal society that regards a single woman in her late 20′s as suspiciously and threateningly independent. Ria’s plight is all the more poignant in light of her shocking revelation of childhood abuse at the hands of the family patriarch, a transgression that has not only gone undetected for decades, but is at risk of being repeated with another young female family member.

Alice is an equally intriguing character. Her silent but resentful presence throughout the riotous wedding preparations gives Nair’s film its strongest and most eloquent expression of class divisions. A classic example of the marginalised figures Nair has so often ‘championed’, Alice is forever hovering on edges of the group of female family members. By virtue of her sex, she is both a part of them, but as a servant, definitively apart from them. Alice covets her employer’s affluent lifestyle, in one scene wistfully dressing up in Pimmi’s clothes and jewellery. But in the supremely optimistic closing scenes of the film, Nair’s idealism gets the better of her, and she has Alice join with her employers in a scene of ecstatic dancing, in one stroke resolving centuries old class and gender divisions.

Monsoon Wedding

But it is this contagious optimism that is perhaps the defining feature of Nair’s film. Despite the confronting nature of certain storylines, Monsoon Wedding exudes an abiding positivism that is for the most part hard to resist. Much of the film’s appeal derives from the sheer visual and visceral quality of Nair’s imagery. Shot on digital video by regular Nair cinematographer Declan Quinn, the roving handheld camera is everywhere, capturing the intoxicating riot of colour and movement that accompanies the wedding preparations. The vivid tangerine of the marigold flower, so central as a decorative element and symbolic motif, dominates the colour scheme. Heavy downpours and intense sunlight alternate in equal measure, giving the film an appropriately hothouse atmosphere.

Wonderful scenes of ‘secret women’s business’—bridal hand painting ceremonies, bawdy female only pre-nuptial singalongs and sari shopping expeditions—allow Nair to play with colour, texture, light and movement in an exhilarating way. For sheer pleasure in the colour-saturated and compositional potential of cinema, scenes in Monsoon Wedding recall the work of some great contemporary stylists of the cinema including Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou (1989) and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997).

And finally, Monsoon Wedding is equally a film dominated by sound. From the opening credit sequence, with its candy coloured, retro-styled graphics, the energetic, infectious soundtrack sets the tone. Mychael Danna’s score, a skilful mix of traditional love songs, jazz, folk music and Indian pop provides the perfect counterpart to Nair’s exhilarating imagery.

Nair once described her approach to filmmaking in incendiary terms: “My job is to provoke”. (13) With Monsoon Wedding she has produced an unlikely success— a work that incorporates decidedly provocative themes in a culturally specific milieu, but simultaneously a film with irresistible and universal appeal.

Endnotes

  1. The last Indian feature to win at Venice was Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito in 1957.
  2. Recent examples of the Altmanesque ensemble cast, multiple narrative form include Magnolia (P.T Anderson, 1999), Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001), The Town is Quiet (Robert Guédiguian, 2000) and The Taste of Others (Agnes Jaoui, 1999).
  3. A recent review of the film in Cinemaya noted that the subject of paedophilia is rarely addressed on the Indian screen. See Meenakshi Shedde, ‘Monsoon Wedding‘, Cinemaya: The Asian Film Quarterly, 53, 2001, 25
  4. Amit Shah, ‘A Dweller in Two Lands: Mira Nair, filmmaker’, Cineaste, 23
  5. Sunaina Maira and Rajini Srikanth, ‘Visualizing Three Continents: An Interview with Filmmaker Mira Nair, Juen 3,1996′, Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, (Eds) Suanaina Maira and Rajini Srikanth, The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, New York, 1996, 126
  6. Hamid Naficy, 68
  7. See Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, ‘Mira Nair: “To be mixed is the new world order”‘, in Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity, Southern Illinois Press, 1997, as a representative of this perspective.
  8. Hamid Naficy, 68
  9. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity, Southern Illinois Press, 1997, 115
  10. Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Excilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2001, 70
  11. The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera, 303
  12. The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera, (Ed) Amy L Unterburger, Visible Ink, Detroit, San Francisco, London, Boston, Woodbridge, C.T., 1999, 303
  13. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity, 112

About The Author

Rose Capp is Vice-President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia and a freelance writer on film.