Some movies present an idealized view of marriage and family; others seem eager to debunk it, exposing its foibles and questioning its demands. Indian director Mira Nair’s exuberant art-house crowd-pleaser Monsoon Wedding takes the third way, openly acknowledging the problems that affect family life, the doubts and compromises faced by almost any couple — and joyously embracing the total package.
This is one feel-good film that earns its goodwill honestly — not glossing over the harder realities and transgressions that afflict family life, but instead making the case that, however exasperating and even dysfunctional one’s family may happen to be, family remains very close to the center of things. Not just "family" in the abstract, either, or as an ideal, but the reality of family as we actually experience it.
For most of us, family often means finding ourselves thrown together with people we can’t help worrying about, whose choices we can’t always condone, sometimes even whom we wouldn’t mind never seeing again, even at family reunions or weddings. Yet in spite of it all, family is an inescapable part of who we are — a truth nowhere more apparent, perhaps, than at family reunions and weddings… and, by extension, in movies about family reunions and weddings.
A wedding is even more problematic than a family reunion, because a wedding is a juxtaposition (not to say a joining) of two families. Because Monsoon Wedding is set in contemporary New Delhi, it’s complicated by other juxtapositions as well: East meets West, tradition jostles with modernity, English coexists with Hindi and Punjabi. The story centers on preparations for a traditional arranged marriage, but the Bengali groom Hemant (Parvin Dabas) is a Houston-based engineer, and the Punjabi bride Aditi (Indian singer-actress Vasundhara Das) hasn’t quite broken off her dead-end affair with a married TV talk-show host (Sameer Arya).
The film operates on different social levels as well, with the story of the upscale arranged marriage interposed with the hesitant attraction between Alice (Tilotama Shome), the maid of the bride’s family, and P. K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz), the goofy wedding planner they’ve hired. And, as with many Indian films, Monsoon Wedding also juxtaposes disparate tones and moods: broad comedy, sickening scandal, extravagant romanticism, culture criticism, and rousing singing and dancing all hugger-mugger.
Actually, everything in this picture is all hugger-mugger, from the relatives descending upon Aditi’s hapless parents (Naseeruddin Shah and Lillete Dubey) from Europe and Australia and who knows where, to the efforts of Aditi’s apoplectic father (following in the time-honored tradition of Spencer Tracy and Steve Martin) to oversee the alleged work of wedding-planner P. K. Dubey, to the traffic and bustle of the streets and marketplaces of New Delhi, so dismal and suffocating by contrast to the colorful domesticity of Aditi’s parents’ home.
Amid the chaos, individual moments emerge with vivid clarity: an accidentally witnessed moment of a maid’s private fantasy before her mistress’s bedroom mirror; an unmistakeable look on the face of Aditi’s cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) at the arrival of an honored guest with an unspeakable secret; a humiliating experience on a rainy night that helps Aditi clarify her complicated love life; and, perhaps most of all, a hopelessly extravagant gesture that speaks more eloquently of a tongue-tied man’s devotion than all of Cyrano de Bergerac’s whispered poetry.
Although Monsoon Wedding is all in favor of domestic togetherness, it also knows that some things are even more important than keeping the peace and maintaining appearances. In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, a character is forced to make a painful choice between doing the traditional, expected thing and doing the right thing; and his difficult decision is one of a number of redemptive moments in the film attained only through some sacrificial or selfless act for the sake of another. Aditi, Hemant, Aditi’s father, Ria, Alice, P. K, P. K.’s seemingly apathetic associates, and even the guy from Australia are all ennobled by some act of humility, in some cases humiliation. The only humiliation that counts, though, is that of the two characters who deserve it.
Visually, Monsoon Wedding is a feast for the eyes, from the brightly retro credits sequences, to the miles of marigold garlands draped everywhere, to the bride’s elaborately henna-painted hands, to the colorful silk swirling around cousin Sasha (Kamini Khanna) as she spins through a sensuous wedding dance. Along the way, we learn things about Indian culture and wedding traditions we might not have known (for example, that white is associated with funerals rather than weddings).
The trappings may be unfamiliar to Western audiences, but the feelings behind them are universal. Monsoon Wedding is a celebration of what is common to us all.
Monsoon Wedding is now available from the Criterion Collection in 2-disc standard DVD and 1-disc Blu-ray sets. In addition to typical extras — a 2002 audio commentary by Nair, an interview with the director and star Naseeruddin Shah, the theatrical trailer — the Criterion edition also includes and seven shorter films by Nair ranging from ten-minute shorts to longer documentaries (35 to 60 minutes).
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Until last night, I have told everyone I recommend Decent Films in that you have never steered me wrong. I am still stunned that Monsoon Wedding could have been on your A-minus list!
My problems with the film are only in the first 20 minutes, as that is all my husband and I could stand, so perhaps a miracle occurred and it got better.
The language was horrible. The only think worse than hearing the F word, is having to read it on screen. The humor was incredibly juvenile — about breasts, underpants, etc.
The voices were screeching for the majority of the time, and maybe it is my ADHD, but between the Indian mixed with English and the subtitles, I couldn’t possibly sort out what was going on (aside from some juvenile potty humor).
Everyone is due a bad decision from time to time, and I have to say this is yours. I will rue the day that Monsoon Wedding showed up in my Netflix queue.
Otherwise, thanks for all the rest of the wonderful films you have steered us toward. I am praying for you in the deaconate program — how we need solid leaders! God bless.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.