Coming off her brilliant neo-realistic 1988 debut feature Salaam Bombay and a resume of tightly composed documentaries, director Mira Nair decided that she wanted to pay homage to her New Delhi birthplace and combine Bollywood with her film construction sensibilities with a special project in 2000. The result is her delightfully down to earth Monsoon Wedding, now available from The Criterion Collection complete with a plethora of Nair's documentary films, including The Laughing Club of India. Shooting over just 30 days, Nair used well known Bollywood actors and unknown professionals along with family members and other non-actors to complete the project that gained Golden Globe recognition and appealed to a worldwide audience.
Nair plunges us right into the middle of an upcoming Punjabi wedding ceremony in Delhi as the Verma family prepares their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) to marry Houston NRI (non-resident Indian) computer programmer Hemant (Parvin Dabas) in an arranged marriage. Although these types of marriages are undergoing changes (modern Indian families now often arrange for couples to meet initially as prospective marriage partners before the deal is sealed), this wedding has been agreed to before the couple has met each other. Early we see Aditi meeting her married lover (a TV host), who doesn't appear to be in any hurry to divorce his wife.
Having visited New Delhi a little over a year ago I experienced much of the chaos of the city; Nair's editing the collage of stories hints at this and serves well as introduction to Indian society and culture. She weaves the heartfelt typical family soap operas deftly with Delhi street scenes that serve the same purpose as Ozu's famous "pillow" shots that separate his scenes—just far more lively and colorful to give us the flavors and smells of urban India.
Various facets of everyday Indian life are portrayed. The wedding preparations, foods, dancing, and singing, and natural mixture of languages are all authentic. And the family dramas and conflicts all feel true to life, including whether the bride and groom can even tolerate each other and one central moral dilemma that family patriarch Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) must face—breaking tradition risks family “unity” but could lose the respect of an individual member.
The central figures of the drama are parents Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), who have typical worries: the wife’s smoking habits, the lazy son who’s not enthused about school, wilting marigolds and inefficient wedding decorators, and the small fortune wedding expenses. An early scene shows Lalit paying comic event planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) an exorbitant fee of $5,000 to waterproof the festivities even though Dube has indicated that it won’t rain—the peacock has crowed.
Raaz could be the "Steve Buscemi" of Bollywood (Indian film industry). He's funny looking, and can crack up the audience with his facial expressions or cause a double take with his penchant for eating marigolds. Combining humor with pathos when he falls for servant girl, Alice (Tilotama Shome), Dube laments that he's planned some 150 weddings and never had one himself. His mother's a hoot too; the middle aged woman from the lower middle class (she does have an apartment) keeps tabs on the stock market and rags on her son, fearing that she'll never have grandchildren—Indians appear to have "Jewish" mothers too! That only sets up the most charming subplot of Nair's film, as P. K. falls for the family's beautiful servant Alice (Tilotama Shome)—the two are tied together with bright orange marigolds as visual metaphor.
Another romance brews when Aditi’s cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey) eyes Rahul (Randeep Hooda), a laid-back visitor from Australia, whose favorite expression is "Chill!" A minor melodrama develops with a dance scene, and the entire ensemble cast breaks out with joyous celebration when the destined lovers finally join together. It’s one of the film’s high points, photographed brilliantly with vibrant orange, red, and yellow hues and brought to life with an energetic soundtrack that makes the actual wedding dancing seem like an Indian rave.
Supremely entertaining and watchable, Monsoon Wedding ranks among the most universal of films. Even though details and customs may vary from what Americans are used to, they are certain to recognize how family challenges and values cut across Indian culture. Satyajit Ray achieved this when he illustrated how villagers were adapting to rapidly changing India after WWII, and Mira Nair expertly illuminates how her beloved country is adapting to the 21st century.