An Appreciation – Monsoon Wedding
Director Mira Nair has long been fascinated with the contrast between the traditions of the past and the ambitions of modern youth. Characters divided by age and generation either clash or come together with their differing beliefs. Nair was born in India and was educated at both Delhi University and at Harvard. There’s no doubt that this experience heavily influenced her work. In Mississippi Masala (1991), the parents of an Indian American girl must accept a new reality when she falls in love with a black man. The protagonist of The Namesake (2006) goes on a personal journey to discover why his father gave him his name. In Queen of Katwe (2016), a Ugandan girl follows her dreams of becoming a chess master, much to the dismay of her mother. Again and again, characters come face to face with the values of their upbringing and a society constantly changing around them.
This idea is no better exemplified than in Nair’s masterpiece, Monsoon Wedding (2001). With Sabrina Dhawan’s script, Nair expresses her central themes with crystal clarity. Early on, we see a TV talk show in the middle of a debate, arguing whether India should hold on to its long-standing traditions or if it should open itself up to more contemporary ways of thinking. Although the conversation lasts only a few minutes, it sets the stage for the rest of the film. All throughout, we see Nair continuously balancing the two sides. She doesn’t favor or condemn one belief or another. Instead, she seeks to find balance between the two. The ways of the old world coexist with the present through understanding, tragedy, hope, comedy, and love.
Monsoon Wedding represents a convergence of these cultural streams coming together. We are introduced to the Verma family, whose daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) has been put into an arranged marriage with Hemant (Parvin Dabas), who lives in Houston. Although the setting is in Delhi and the custom of an arranged marriage goes back to ancient times, the story is structured in such a way that it feels universal. Family members fly in from other parts of India, America, and Australia. Characters speak in Hindi and English, with different accents, often within the same sentence. Like the work of Robert Altman, the narrative is split through the viewpoints of multiple different characters, each one going through their own personal crisis in the days leading up to the wedding. Part of the joy in watching the film is seeing how each story plays out and then eventually come back together at the ceremony.
Nair’s deft control adds a layer of empathy that allows anyone to enter this world without getting lost. Even though there is a specific cultural event taking place, Nair allows us to easily understand and connect to it. I’m Filipino and grew up in the United States, and yet Nair adds details so familiar that I found myself drawn to them as if I was reflecting on a fond memory. Many of the weddings and family reunions I attended had the same patterns seen here. The hustle and bustle of people running around making sure all the preparations are in order, the constant talking and laughing, people worrying about decorations and payments, flights being delayed, cousins sleeping on blankets and air mattresses while the uncles and aunties reminisce around the dinner table – these are all moments that ring true to life.
The set design and art direction capture Delhi with sumptuous, vibrant colors. Orange dominates many of the scenes, seen especially in the marigolds fixed as the ceremony’s key ornament. The costume design places characters in bright, colorful outfits, adorned with green and gold trimmings. Declan Quinn’s cinematography depicts it all like a family member witnessing things happening in real time. In one corner of the household, family members talk and gossip with infectious smiles. On the other side, people are busy putting the finishing touches on the clothing that will be worn at the wedding. Outside, workers hurry about putting up tents, the dance floor, and seating arrangements. The editing (Allyson C. Johnson) will occasionally break from the world of the Verma household into the city, with its own nonstop movement and energy. All these bits add up to an atmosphere of spontaneity – where anything and everything can happen.
With so many moving parts, Nair manages to define key characters with depth and grace. In the center of the commotion is Hemant and Aditi. They are the ones who are betrothed and yet operate like passengers in a car everyone else is driving. Fortunately, the writing and direction gives them the opportunity to express themselves. Hemant and Aditi’s relationship may have been pre-ordained – they’ve only known each other for a few weeks – but they take charge of their path. They sneak away and meet in private to decide if they can find a connection. Nair’s direction takes specific notice of their hands and how they move them as they get to know one another. The intimacy between them grows as their hands come closer together. The two are open and frank about themselves. Aditi tells Hemant about an affair she had with a TV show host (Sameer Arya). How he reacts and how they handle this revelation shows a level of maturity many young movie couples do not have.