Globalization as Family Drama
Like all of Mira Nair’s feature films, Monsoon Wedding is a multi-layered text, open to multiple readings, and accessible from multiple vantage points. Regardless of how one approaches the film, or what one finds their eyes and ears drifting to on different viewings, new insights and rewards are sure to present themselves. This is a movie that truly merits a new home edition, if for no other reason than to ensure that new viewers keep finding it.
Loosely structured around a wedding and arranged marriage between Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), Monsoon Wedding works as a family drama, as mosaic of modern, globalizing India, as a love story that sneaks up on you, and as a discourse on post-modernity and tradition. All of these threads are wound together by music and song, a bright color palette keyed to the marigold garlands adorning the bride’s family house, and a swirl of activity and people, whether at the aforementioned home or on the streets of Delhi.
I often use Monsoon Wedding in classes I teach where globalization is a critical theme. For many American college students, the film opens a window onto a world that is both familiar and strange.
The nicely appointed Verma family home, a modern split-level, looks as if it could be on the streets of any comfortable suburb in the US generations clash over TV, clothes, driving, futures. People are aspiring writers and entertainers and have jobs in engineering, on TV shows, and as wedding planners.
At the same time, characters easily carry on conversations in multiple languages at once. It is the father, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), who is fussing over the wedding preparations. My most observant students notice that the level of comfort enjoyed by the Verma and Rai families seems to be at the cost of scattering themselves, not only all over India, but further as well, to the US, Australia, Dubai. And of course, there is the marriage, arranged by the parents of a groom who is an engineer based in Texas and a bride who works on a TV show called “Delhi.com”.
As much as the world of Monsoon Wedding may seem like the one many of my students know from their own lives, it is not. The changes to be negotiated in India and by Indians, and the paradoxes and contradictions that come with globalization, are dramatically different than the ones faced by the majority of my students.
The different threads noted above are not separate, and one of the marked differences between the US and India is the sheer scale of the inequality between rich and poor. This aspect of the film is captured by the love story between the Verma’s wedding planner, Dubey (Vijay Raaz), and their housekeeper, Alice (Tillotama Shome).
Both of these characters live in the same city as the Vermas, but in different contexts. Dubey shares a small apartment in the city with his grandmother, with unreliable water and even more unreliable electricity than the Verma household. Both are in service to the Indian middle class.
While Alice’s path of domestic service is a well-established one for internal migrants and the domestic poor, Dubey is attempting to use the new rules of business and class mobility in India to raise his status and security (one of the film’s best scenes involves a negotiation between Dubey and Lalit over the wedding tent; it’s a wry and funny clash of tradition and modernity with the two men reversing roles at different turns).
Alice quietly draws Dubey’s attention and the two of them develop a rapport over the course of the wedding preparations. Their romantic love can be contrasted to the arranged partnership between Aditi and Hemant, and the contrast draws out another paradox, one wherein the global middle class couple follows tradition and the more place-bound working class pair follows their bliss.
On initial viewing, it is easy to read the romance between Alice and Dubey as a side story, but on subsequent viewings it maybe hard not to see their story as more central than the one between Hemant and Aditi. Alice and Dubey, through their courtship and their relationship to their employers, let the audience see both the privilege of the Vermas and the limits of their comfort, which guarantees neither love nor safety.
This last point is important, for the film, while flirting with romanticizing ‘the help’, avoids implying that there is anything wrong with, or less real about, Hemant and Aditi’s choice to enter into an arranged marriage than there is in Dubey and Alice’s true romance. Furthermore, Aditi’s mother, Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), and father, Lalit, are clearly in love, however they came to be joined. And, the film actually has a second love story that sneaks up on you and that is Lalit’s familial love for his niece, and effective second daughter, Ria (Shefali Shetty).
The Criterion edition DVD set comes with two discs. Disc one includes the film, a director’s commentary, an interview between Nair and Naseeruddin Shah, an interview/conversation with director of photography Declan Quinn and production designer Stephanie Carroll, and a theatrical trailer for the movie. The interviews are new and produced for the DVD set, but the commentary is from 2002. Nonetheless, Nair’s monologue is as smart and informative as you would expect it to be.
The first disc also includes the documentary short, The Laughing Club of India (2000). Two more short documentaries, So Far from India (1982) and India Cabaret (1985), are on the second disc, which also includes the scripted short films, The Day the Mercedes became a Hat (1993), 11’09’01 – September 11 (2002), How can it Be (2008), and Migration (2007). These films range in length from nine minutes to an hour, and each is preceded by an introduction from the director. They show Nair’s work in different forms, documentary and fiction, and in different media, film and digital video, but all carry her penchant and skill for telling stories of everyday life and experience.
The booklet provided with the discs features an essay by Pico Ayer that offers a critical appreciation of Monsoon Wedding and a synthesis of Nair’s body of work, particularly pulling in the shorts included in the set. The shift to the director’s biography in the essay is rough, but Ayer’s love of the film and his familiarity with its themes of globalization, migration, and cultural paradox make for a lively and interesting contribution to the movie and its video extras.
If there is one notable flaw to Monsoon Wedding it is that the ending feels a little too neat, especially after additional viewings. Classes and families, previously separate or torn, come together, dancing in the rain and in love and with care for each other. The sentiments are real and true enough, but they seem hurried. Or maybe the looks of ambivalence on the faces of the bride and groom in the closing credits are enough to reopen the film’s complexities. Regardless of how you take the final scene, Nair’s film is beautiful and real, and more so each time you watch.