There are so many flowering romances in Monsoon Wedding that one leaves the theater wondering why, in real life, true love is so hard to find . . . Mira Nair makes it look so easy. Show up at your cousin’s wedding and you’ll find a nubile and willing teenage bride to whom you’re fortunately not related. Act as wedding planner and you’ll find the woman of your dreams, who’s fortunately on your level, class and caste wise. Arrange your daughter’s betrothal to a transplanted Indian man (now living in Texas) and your own dispassionate marriage will blossom and flourish like an ocean of marigolds. Fortune never seems to work this way outside of fairy tales, but that’s essentially what Monsoon Wedding is, and just so, it has more than its share of fortunate happenings.
Monsoon Wedding is lovely to look at, but it’s also precious and at times cloying. It assaults the senses almost violently with color and vitality, and an otherworldly exoticism. Love me, Nair’s India seems to scream, love me for being so decadent, so bright, so happily ensconced in a fantasy world of peacocks, wedding gowns, and bustling Delhi streets. But just don’t love it as if it’s somehow connected to the real world.
Like Nair’s lush fantasy India, it’s also very difficult not to love the fantastical Verma family. There is the independent Aditi (Vasundhara Das), who’s ready to “settle down” into an appropriate partnership with the right man. And don’t forget the progressive Ria (Shefali Shetty), whose intellect and sage words hide a dark family secret, or Lalit and Pimmi (Naseeruddin Shah and Lillete Dubey), the patriarch and matriarch, respectively, who usually Do the Right Thing in facilitating their children’s happiness. They are an epic, classic family of princesses, stubborn misfits, and parents who may not be royalty, per se, but who act with the civility and sophistication of kings and queens—no doubt a leftover of British colonial rule.
But love isn’t just for the wealthy family; it blossoms everywhere in Nair’s fantasy of India. The wedding planner, P.K. Dubey (played engagingly by Vijay Raaz), finds a kindred spirit in Alice (Tilotoma Shome), the Verma’s live-in maid, and their flirtations are rich with enchanting imagery. Dubey makes marigolds the central theme of the wedding decorations and is often shown thoughtfully munching on the flowers. The first time Alice sees Dubey, she is dreamily moving in slow motion to tidy up glasses . . . and absently chewing on a marigold. During Hemant (Parvin Dabas) and Aditi’s wedding ceremony, Dubey and Alice participate in a mock matrimony under a parasol of marigolds; Dubey’s assistants toss bits of marigold into the air and pronounce them man and wife. These marigolds are metaphors for the blinding suddenness of love, like the blossoms in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and their overwhelming prevalence only adds to the film’s magical atmosphere . . . but they also represent the film’s insistence on a familiar and comfortable frame of reference. If Nair’s romance of India is a bit too “exotic” for you, there are always the worn out cliches about flowers, and beauty and love.
This also accounts for the major downfall of Monsoon Wedding. After awhile all the film’s elaborate charms begin to feel as empty as a Disneyfied fairy tale. Dubey and Alice may be exotic but they are equally vapid, but then again so is Nair’s India. Indeed, all the (guilty) pleasures of Monsoon Wedding are in its exoticism. Swirling saris, dancing, lush fabrics, heated monsoon rains: it’s a treasure box of colonial delights. Without all the clatter and bustle and color, however, Monsoon Wedding is essentially a Western romantic comedy made largely for a Western audiences. Similar to last year’s irritating slice-of-life 101 Rekjavik, which functioned essentially as a quirky primer on life in a very cold place, Monsoon Wedding feels a whole lot like a travelogue, or better, as though Nair were producing a special for the Travel Channel that lets Americans check out a “real” Punjabi wedding without leaving the comfort of their living rooms.
There are scenes of pure joy in Monsoon Wedding, like when the family’s women gather together to sing folksongs about getting married and engage in some pretty ribald humor. All of sudden, we’re watching real people, not wonderfully exotic foreigners, and we begin to see some allusion to, or commentary on the universality of love and family. But the film quickly jumps back to bouquets of marigolds, whirling saris, and choreographed dancing, and the Vermas are again exotic creatures, like the peacocks that roam their lawn. And, like the peacocks, the family is, admittedly, gorgeous but really only decorative.