Monsoon weathers the cultural storm
BY PETER KEOUGH
Directed by Mira Nair. Written by Sabrina Dhawan. With Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dabas, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome, Randeep Hooda, Neha Dubey, Ishaan Nair, and Rajat Kapoor. A USA Films release. At the Copley Place and the Kendall Square.
Mira but not -max
It was the scene in which P.K, the disreputable wedding planner, demonstrated his love for Alice, the shy housemaid, that director Mira Nair thought her film Monsoon Wedding might have a chance to win over the tough audiences at last yearís Venice Film Festival.
" Thatís the scene where they picked up their ballgowns and jumped on their seats, " recalls Nair. " Youíd think it was Bombay and not Venice. And then, of course, they all started weeping . . . "
Everyone, it seems, loves a good wedding. In Australia, South Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, as well as in India, where it opened four months ago, Monsoon Wedding has prospered. And in the United States? " You know what weíve done in this opening weekend in NY? " gushes Nair. " Itís the biggest weekend theyíve ever had at the Paris Cinema. Itís outdone Amélie and Life Is Beautiful. And itís not like theyíve flung huge sums of money publicizing it the way that Miramax [Monsoon Wedding is released by USA Films] does. "
So if Miramax isnít responsible, what is?
" My theory is that itís because the film is so pure and local that it becomes universal. It really is authentic to itself. Itís the reverse of most global cinema. People are saying you should make these global movies; I feel such movies are rootless. When a movie is deeply rooted in where it comes from, it becomes, if itís handled right, itís pure.
" I made this film to please myself. Itís the first and only film in which I refused to pander. Which is why I made it in a self-imposed lean way, 30 days, a self-imposed low budget, because I didnít want to deal with how a distributor was going to deal with three languages in one film. I think also itís because, what people are telling me, itís about their families, or they want their families to be like this mad one. "
Could it also be because the film celebrates the marriage of such cultural and social opposites as progress and traditionalism, which are now tearing apart much of the world, especially in Asia and the Middle East?
" Thatís how people from the outside will see what Iím trying to do. From the inside, the point is we have always been seamless in India in eclipsing [this division] between tradition and modernity. India has opened its doors to the outside world since before the British came. We are used to the most extraordinary things in one moment. Because thatís the way we have lived. To hold a cell phone and sing a traditional bawdy womenís folk song is completely normal to me. "
Monsoon Wedding attempts a cinematic marriage as well as a cultural one, merging hand-held realistic cinematography with the glitzy song and dance of Bollywood in a fusion that at times seems a cinéma-vérité version of an MGM musical.
" Bollywood movies are flamboyantly artificial and unabashedly dramatic; [they] create music, song, and dance and so on, " Nair explains. " I love that stuff, but this is a different thing, rooted in a complete reality that is authentic in the way people speak and dress, the look of their houses. Nothing is shot in a studio or is artificial like a Bollywood movie. But whatís happening now in realistic India is that even the weddings have become Bollywoodized, because Bollywood is such a part of our culture, like eating and breathing. Thatís what happens in Monsoon Wedding. Itís homemade Bollywood. "
Unfortunately, the images of India most people have in mind these days are not Bollywood production numbers or Nairís nuptial crises and celebrations but the carnage of recent Hindu/Muslim violence.
" Itís terrifying. These images of this week are like the Partition. " Sheís referring to the enforced division of India into separate Muslim and Hindu states in 1947. Thousands were killed and more were uprooted. Nairís own family, Hindu Punjabis, were forced to move from the newly formed Pakistan to New Delhi. So can a film like Monsoon Wedding speak at all to such violence?
" Itís a loaded situation, " Nair admits. " Very quietly we set up a believable romance between P.K. and Alice, and though I donít raise any flags about it, itís clear that P.K. is Hindu and Alice is Christian. Yet they have a romance in which religion is never mentioned. Whatís interesting about this film is that quietly and movingly it shows that love can render these things unimportant. "
A wedding is the essence of screwball comedy, merging as it does otherwise irreconcilable elements into a gladhanding, pratfalling, pompous carnal binge. In a society as diverse and teeming as Indiaís, planning and pulling off such a feat must be a challenge. Making an entertaining movie about it must be an even greater challenge, but Mira Nair meets it in her exuberant and crafty Monsoon Wedding. Like most weddings, this one is stressful and chaotic in its preparation and a little bit false and tacky in its execution, but its pleasures prove genuine and deep.
The shaky nature of the artifice shows up in the opening image, a shot of glowing petals dropping from a floral arch onto the pissed-off visage of father-of-the-bride Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah). Itís just another sign that heís getting ripped off by P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz), the buffoonish, vaguely disreputable wedding planner who first seems like a ferret attached to a cell phone. Not an auspicious omen for the arranged marriage between Lalitís daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) and Texas-based engineer Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), who will meet for the first time days before the nuptials take place.
But that opening image also establishes a key virtue of the film, Declan Quinnís zesty, mostly hand-held cinematography, the party-colored equivalent of the weddingís spicy food, steamy weather, and simmering passions. Together with the music on the soundtrack, which ranges from traditional Indian classics to pop tunes and Bollywood numbers, the swirling visuals make for a sensual delight thatís seductive but doesnít quite conceal the darkness under the gaudy surface.
Such as Lalitís crass contempt for his Australian nephew Rahul Chadha (Randeep Hooda), or his more insensitive dismissal of his own teenage son, chubby Varun (Ishaan Nair), who prefers cooking and dance to more "manly" endeavors. Aditi, for her part, sullies the notion of bridal purity by pursuing almost to her wedding night an affair with her married boss, whoís a slick hypocrite railing against decadent morals on the TV talk show he hosts.
Most disturbing, though, is rich Uncle Tej (Rajat Kapoor), the preening and creepy family benefactor. He bailed Lalit out back when Lalit fled from Punjab to New Delhi, penniless after the 1947 partition; now heís the weddingís guest of honor. But why does cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) shrink from this éminence grise even when he offers to pay for her dream of taking part in a writing program in an American university?
These troubles, of course, pale before the horrors visited on the hapless slum children in Nairís first feature, Salaam, Bombay! (1988), and even before the harsh memories and insidious hatreds underlying her Mississippi Masala (1991). Nair lost her edge and some of her common sense in the Hollywood puff piece The Perez Family (1995) and the unfortunate period porn Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). With Wedding sheís regained her balance, mixing the bitter with the sweet, though going a little heavy on the latter, in a film about the power of combining opposites.
Among the opposites brought together here are tradition and progress. Screwball comedy, despite its chaotic antics, is, like the ceremony that crowns this film, a conciliatory approach to such differences. True, the most egregious representative of an oppressive patriarchy gets expelled by the end, in a scene that could have been formulaic scapegoating except for the superbly humanizing performance of Shah. But a film can hardly be considered subversive when two characters agree that, all in all, a marriage pre-arranged between strangers is at least as likely to succeed as one between people who fall in love.
Love, though, has the last word, as nearly every character finds the appropriate mate despite his or her worst inclinations. Most appealing is the transformation of the benighted P.K., who takes time out from frantic phone calls to make eye contact with a maid with the unlikely but apt name of Alice (Tilotama Shome). What he does then with some flowers and candles makes for the most touching and unexpected moment in the film, proving that however you might plan for a wedding, you can never account for the storm at its heart.
Issue Date: March 7 - 14, 2002
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