Michael Brooke has reviewed the theatrical release of Monsoon Wedding, a wonderfully colourful and exuberant look at the pleasure and pain behind a large-scale Punjabi wedding that looks certain to be a huge word of mouth hit when it opens here in a few days’ time.
Owing more than a little to Robert Altman’s sprawling, multi-stranded ensemble films (Nashville, Short Cuts and, most pertinently, A Wedding), Mira Nair’s latest film, winner of the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, attempts to blend the very different stylistic worlds of Bollywood and Western arthouse cinema, and for the most part pulls it off triumphantly.
Whatever the film’s faults (ultimately, there’s nothing in the narrative that you wouldn’t find in a competent soap opera, and therefore no real surprises), it is at least enormously entertaining and is practically guaranteed to leave audiences smiling at the end – it looks certain to be a strong word-of-mouth hit when it opens here in the New Year.
Tackling what thanks to David Blunkett’s recent comments is the highly topical issue of arranged marriage, the film observes the build-up to a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, whose guests range right across the spectrum from hidebound traditionalist to liberal champion of multicultural values (though there are fewer cross-cultural jokes than one might have expected, possibly because Goodness Gracious Me has already comprehensively mined that particular seam!).
Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) is the bride, and her betrothed is Hermant (Parvin Dabas). There’s nothing polemical about Nair’s treatment of their impending nuptials – both seem to accept it in principle and find each other pleasant enough company, but Aditi still carries a torch for the TV producer that she’s been having an on-off affair with for some time, which leads to inevitable emotional complications – especially when a final tryst with her lover is interrupted by the police.
Meanwhile, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), the head of the Verma household, has problems of his own. Visibly uncomfortable with the modern multicultural world in general and various family members in particular (a son who’s constantly referred to as “the idiot”, another whose interest in cooking and dancing he considers deeply unhealthy), he prefers to dodge awkward subjects until he’s forced to confront them head-on – as inevitably happens when a revelation about family benefactor Uncle Tej (Rajat Kapoor) threatens to ruin everything.
Winner of the acting honours by a very comfortable margin, though, is Vijay Raaz as the contractor P.K.Dubey, whose metamorphosis from wisecracking wideboy to lovelorn romantic hopelessly smitten with the Verma’s servant Alice (Tilotama Shome) is perfectly judged, managing to be both very very funny and surprisingly poignant – and this genuine love story offers a neat parallel with the rather more formalised main event.
Declan Quinn’s camera is mostly hand-held, which accentuates the casual, caught-on-the-wing feel – Nair builds up the narrative through a series of what look like coincidental eavesdroppings on seemingly insignificant conversations – a TV debate about censorship, a discussion on the techniques of kissing – relying on the audience to put the pieces together. The opening scenes might be a little confusing at first as we’re introduced to dozens of characters in quick succession with minimal formality, but anyone familiar with large family weddings will be more than used to this.
But the slapdash surface conceals a far more carefully-crafted core, with recurring ideas and images interwoven throughout the narrative, most notably the distinctive orange marigold, apparently an important symbol when it comes to Indian marriages – I won’t spoil the marigolds’ most memorable appearance, but they brought the house down at the screening I attended!
The other constant is the impending monsoon, which is first treated as comedy (as Lalit remembers that he’s forgotten to ask Dubey to waterproof the marquee and is horrified to discover that it costs $5,000) and then as something deeper and more symbolic, the torrential rains washing away the family’s collective problems as the film explodes into a joyous celebration of life at the end. Although this isn’t a Bollywood film by any stretch of the imagination – there’s nothing that a Western audience would find at all unconventional – there are plenty of nods to its flamboyant and colourful style. The bhangra score (which apparently quotes from numerous classic Hindi musical numbers) is brilliantly used, especially towards the end as the wedding takes off.
The dialogue is in a rapid-fire blend of Hindi, Punjabi and English, often switching languages mid-sentence. Under the circumstances, the subtitles perform manfully, even though they’re occasionally contradicted by what’s being said, and I got the distinct impression that quite a few lines were off-limits to non-Hindi speakers. Still, that’s a relatively minor point (I’ve yet to see a subtitled film that genuinely translates everything!).
Colourful, exuberant and ultimately life-affirming, Monsoon Wedding is a genuinely feelgood experience that, unlike many of its Hollywood counterparts, doesn’t feel the least bit contrived. In the Nair canon, it lacks the power of her debut Salaam Bombay!, but after the relative misfire of Kama Sutra it’s a welcome return to form – and fans of other recent films with the word “wedding” in the title (most notably the P J Hogan diptych Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding, but also Four Weddings and a Funeral) will love it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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