Thursday, March 1, 2012

Movie – Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Monsoon Wedding is probably Indian director Mira Nair’s most popular film in North America.  She first hit my radar screen with the Oscar nominated 1988 film Salaam Bombay.  Although I still have not seen that movie, I did see her American follow-up, 1991’s Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury.  That made me a fan of Nair’s, so I have tried to see her other films over the years.  While Nair has explored topics are far ranging as Cuban refugees (1995’s The Perez Family) and classic English literature (2004’s Vanity Fair), Monsoon Wedding is a tale of two Indian families that are trying to balance tradition with modernism, while blending their families into one.  The result is a charming combination of light comedy, romance, and drama.

There are dozens of characters in this two hour movie, many of whom get some scenes that make them more three dimensional.  I’ve seen this film three times and I’m still not exactly sure how every character is related to every other character (parent, child, sibling, cousin, family friend, etc.)  Complicating matters is the common practice in India of referring to older people as “auntie” or “uncle” and female peers as “didi” (sister).  If you are the kind of person who has to know exactly who everyone is, then you may want to have paper and pen ready in order to draw notes for yourself as you watch.  The important thing is that they are all Family (with a capital “F”).

There are many stories running through the movie.  The first is the wedding, of course.  It is an arranged marriage (still quite common in India at the time).  The bride to be has been having a love affair with a married TV personality, but she has broken that off – sort of.  The term “cold feet” definitely applies here, especially when she’s only just met the groom her parents have picked for her.  He has spent the last four years in America, and that’s where the couple will go after they are married.

The bride is the only daughter of a middle aged couple that is financially comfortable, although not rich.  Weddings are huge in India.  Family members travel home from all over the globe to be there.  One couple I worked with who went home to get married described their 300 guest, multi-day wedding as “small” and they were being completely serious.  I’m told 1,000 wedding guests is common.  As you might expect, these events can get very expensive and very chaotic.  This is where some of the humor comes in.  As the mother of the bride says, “This wedding is driving me nuts.”  She has taken up smoking in the bathroom and is trying to hide it from her husband. 

Meanwhile, he is dealing with the “event planner” who is building an outdoor tent to cover the people.  It’s going to be during monsoon season, so the father asks about the weatherproofing of the canopy.  The event planner, who has already pocketed the money from the father, responds along the lines of, “You want weatherproofing?  Oh my my my.  I’m afraid that will cost extra.”  As if the father wouldn’t want it with torrential rains due to come.  The event planner says, “The Peacocks are not dancing, it will not rain.”  The Father responds, “’The Peacocks are not dancing, it will not rain’? Have you smoked ganja?”

This event planner ends up becoming entranced with the servant who works in the home of the bride’s family.  There is a sweet little courtship between the two.  I’ve been told by folks from India that this subplot isn’t really realistic because of their different social statures, but I’m sure that’s what makes it more romantic to folks.

Other subplots include a cousin of the bride who has obviously got hard feelings against an old family friend.  This becomes very important as the film goes on.  (What’s a big wedding without a family secret coming to light?)  Another subplot involves a relative of the bride from Australia and a relative of the groom immediately having sparks.  Both are very good looking.  She’s got a tattoo and is obviously more sexually open than the other women.  There’s a great little moment in the score when she is sneaking through the house at night, probably to visit the guy from Australia.  There’s a little bit of sexy music played when she enters the room, not unlike in an old film noir when a saxophone would be heard as the femme fatale appears.

This woman is trying to choreograph a routine to dance to at the wedding.  The younger brother of the bride is helping her and will perform with her.  He’s around 12 or 13 and is only interested in cooking, sewing, dancing, and makeup.  As his father facetiously says to his wife at one point, “Why don’t we just find him a nice boy and be done with it.”

There was a subplot with the groom’s parents that ended up getting cut for budgetary reasons.  Consequently those roles were reduced in the final film.  The father of the groom, played by Roshan Seth, is probably the most recognizable face to North American audiences.  He played Nehru in the 1982 Best Picture winner Gandhi.

A heads up on the languages in the film: there is a constant mixture of English, Hindi, and Punjabi being spoken.  Quite often a character switches among these languages during the course of a single conversation.  I’m told by friends from India that this is also very common.  Languages are very fluid there.  For those that don’t know, India has hundreds of spoken languages, some of them quite prevalent.  There is a whole industry subgroup of Indian films in Tamil, for instance.  The Punjabi used in this film is another example of a language specific to a region.  Hindi is the official national language of India.  English is the unofficial national language.  People growing up in India typically learn at least three languages – their local one, Hindi, and English.  When watching the movie it might take a couple of times when they switch to English to get used to the subtitles disappearing.  These language switches do not affect the impact of the humor, although I’m sure there were references to local people or events that I did not pick up on because I am not a native.

This is a good film to introduce you to a microcosm of a lot of what India was going through as the new millennium dawned – the old and the new, the economic and the ethical, the romantic and the pragmatic.  You really come to care for many of these characters, and anyone who has been through a big wedding themselves can identify with at least one character in the movie, even though it is a different culture.  It shows that no matter where you are, weddings have a lot of things in common.  I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. I found this film (dare I use the word?) enchanting. I was concerned about the huge number of people in the cast and the chaos, but found it easy to follow and also found characters I liked and enjoyed spending time with.

    As a side note, I've been to an Indian wedding, and while the experience was notably different as a non-member of the family, there were certainly things I saw here that I recognized.

    It's a lovely film, one that also serves as a painless introduction to the vast world of Indian national cinema.

  2. @SJHoneywell - Thanks for sharing. "It's a lovely film, one that also serves as a painless introduction to the vast world of Indian national cinema." I completely agree.