“Monsoon Wedding” (2001) will transport you to Delhi, and it will immerse you so deeply in its people and culture that you will feel as if you’re in India. It will involve you in the four days leading up to a big traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding, and you will feel as if you are yourself participating in the celebration. It will move you by involving you in romantic and family predicaments. It’s visually sumptuous, funny, vibrant, energetic and rich in detail. You will feel jubilant and nourished after experiencing this film by Mira Nair. I’m not embarrassed to admit to you that as the credits rolled I leapt to my feet and started dancing.
Lalit and his wife Pimmi are in the midst of planning a beyond their means expensive Indian wedding for their daughter. Wanting a traditional event, the bride and groom’s betrothal was arranged by the families, and it is bringing together multi-generational members from around the globe – including the US and Australia. The engagement is tonight and four days later the wedding ceremony will take place. The groom, Hemat, is the son of a family friend, and is an engineer living in Texas. “Do you like India? It’s better than Houston. India needs man like you,” Lalit tells him. Hermat hasn’t seen his bride, Aditi in person. Their first face to face will be tonight. Aditi has been having an affair with a married man – and her disillusionment with that relationship is the reason she’s agreed to the arrangement ahead of her. Her young cousin – Ayesha – is infatuated with another family member, Rahul – who has come from Australia. Parabatlal the wedding planner – who has done over 100 nuptials – finds himself smitten by Alice – the family servant. Another cousin – Rai – has a family secret that will rock the moral foundation of the family. The languages spoken are Punjabi, Hindi and English – and sometimes all at once and within the same sentence. Traditions and new ways – eastern and western values all are under one roof, and there is a tug between them. There are many plot lines and many characters. Hermat, the groom, exclaims “I don’t even know who’s who all the time.” You will not have that problem. Director Mira Nair does a wonderful job interweaving all the different narratives, and you quickly start to care about each character.
Nair is the helmer of the Academy Award nominated “Salaam Bombay!” and “Mississippi Massala” among others. She was born in Bhubaneshwar, India and launched her career by coming to the United States – studying theatre at Harvard and making documentaries about Indian culture. “Monsoon Wedding” is her most ambitious film – and it is quite a statement about globalism –that people and their stories ought to be able to cross national borders unrestrained. The way that the wedding is an integration of cultures, cinematically, you can see the assimilation of different influences. There’s the documentary style at play – where the camera is capturing real moments as if we were watching a Robert Altman film (think “Nashville.”) There’s obviously the Bollywood influence – with music and dancing – yet it all feels very organic and not theatrical. There are distinctive Fellini touches – who like Nair cut his teeth documenting social realities and developing an extravagant style. Fellini equated life with a circus. The wedding itself becomes a big allegory of life – a big ritual we’re all part of. It all feels like beautifully organized chaos, and Nair manages it to make it all feel very personal.
In the background of the festivities is the hustle and bustle of present day Delhi. Nair sent an alternate crew to shoot the daily life in the city and intersperses her narrative with those sequences – making you feel as if you’re getting a full picture of what modern Delhi feels like. Working with talented cinematographer Declan Quinn (who’s wonderful work is on display in the capturing of Broadway’s sensation “Hamilton”) Nair is also able to show us a gorgeous lyricism in all the arrangements for the wedding. The colors are so sensuous. The movie opens with marigold petals coming down on the hands of Lalit. There’s a big monsoon at the end, and the rain coming down on the guests is stunning.
I should also point out that there’s a gravitas to the film – a fragility underneath all the vitality – and isn’t that what life is all about. This is a very life-affirming film. I cannot recommend it enough.
Saroj: “My darling, you have to be standing up in order to be able to fall. I mean, if you keep sitting on your ass, nothing’s gonna happen.”
Free to stream on Peacock and DIRECTV and to rent on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Written by Sabrina Dhawan
Directed by Mira Nair
Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shah, Vasundhara Das, Vijay Raaz, Tillotama Shome, Randeep Hooda, Rajat Kapoor, Jas Arora
Bringing “Monsoon Wedding” to the Screen
“Written in three languages (Punjabi, Hindi and English), shot by a predominantly American crew on Super 16mm, cast with actors from Indian television, film and theater, and scored by a Canadian with music selections that jump from hip-hop to traditional folk songs, the film ultimately embodies a pan-cultural eclecticism that roots the film within a new emerging international cinema style. For Nair, the film’s diverse references, resources and influences simply reflect her Indian roots. “For many years,” she explains, “India has received influences from others — first the British, and now American globalization. But if there is one place that can stand up to cultural imperialism, it is probably India. We can beg, borrow, assimilate, steal all of these influences and still make something distinctly Indian out of it.” “While “Monsoon Wedding” is a portrait of modern contemporary India,” Nair says, “it is also a very personal story about my kind of people, Punjabi people. It is a community that works hard, parties hard and has a huge appetite for life.”
It was, however, the failure of traditional Bollywood films to represent this world that initially inspired the film. (Bollywood, the name given to India’s thriving commercial film industry, is known for pageant-like musicals and comedies.) “A few years ago,” Nair recounts, “there was a huge Indian blockbuster, a family-wedding film with 21 songs that was four-hours long. I remember going with my whole family. Sabrina [Dhawan] and I were discussing this movie, sort of tongue-in-cheek, and said, ‘Let’s make a realistic family movie, one that actually shows you what it is really like.’” Dhawan, a student of Nair’s at Columbia University, took on the project and wrote the script. But even before the script was finished, Nair had secured the finances for the film by selling the idea of an American-independent-style film made in India to international partners. According to Nair, “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s make a movie that will sell all over the world,’ but rather, ‘Let’s make a movie in 30 days, and keep a lean budget, so the film would be purely about the act of making it.’ This was a radical approach for Bollywood.”…“We presented two pages that basically said, ‘This is an upper-class version of Salaam Bombay.’ I want to make a film in 20 days, handheld, and I want to make a meditation on love. And here are the five different types of love. I had 18 meetings over one-and-half days and everybody said yes.” Adds Baron, “We sold this film as sort of ‘East meets West’ in the New India, because most Westerners don’t have a clear picture of contemporary India.”
Referring to the specifics of the deal, Nair explains, “We pre-sold distribution rights to three markets — the French, Italians and Germans. At the end, Jonathan Sehring of the Independent Film Channel came along, but I told him that I didn’t really need him. He said, “Keep the others as your pre-sales, but I’ll give you over and above what you might need [to make the movie]. And, inevitably, as with all my movies, one or two partners fell out at the very last minute!”
For Nair, the journey to France to raise European funding to allow her to journey from New York to India made perfect sense. “I lived and worked in India till I was 19 and then came to America to study,” she says. “And I have actively divided my time between India and America, and now Africa for the last 10 years. Originally it could have been a ‘social confusion’ [to live this way], but for a long time now I have sought to use this confusion and make it the foundation of my work, the way I see my sensibility and the way that I see the world.” This sensibility, through which Nair finds elements of commonality in the stories of people from very different and specific communities, has distinguished all of her film work.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
The Making of “Monsoon Wedding”
“…For the production, Nair used a familiar team that included producer Caroline Baron, production designer Stephanie Carroll, and Sundance-prize-winning d.p. Declan Quinn — all of whom had previously journeyed with Nair to make “Kama Sutra.” Baron recounts, “We had a really lean pre-production period, shooting on a shoestring and depending on friends and family. Many of Mira’s friends found us locations and provided costumes. The whole thing unfolded in a very organic way.” Indeed the team even instituted intimate rituals. As Baron explains, “Yoga was usually done in the morning before call, and we did it every day with both cast and crew. It put everyone literally on an equal footing, with the yoga instructor going around pointing out that the d.p. was bow-legged and I was flat footed. And Mira’s mom, Praveen, cooked all the lunches for pre-production and may of the meals for different cast and crew during the shoot.” The intimacy of the group also provided Nair with the flexibility to play with multiple cinematic influences — everything from American documentary, Bolly-wood, classic Indian cinema, the films of Emir Kusturica, photography and even Fellini. “My influences in making films are eclectic. I am great fan of Indian cinema, like the films of Raj Kapoor. But equally I was a student of Pennebaker. He was my mentor and taught me the extraordinariness of ordinary life — how to see it and how to surrender to it and how to be humble to it. My influences go from the cinema verité to Bollywood to photography.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
The Music of “Monsoon Wedding”
“…In creating the film’s soundtrack, Nair used her free-wheeling sensibility to articulate the sensation of Indian life. “Some filmmakers look at every movie as the opportunity to create a whole new soundtrack,” Nair explains, “but I don’t look at it that way. For me, the soundtrack is about reality or, really, hyper-reality. When you walk down a street in India, you hear four transistor radios with four different Indian pop songs.” Even the intrusion of Bollywood dance and spectacle into the film was more a reflection of lived Indian life than those cinematic forms. “That is what India is like,” observes Baron. “Because Bollywood is such a part of Indian culture, it is reflected in everyday life. Just as we could start singing some TV theme song, and other people would join in, Indians would refer to Bollywood. The scene in the swimming pool where the cousin starts to dance in a parody of Bollywood is not that unusual.” But Nair, despite her Indian heritage and her current experience making a music-filled wedding film in the shadow of Bollywood, says she doesn’t really like the tunes in the typical Indian musical. “I don’t really like the use of music in Bollywood cinema,” she says. “It’s so heavily orchestrated and synthesized. It’s very reductive while trying to be slick and hip!” (filmmakermagazine.com)
About Director Mira Nair
“As a young woman, Nair left India, where she was born and raised, to study on a full scholarship at Harvard. Her first documentary was also her thesis film, in 1979 – Jama Masjid Street Journal – a black and white film shot on the streets of Delhi. She followed up, in 1983, with the award-winning So Far From India, about an Indian man pursuing the immigrant dream of a better life in New York, while his pregnant wife awaited his return home. Next came “India Cabaret” (1985), her most provocative documentary, following two female strippers in Mumbai to explore stereotypes around female “respectability”, or, as she has put it, “the line that divides good women from so called not-good women in society.” Trained in cinema verité, and mentored by D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, Nair sought to film “truth” as unvarnished as possible. To that end, she moved in with her subjects (as she had with “So Far From India”). “I lived with the strippers for four months,” says Nair, despite her family’s objections to making the film. After its completion, Nair knew she wanted to move into fiction: “I wanted more control of the story.” At that time, she points out, “documentaries were hardly ever seen” and she “got tired of waiting for audiences” to come to her work.
Her narrative film debut, “Salaam Bombay!” was, she says, “an amalgam” of her theatre and documentary training. Nair sought out real street children to portray their experiences on screen authentically and worked with documentary cinematographer Sandi Sissel. “Salaam Bombay!,” now considered a cinematic classic, received more than 25 international awards, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Nair continues to seamlessly blend non-actors with professional actors in her work (including, most recently, in “Queen of Katwe”), and often incorporates documentary-style, on-location shooting to establish authentic details. Throughout, she has continued to make the occasional short documentary, including “Children of A Desired Sex” (1987) for Canadian television, about the practice of aborting female foetuses in favour of male offspring, “The Laughing Club of India” (2001), about the healing power of laughter based on yoga, and “A Fork, a Spoon and a Knight” (2014), about Robert Katende, who founded the chess academy depicted in “Queen of Katwe.” The short allowed Disney execs, who were producing the film, to see the style in which Nair would depict Katwe…Inseparable from her filmmaking is Nair’s activism. After “Salaam Bombay!,” she used the film’s profits to create the Salaam Balak Trust, which works with street children in India. And in 2005, Nair founded Maisha, in Uganda, an annual filmmakers’ laboratory to train young directors in East Africa, with the motto: “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”. When it comes to choosing her work, Nair says she asks herself a simple question: “Is this a film only I can make?” Unusual for a filmmaker of her calibre, Nair also makes short narrative films, including some for omnibus collections such as “11’09”01 – September 11” (2002) and “New York, I Love You” (2008). “Short films are an expression of freedom for me,” says Nair. “I can do whatever I want. And they’re not commercially financed, so you can tell tricky tales. I love the rigour of it.” She pauses, then adds, “It’s much better than selling perfumes,” a sly allusion to directing commercials, which she has also done.
Her film “Monsoon Wedding” (winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival – a rare honour for female directors shared only by Margarethe von Trotta, Agnès Varda, and Sofia Coppola) has been adapted to the stage as a musical. It ran at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in New York…(povmagazine.com) In 2012, Nair was awarded the Padma Bhushan—India’s second-highest civilian honor—by the president of India. (fordfoundation.org) “There’s no one way to look at the world,” says Nair. “I live in three homes – in Kampala, Uganda, in New Delhi and in New York City. I am fortunate therefore to have an expansive view of the world. We’ve been told for centuries the West is the only way to see the world, and that is utterly to be questioned. What is meaningful in one place is meaningless in another.” (povmagazine.com)