Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
If for every time a person spoke the words, “I don’t understand women,” or “Men are so complicated,” or “There are some people in this world whose motivations you’ll never understand,” or “We’ll have agree to disagree,” an elven creature carrying a satchel full of cash materialized out of thin air and handed me a crisp dollar bill, I would be rich enough to invent a device that allowed the Earth’s population to read each other’s thoughts, peer into one another’s minds, take a gander at the hearts of those they’d otherwise never meet as a way to bridge connections and foster compassion. Point being, humans are a tricky species, rippled with nuances that oftentimes make some seem too different from others to ever share a seat at the same table.
The fact that director Mira Nair disproves that very notion — shattering built-up social walls, bounding over national barriers, and blasting proverbial confetti in the air to celebrate the beauty of human nature — is a feat worthy of applause.
Nair achieves this in Monsoon Wedding, the follow up to her scintillating film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, a family drama dripping with charm and stunning, spiced visuals, saturated with the stuff that can make even the blackest of hearts glow saffron yellow.
An Indian comedy of manners nestled in a nuptial-centric narrative a la Charles Shyer’s Father of the Bride and Joel Zwick’s My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, Monsoon Wedding introduces us to the wide-reaching and wealthy Varma family of Delhi, headed up by the slightly paranoid paterfamilias Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and his right-hand matriarch Pimmi (Lillete Dubey). The pair are up to their eyeballs in wedding planning, adamant that daughter Aditi’s (Vasundhara Das) arranged marriage to Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), a non-resident Indian from Houston, plays out perfectly in line with established traditions. But beneath the mania bubbles a scandalous secret: Aditi is still struggling to break off an illicit affair with her married boss Vikram, a relationship that leaves her disillusioned to the notion of love and complicates her impending tying of the knot with Hemant.
And so we see the tangled web woven in front of us, and the story zooms out to explore the full scope of Aditi’s loveable and more than a little loopy kin and the new family she’ll soon be a part of.
As Aditi confesses her indiscretions to Hemant and the two attempt a resolution, layers of familial dysfunction shuffle out in upstairs-downstairs fashion. There’s the exploration of burgeoning sexuality when Aditi’s fetching cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey) widens her eyes at the sight of Rahul Chadha (Randeep Hooda), an equally good-looking college student visiting from Australia; a head-over-feet falling in lust when wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) meets the Vermas’ maid Alice (Tilotama Shome); the rising to the surface of a painful secret when coustin Ria Verma (Shefali Shah) reveals the abuse she suffered at the hands of another family member; and the grappling between morality and honor when father Lalit learns of one of his children’s true identity.
Like the spirits sipped during a post-ceremony celebration, the overlapping storylines are all so intoxicating. Each character, teeming with life and with loss, blossoms organically, a beautiful thing only made better when a handful more enter the picture moments later, speaking the verbal equivalent of a trifle as they dice their sentences into English, Hindi, and Punjabi. That kind of linguistic spontaneity is a delightful noise, a mirroring of the melting pot of Monsoon Wedding’s people: a little Australian, a little old-school Indian, a little new-wave American.
Tensions mount to a peak — the monsoon that marks the start of the wedding and Aditi’s new life with Hemant — and the subterranean soul of Monsoon Wedding is washed ashore: As humans, it’s in our bones to bring love to the light and let it heal the aches, mend the fractures, make it all whole. It doesn’t matter if you live in an overpriced New York studio, a cottage in an Irish village, or the hectic Delhi Aditi calls home, we all fall to that squishiness, that shared drive. With Monsoon Wedding, Nair reminds us of that fact.
Describing Monsoon Wedding is difficult, for its variegated nature somewhat resists definition. My insides tell me its is the type of film you’d find yourself watching on a Sunday at 11:30 in the morning, suddenly and inexplicably stuck in front of the television in the middle of a pre-planned apartment cleaning session, swept up in its colors and its cast and its chaos (of the bursting-with-joy variety). Transplanted into a new world, you feel at ease with characters tens of thousands of miles from your (still dirty) home, pick up on an urge that tickles the back of your legs and tells you dance amidst the falling rain and the swelling tides that decorate Aditi’s big day. Monsoon Wedding is a film that turns expectations on their heads: It’s no art haus endeavor, but it shimmers with artfulness; it’s no side-splitting romp, but it captures comedy keenly; it’s no bra-burning groundbreaker that reconstitutes feminism, but it delivers modernity in the cultural tradition at the center of its story.
More than all of this, Monsoon Wedding is an aide-mémoire for the intricacies of humanity, an example of the power of empathy, a display of a female filmmaker’s inexhaustible emotion (and her ostensibly innate sense for translating that to cinema), and cup of sweet coffee for your subconscious — all testament’s to Nair’s dexterity in handling big-hearted tales laced with fragility.
Monsoon Wedding is sumptuous and silly (and makes me crave samosas and chana masala with a fierceness) and an exquisite depiction of Nair’s talents. My only regret in watching the film is that I didn’t do it sooner.