The inherent problem with reviewing a foreign film that comes from a country that you know very little about is, well, you know very little about the country. As a result, you (the critic or viewer) are forced to accept the premise of this strange “world” that is being shown to you. After all, you can’t disagree with what you don’t know. This is a slightly amusing problem in my case, since I had just taken an entire college semester in Indian history and passed with a solid “A”. So I do know something about India’s history, but I couldn’t tell you anything about its culture.
Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding is a Bollywood production (“Bollywood” being a play on the American concept of “Hollywood movies”) about the Vermas, a middle-class Indian family getting ready for their oldest daughter’s arranged marriage. Since this is an arranged wedding, the bride and groom have never met and know nothing about each other. This is a problem since bride-to-be Aditi (Vasundhara Das) still has feelings for her married ex-boyfriend, and one gets the feeling she’s marrying out of spite. As friends and family gather at the Verma’s house for the impending wedding, different family members begin to feel different pressures, and old demons surface for others…
Monsoon Wedding is Mira Nair’s second feature length film shot in India with an all-Indian cast. (I believe she did some TV movies.) The first film was Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, a big budget movie set in ancient India, and a commercial flop in the States. For her second all-Indian production, Nair has taken a decidedly Bollywood approach. Nair and cinematographer Declan Quinn has elected to shoot Monsoon Wedding in a cinema verite style, using handheld cameras almost exclusively. They have also decided to go with natural lighting for many of the scenes, and the result is a gritty, realistic feel to the characters and their situation. The entire production couldn’t have cost a lot of money, which I believe was the intention all along. As a result, the movie looks spontaneous and chaotic, but of course we know it’s all choreographed chaos. Or is it?
The acting in Monsoon Wedding is quite good, especially by Shefali Shetty, who plays Ria, the Verma’s adopted daughter. Shetty is the soul of Monsoon Wedding, and its her story, playing out in the background with soulful side glances, that turns the film from a breezy comedy with snappy dialogue into a heavy drama involving (quite unexpectedly) sexual molestation. Actress Vasundhara Das, who plays Aditi, doesn’t fare quite as well, and is probably the weakest thespian in the entire production (or at least compared to co-star Shetty). Das’ Aditi frowns her way through half of the film only to undergo a sudden transformation that is rather unbelievable toward the end. I would have liked the film to focus more on Shetty’s struggles with her personal demons, but that wasn’t to be.
The Aditi character began as the lead, but eventually drifts into the background in favor of Ria’s struggle with her dark secret and other would-be love affairs going on around the Verma household. Most notable is the wedding coordinator Dubey (Vijay Raaz), who is courting Alice (Tilotama Shome), the Verma’s maid. The two’s romance is actually more believable and fulfilling than the superficial and uninteresting tension between Aditi and her would-be-groom Hermant (Parvin Dabas). I could have used more of Dubey and Alice, but instead Nair gave us too much Aditi and her never-ending frown.
Monsoon Wedding is a good, funny film that turns decidedly dramatic as the days wear on and the impending “happy” moment gets closer. The film also sports a terrific soundtrack. Despite not speaking a lick of Indian (is that the right word for the Indian language?) I found the soundtrack very peppy and the instrumentals very pleasing to the ear.
The film’s dialogue is curiously half-Indian and half-English, and sometimes the two languages get merged seamlessly by the actors in mid-sentence. This caught me off guard at first, but I eventually warmed to the idea and didn’t find it to be much of a hindrance from that moment on. I actually rather enjoyed the presence of a lot of English, since it meant I didn’t have to read the subtitles as often. The pain of reading subtitles is further complicated by the fact that the subtitles are in white font, and much of the movie is bathed in white clothes and background. To say I had to squint a lot is an understatement.
One half of the movie’s title, “monsoon” of course refers to a storm. There is indeed a storm during the wedding, but if you think that’s the monsoon the title refers to, you’re very much wrong. When the real storm finally does come, it’s time to take cover.
Mira Nair (director) / Sabrina Dhawan (screenplay)
CAST: Naseeruddin Shah….Lalit Verma
Lillete Dubey…. Pimmi Verma
Shefali Shetty …. Ria Verma
Vijay Raaz …. P.K. Dubey
Tilotama Shome …. Alice