he 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.