Spoilers may follow.
Monsoon Wedding belongs to an exclusive company of films that reminds us what it’s like to wander into a ball or a huge party, not knowing a single person in the room, and leave with maybe more than a few new friends. Like Robert Altman or Francis Ford Coppola, Mira Nair carefully choreographs her large cast so that we enter the movie seeing faces, hearing names, are not quite sure who’s who, but are still able to follow the story to its satisfying conclusion, finally aware of all the connections. Monsoon Wedding is the symphony. The cast is the orchestra. Nair the sure-footed, sensitive conductor.
But Nair’s handling of her ensemble is only her technical achievement. She succeeds at something greater: The natural familiarisation of the power of family. For viewers who are fortunate enough to belong to close-knit families, Monsoon Wedding will resonate profoundly. For those who are not, the subtleties of the relationships might go unvisited. Either way, we understand the nature of family, and have, at least at one point, experienced its resolute love.
This, above all, is what Monsoon Wedding is about.
Consider for a moment the crucial relationship between Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), patriarch of the Verma family, and Ria (Shefali Shetty), his single, altruistic niece, and how Nair and her screenwriter, Sabrina Dhawan, have developed the two characters from a point of casual familiarity to a bond that holds the entire movie together.
It is a time of great joy for the Verma family. Their eldest, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), has been arranged to marry the handsome, charming Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), who works in Houston and plans to bring Aditi with him. Arranged marriages are common in this part of the world, and in countries like China, where it is usually a stain of embarrassment upon the household if the eldest child is not married and shoved into the working world at the first sign of maturity.
Aditi is visually upset by this whole arrangement. She continues seeing her ex-boyfriend, Vikram (Sameer Arya), until one rainy night they steal away together in Vikram’s jeep for a tryst and get caught by the police for indecent exposure. As Vikram shuffles away to answer an emergency call from his wife, the police officers harass poor Aditi and she discovers, quite plainly, that even though Vikram is a gentleman, he is not a gentleman adulterer. She decides he’s no good and comes clean with Hemant (“I don’t want to start something new based on lies and deceit”).
The rest of the engagement is about the little stories that envelope the rest of the family. We meet Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), Lalit’s buoyant wife. There’s Varun (Ishaan Nair), their younger son, who is so clearly gay his parents require nightly reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race to get up to speed. We meet Pimmi’s sister, Shashi (Kamini Khanna), and her boisterous husband, C.L. (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), whose son, Rahul (Randeep Hooda), has just returned from being a DJ in Australia and, in the eyes of Uncle Lalit, has been brainwashed by Western culture and can’t do a single thing right. There’s the grandmother, no doubt the matriarch of the family, who stamps her authority on the film by perching in the background and observing comings and goings like a hawk. Not long after we are introduced to the Vermas, Lalit’s sister Vijaya (Ira Pandey), and his brother-in-law Tej (Rajat Kapoor) arrive. We are informed that Tej helped reshape Lalit’s life after Lalit’s older brother tragically died, and that Lalit is now forever in his debt. This is important, because as soon as Ria spots Uncle Tej emerging through the front door, a sudden stiffness becomes her face, and at once we know something’s up. Have I lost you yet?
There’s more. The in-laws arrive, led by Mohan Rai, played economically by that famed Indian veteran Roshan Seth. He brings with him his son Hemant, whose smile is an embrace of warmth. Then there’s Ayesha Verma (Neha Dubey) — another cousin of Aditi and Ria — who is nubile and attractive and falls instantly in love with Rahul, the inculcated DJ.
Comedy is provided by P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz), the motor-mouthed contractor, tasked with constructing the wedding tent and making sure the ceremony goes off without a hitch. His favourite phrase is “exactly and approximately”, words of a true businessman. With Dubey, Nair and Dhawan find the space to turn the quieter moments of Monsoon Wedding into a makeshift Bollywood musical, minus the music. Dubey tries to pursue the pretty house maid, Alice (Tillotama Shome), who is taciturn and hesitant but no doubt feels something soft and tender for this otherwise crude, cadaverous player. Their courtship seems to take place in another story, and on numerous occasions we expect a troupe of Bhangra dancers to pop out from behind a tree. One could argue for the redundancy of this romance, but this is an Indian movie, and Dubey is a likeable character. We want to see more of him.
All these lives come together in splendid elegance, as the focus shifts from one character to another, seamlessly tying all their stories together. Subtexts are carefully hinted at with nondescript gestures, as when Pimmi smokes in her bathroom and has to cover up the smell with air freshener, as if to ward off the suspicions of her husband. Later Lalit catches her red-handed but makes little news of it. Who is she hiding her habit from? Herself? It seems that almost everyone in the film has a secret to run from.
The dramatic centre of the plot revolves around the tension between Ria and Uncle Tej, who always looks to be hiding a trick up his sleeve, especially when he hovers around the young Aliya (Kemaya Kidwai). Here is where the relationship between Lalit and Ria solidifies into a cornerstone, as Lalit is forced to make a horrible decision. What moves me about this relationship is remembering that Lalit and Ria are uncle and niece, and that since Ria’s father (Lalit’s brother) died, Lalit has taken her as his own. His words of affirmation are touching: “These are my children, and I will protect them from myself if I have to”.
Monsoon Wedding uses the marriage of Aditi and Hemant as a backdrop for everyone else. Indeed, the couple is never at the forefront of what happens, except for a brief sojourn when Aditi finally reveals her infidelity. We become more entangled in the travails of Varun, whose unhappiness with his father forces him to quit dancing, and in the humility of Dubey’s workers, who catch Alice up to no good and later apologise when they realise they might have jeopardised a relationship.
The movie is a seamless blend of Hindi and English (Indians have an uncanny affinity for fluent English), which makes it at once foreign and familiar. It also addresses such themes as Westernisation, the Indian identity, foreign policies, and loyalty. At the end, there is joy once again and a cleansing shower in the rain. Everyone is singing and dancing and all ill-favour is washed away. At the heart of it all, at the very centre of the merriment, lies, irrevocably, the family.