In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Only through a lens of modern life and leisure could India’s monsoons be considered an inconvenience — urban infrastructure planned poorly around climatic clockwork or haphazardly scheduled plans ending in postponement or tears. Monsoons bring an ecological end to summer heat, agricultural rejuvenation, and economic boons. As seen in Monsoon Wedding, they also cool tensions as deeply as topsoils — a symbolic scouring of oppressive patriarchy and regressive customs that have for too long excused the unforgivable for a status quo of convenience.
That doesn’t sound like the sensation of swooning exuberance with which you’d walk away from most romantic dramedies such as this. But director Mira Nair, screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan, cinematographer Declan Quinn, composer Mychael Danna and their considerably sized and capable cast won’t settle for you simply walking away. They want you to go home gliding and succeed mightily.
Wedding arrived as a second act of sorts for the critically acclaimed Nair, whose leap from documentary to narrative work came with 1988’s Salaam Bombay!. The story of an 11-year-old toiling in Bombay’s slums to repay a debt to his family, it became India’s first nominee for the Best International Feature Film Oscar in over 30 years. Nair’s follow-up, 1991’s Mississippi Masala, starred Denzel Washington in a romantic drama about Indians displaced in the American South.
After follow-ups like 1995’s The Perez Family and 1996’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love failed to generate similar critical or commercial steam, Wedding represented a return to prominence. Released on the festival circuit in 2001 before a larger global release in 2002, it remains Nair’s highest-grossing work to date (with a tally of about $30 million). With it, Nair also became only the second Indian filmmaker to win the Venice Film Festival’s top prize of the Golden Lion (after Satyajit Ray in 1956).
Wedding also presaged the popularity of 2003’s Love, Actually with its entwined ensemble of love stories, all set here against the backdrop of an Indian family’s reunion in New Delhi for an arranged marriage. Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) is a businessman often flustered by beleaguerment of his own creation. Alongside his wife, Pimmi (Lillete Duvey), Lalit is planning nuptials for his daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das). Aditi works for a TV talk-show host named Vikram (Sameer Arya), a very married man with whom she’s having an affair. Aditi’s groom-to-be is Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a son of family friends with whom Aditi will move to the United States and live in Houston after the wedding.
“I leave the palace of your love to become a stranger to you forever.” So goes a ritualistic pre-wedding recitation that feels as emotionally agonizing to Lalit as it does like an eye-rolling, musty equation of marriage and property to Aditi. An arranged marriage is a perfect axis around which to revolve this story of slowly evolving cultural viewpoints in contemporary India. Nair and Dhawan are also careful to not romanticize or demonize the notion. They simply establish it as a focus for their story about the push and pull toward a more permissive society — one in which women like Aditi have largely gained strength to define themselves as they see fit but in which duplicity and degradation are also revered. So it goes with the way Aditi ends her dalliance with Vikram. It takes place after a confrontation with some cops that thankfully never turns violent or shameful. Instead, the encounter assures Aditi that a path to self-esteem and self-worth is the right one and that an arranged marriage doesn’t divert her from the destination.
Part of her journey includes being upfront with Hemant about her now-concluded affair. Hemant’s initial response of petulant anger and punitive silence seems doomed to disintegrate the wedding plan. But he soon realizes how greatly Vikram broke Aditi’s heart, sees that the trust Aditi placed in revealing this to him reflects his own preferences for relationships, and acknowledges that his own past romantic struggles with radical honesty fueled his reaction.
It’s here that Wedding strikes its biggest blow against those who may turn up their nose at arranged marriage as an inherently barbaric and passionless practice. “What marriage isn’t a risk?” Hemant asks Aditi, whether it begins with a flirtation in a crowded bar or a brokering by blood. Statistically, it’s no greater gamble than marriages derived from Westernized courtship customs and, if successful, it will be similarly rooted in expressions of compromise, confidence and connection. The practical terms through which Aditi and Hemant develop their love runs counter to the often dippy dictations of romantic stories. But this pragmatic pairing understands that a large part of love is exhibiting empathy and encouragement for the choices that your partner makes and sharing in the resultant joy, anger or sadness together. It’s an emotional freedom magnified by the larger clashes of modernity and tradition playing out among the Verma family, and it also generates more legitimate exuberance than manufactured whimsy — all of which carries over to the extensive subplots surrounding Aditi and Hemant’s wedding.
Dubey (Vijay Raaz) is a fast-talking wedding planner who hopes that if he speaks fast enough, no one will notice his go-to noncommittal phrases like “exactly and approximately.” But Dubey’s motormouth is also a smokescreen for his own sorrows. Always the wedding planner and as yet never a wedding haver, Dubey is incredibly lonely and smitten by Alice (Tillotama Shome), the Vermas’ maid. She reciprocates that interest but also happens to be a Christian, which challenges the narrative of a religiously tidy coupling that Dubey’s mother would prefer. Moments like Alice brushing Dubey’s business card against her skin create an unexpected charge for them and Wedding, abetted by Danna’s mellifluously seductive score. Meanwhile, Raaz and Shome introduce complexities rooted in class concerns to characters that would otherwise be pure comic relief or simple window-dressing that love is all around. The presumptions that Dubey and Alice’s peers adopt about them complicate their courtship so vividly that even their second-string romance rivals the main one en route to a quietly satisfying and fitting conclusion.
Then there’s Ria (Shefali Shah), who is Aditi’s cousin by nature and sister by nurture. Lalit and Pimmi raised Ria as their own after her father’s death. Now a grown woman, Ria is eager to attend college in America, but it’s a dream defiled in her mind as Tej (Rajat Kapoor), Lalit’s brother-in-law and longtime financial savior, offers to pay Ria’s way.
“There are no accounts between families,” Tej knowingly lies about such monetary arrangements. Everyone knows that builds a deeper debt than anyone looking in from the outside could ever understand. To wave off his financial largesse like nothing as Tej does is to wield it like a sharpened knife. Although she is definitely discomforted by Tej, Ria also stalls the sensitive conversation about why she feels that way. Soon, it becomes clear that Tej’s wealth has papered over some reprehensible transgressions and Ria observes signs that they will be resurrected on someone else in the family.
While Ria must choose to navigate a lose-lose situation of calling Tej out, either blowing up the family or the wedding, Dhawan does not let Lalit off the hook either. He must back up his insistence that he would absorb all the sorrows and troubles of the world to prioritize his children’s happiness. For far too long, he and Ria have cast aside a crucial confrontation of the truth out of what they perceive to be the family’s best interests. Asking Ria to stay will not be enough for Lalit. He must demand that Tej go and never come back, lest all of his proclamations of paternal affection collapse in shifting sands. Nair and Dhawan do not treat what happens here as a salacious secret but rather something adjacent to Aditi’s own path to self-respect: Neither Ria nor Lalit have been honest with the other for years, and the slow, but mutual, respect they reclaim for themselves and each other is a moving reconnection rather than tawdry melodrama.
Meanwhile, Aditi’s teen-aged brother, Varun (Ishan Nair, Mira’s nephew), is choreographing an elaborate wedding-party dance with his cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey). Like most teenagers at one point or another, Varun is lazy by way of defiance but sparks to life amid creative collaboration with Ayesha and the colorful pageantry of the pending wedding. Lalit should be grateful that his layabout son has found something he loves, but yet he worries that Varun is becoming too effeminate and threatens to send him to boarding school. The screenplay suggests Lalit’s hardline stance hews less to his own personal prejudices and more to the hardships he fears a larger, less forgiving world might throw at Varun. It’s inevitable that a screenplay with so many things happening will set aside at least one definitive resolution, and so it goes with Varun’s future. However, Wedding suggests Lalit’s eventual embrace of empathy will extend to encouraging Varun to take his own shape rather than sanding him down to a more socially acceptable texture. When Lalit says “These are my children and I will protect them even from myself if I have to,” it’s a sensitivity and self-awareness that comes to represent the very reason why cultures evolve.
Last and least (but still fun), there’s the chemistry between Ayesha and Rahul (Randeep Hooda), Pimmi’s nephew visiting from Australia whose worldly pride threatens to botch his experimentation with Ayesha at the worst possible moment. Even the best romantic comedies need sequences of hot people doing hot things together, and that’s largely the function for these characters whom Dubey and Hooda nevertheless endow with charm and charisma.
What might feel like entirely too much for a two-hour tale instead becomes a generous helping of cultural specificity and universal relatability. Quinn’s roving camera feels more emotionally inquisitive than interrogative, establishing soft subtext rather than soft focus. With Nair, he creates impressionistic filmmaking akin to Robert Altman without the overlay of sniping cynicism. We are flies on the wall to the extended Verma family’s every glance, touch, resentment and grudge, communicated as much by what is unsaid and culturally internalized.
All of this anxiety and strife eventually melts with a family-wide acquiescence to the aforementioned dance and the assertion that yes, Aditi and Hemant do give it a go. The closing-credit sequences resemble scrapbook snippets of joyous wedding memories imprinting on the Verma family forever … but we also see Hemant and Aditi eager to wrap up the formalities so they can see what that life they’ve chosen to forge together will look like. Monsoon Wedding is a story of passionate love that’s both romantic and familiar, one graciously stuffed with overtures that are sweet and sexy, and a reminder that just as rains offer dampening rejuvenation, boundless love of any stripe helps damper the din of the world around us and develop it a little more, too.