To attempt to fully describe what director Mira Nair has created with Monsoon Wedding is not the easiest of tasks. The 2001 film, shot by Declan Quinn with a script from Sabrina Dhawan, is the tale of the wedding of the only daughter of a Punjabi family in Delhi. As with so much of Nair's work, the film neither lies wholly within the rubric of Western filmmaking, but nor can it be placed squarely into the category of Indian film either. Instead, Nair manages to take elements from both, creating a film which, though shot in a mere 30 days and very inexpensively, is brilliant, and which now has a Criterion Collection edition.
Monsoon Wedding centers itself on a father, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), as he prepares for the wedding of his only daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das). Though Lalit has only a small immediate family, as one would expect, he has a massive extended family, all of whom descend upon his house for this occasion. Nair attempts, quite successfully, to tell a number of the different stories that take place within the family, and while she leaves a lot of loose threads hanging by the closing credits, one still walks away from the film with a great sense that the events (film and wedding) have worked out wonderfully.
The bride's story revolves around the fact that not only has Aditi never actually met her betrothed and not only does he live in Houston with the intent of taking her back there following the wedding, but also that she has been having an affair with her boss who just happens to be married. Although her specific issues are not at the heart of the film, Nair is able to use them to examine and discuss the norm/tradition in India and how it is changing, and perhaps not for the better.
In fact, watching the film, one gets the sense that every storyline that appears does so with the specific intent of raising a larger issue – perhaps not taking a stand on the issue, but at the very least raising it. One of the most compelling stories told is that of the burgeoning love between PK Dubey (Vijay Raaz), the wedding planner, and Alice (Tillotama Shome), the Vermas' housekeeper. Dubey initially seems to only appear for comic effect, but between quick glances, slightly longer looks, a few brief words, and facial expressions, Nair is able to build their love story through the course of the film, to the point where it becomes a far more engrossing love story than that of Aditi and her betrothed, Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas).
Of course, one can't escape the clear fact that Nair is again raising a cultural issue by having the Dubey-Alice love story eclipse the Aditi-Hemant one. Dubey and Alice both belong to the working underclass, whereas Aditi and Hemant are both squarely middle class, and the couples' positions in society are repeatedly underscored throughout the film. Whether Nair is arguing for one type of love over the other or merely highlighting the class differences in approach to love and marriage I will leave up to the viewer. Arguments can be made on both sides, and one's feeling on Nair's position will almost undoubtedly be heavily colored by one's own life.
There are a number of other important stories which take place in Monsoon Wedding (including one that deals with sexual abuse) and while some of the storylines seem to be typical of Bollywood fare (which this is not) others certainly are not.
Nair does a wonderful job both borrowing from and subverting traditional Bollywood notions. While dancing does take place, the film doesn't have the same song-and-dance mentality and focus a Bollywood movie does. While the characters are Indian, the manner in which they discuss things is not the same as what one would see in a Bollywood movie. Where the film does follow Bollywood is with its combining of genres, utilizing both comedic and melodramatic moments to underscore its points.
As this is a Criterion release, one would expect to find – and does find here – several outstanding special features. A two-disc set on DVD (one on Blu-ray), the entire second disc is made up of six different Nair shorts, and a seventh short appears on the disc with the main film. Three of the shorts, "The Laughing Club of India," "So Far From India," and "India Cabaret," are documentary, while four — "The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat," "11'09"01 – September 11" (Segment "India"), "Migration," and "How Can it Be?" — are fictional. The shorts all have something to recommend them and give a greater insight into Nair's worldview and who she is as a filmmaker.
However, more interesting than the shorts are two supplemental discussions that were filmed specifically for the release. One of these contains Nair talking to Naseeruddin Shah about their recollections of how the film came together, while the other features cinematographer Declan Quinn talking with Stephanie Carroll, the production designer. Watching these two conversations, one gets a great idea of how the film actually came into being in a much more real-seeming way than one gets from a pre-packaged and produced behind-the-scenes making-of featurette. The release also contains an audio commentary track with Nair which was originally recorded in 2002 and the theatrical trailer. Lastly, there is a short booklet included with the set which contains an essay on the film by Pico Iyer.
On DVD, the picture, though it has been made from a brand new high definition transfer, looks distinctly older than it should. Several scenes contain what seems to be digital noise, and one can even see the occasion bits of dirt or other imperfections. The Blu-ray version is infinitely better on all counts, with a sharper picture, better color, and less digital noise. The 5.1 channel soundtrack on the Blu-ray (and DVD) is good, but not spectacular. Though a surround sound track, and though there are plenty of opportunities for the surrounds to come into play, they are most noticeable when the Universal logo plays at the start of the film. On the upside, the audio track is clean and the various elements of it balance well.
Monsoon Wedding is a brilliant film by a brilliant filmmaker. It is serious and funny, heartwarming and depressing, Western and Indian. It is a great movie and well worthy of being added to the vaunted Criterion Collection.