A Film Ahead Of Its Time: Monsoon Wedding

A startling snapshot of contemporary India in the guise of a classic family drama, Monsoon Wedding blended old and modern sensibilities to give us a wedding to remember
A Film Ahead Of Its Time: Monsoon Wedding

During the 90s, Sooraj Barjatya popularised the genre of films centred around weddings in the family. These films were rooted in archaic values and struggled to stay relevant as years passed because of the evolving socio-cultural fabric of Indian society. As exposure to Western media made the younger generations question certain rudimentary beliefs held by elders, there was a gaping void left in the “wedding film”. India needed a film that married the vibrance of quintessential Big Fat Indian Wedding films with the unabashed dedication towards showcasing reality. Amidst this, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding came as a breath of fresh air. It was a melange of old and new sensibilities, which transcended the scope of a traditional wedding celebration by throwing equal light on the problems simmering just below the facade of a happy family. 

Monsoon Wedding is one of a kind because its warmth never feels far-fetched. Considering the various dire circumstances the characters go through, the happiness they derive in the smallest moments, be it a moment of intimacy after the lights go out or singing with family, feels well-deserved. The wholesomeness is not manufactured nor is it there by default of it being set in a wedding atmosphere. Monsoon Wedding succeeds in being India’s best wedding film because it does not sugarcoat or try to stow away the problems families face. In fact, it dares to tackle topics which most filmmakers that day didn’t dare to. Monsoon Wedding’s significant contribution to movies about dysfunctional families like Dil Dhadakne Do or Kapoor & Sons cannot be ignored. In an era brimming with conservative commercial cinema, Monsoon Wedding presented a progressive take on several issues without compromising on entertainment and warmth. 

A Film Ahead Of Its Time: Monsoon Wedding
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A recurrent theme of Monsoon Wedding that is widely spoken about is the sexual abuse angle. Nair handles this issue with a lot of sensitivity. The gut-wrenching reveal that Tej sexually abused Ria when she was a kid and had already started doing the same with Aliya is shocking because throughout the film Tej only seems to be a righteous man. From willing to pay for Ria’s education in the US to being revered by Lalit for having bailed them out in times of trouble, there is no reason to suggest he is an indecent pervert. Mira Nair deserves credit for the casting because she did not want to cast someone who has played villainous roles before. In one interview she calls Tej “a sophisticated purveyor of wrongdoing” which is apt because beneath the facade of civility lies unpardonable actions that should never be condoned, but often are in Indian families for the sake of “maintaining their respect”. It was a bold step to show sexual abuse from members within the family, especially the respected elders who misuse their respect. 

Another aspect of this film that was progressive was the fascinating depiction of female sexuality and how it is repressed in Indian society in several forms. Right before the wedding, the girls talk about physical intimacy and Ria talks about how she can barely enjoy kissing because her mind inevitably wanders to some pending tasks, followed by Aliya who says that there isn’t anything fun about kissing because all one has to do is “Open your mouth and he sticks his tongue in”. Both girls, having been sexually abused by their uncle at a young age, had their innocence completely snatched from them. What is supposed to be a wondrous expression of love has become a chore for them. Having been sexualised right from childhood, there is barely any desire left in Ria to pursue any romantic or sexual relationship, which explains her resistance to marriage despite every second person convincing her to get married or mocking her for being unmarried. The film hints at not being restrained about its depiction of female sexuality right from the beginning where there is this awkward scene played for laughs where a female dubbing artist comes on a news channel debate, which coincidentally is about censorship of sexually explicit content, and makes moaning sounds. Monsoon Wedding is a film where female desire is independent and not derivative of male desire. Be it Shefali Shah’s Ria asking her sister Aditi why is she so keen on getting an arranged marriage in a fascinating discussion which ends with her yelling in frustration, “Do you get your life’s directions from f***king Cosmopolitan?” 

A Film Ahead Of Its Time: Monsoon Wedding
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Another relevant topic subtly woven into the narrative by Nair and writer Sabrina Dhawan was the way classism is deeply rooted in a society that claims to be progressive. The elite are always trying to find ways to assert their superiority. One example of that was Lalit’s in-laws asking for a drink with ‘two rockiolis’ which left Lalit befuddled, only for him to realise it had a pretty ordinary meaning: ice. Just by using one obscure word, his in-laws had established their elitism. Even when Lalit talks about wanting a loan from his business partner to fund a part of the wedding, his peers subtly remind him of his place in society. This provides a terrifyingly accurate insight into the way society never fails to reiterate hierarchy. Even as the Vermas went on with their pompous celebration of romance, Dubeyji’s tryst with the househelp was based on understated manifestations of love. In my favourite scene of the film, he stands outside her window with a bouquet of marigolds in the shape of a heart. 

Monsoon Wedding also features an angle that has been mocked by Indian films for centuries: gender bias. For ages, men doing cooking or dancing or any other creative activities are looked down upon as less masculine. Monsoon Wedding challenges these notions through the lens of Lalit’s son Varun, who loves dancing and is also seen writing down recipes while watching Sanjeev Kapoor’s cooking show on television in his introductory scene. Lalit treats him very poorly, deriding him for his personal preferences, something which dampens his mood and confidence. Monsoon Wedding challenges the way we look at gender by commenting on our perception of certain activities as masculine or feminine. 

A Film Ahead Of Its Time: Monsoon Wedding
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 The above behaviour highlights Lalit’s fallacies as a parent. Long before Dear Zindagi spoke about the importance of not keeping parents on a pedestal, Monsoon Wedding implicitly spoke about imperfect parenting. While he was busy fawning over Tej, he turned a blind eye towards Ria, who looked at him as a father figure in the absence of her own father. In spending so much time trying to perfect the exterior, Lalit neglected the internal conflicts brewing within his family. In his quest to ensure his daughter has a picture-perfect wedding, we were left with a family picture with nobody smiling. Lalit may have been an idol to his kids, but he was far from perfect. And so were most of the other characters in this film. What makes the characters of Monsoon Wedding so unique is that they are behaving like they “would behave” rather than how they “should behave”. As the bride was conflicted as to whether her heart belonged to someone else, we sense the claustrophobia and suffocation behind the happy facade she put on. Lalit’s overbearing and paranoid nature concealed his insecurities as a father, a husband and a member of his family. All these characters are inherently good at heart, but it is their blemishes that make them more real. Rather than getting ideal versions of how sons and daughters and fathers should be, we get a raw version of how they really are. 

The ‘Monsoon’ in Monsoon Wedding makes an appearance in the climax in the most wonderful manner. After all the tension that is brewing, the feelings that have been suppressed and the angst that is gnawing at everyone’s psyche, the rainfall during the wedding represents the outpour and release of all these pent-up emotions. It represents the blossoming of love and its ultimate triumph over everything. After making the audience and the characters go through various kinds of trauma, the climax represents the true emotion that a wedding evokes: the uncanny sense of calm amidst the chaos. It represents the joy of making peace with your circumstances and living the moment. In the kind of weather that would usually act like a dampener, the rain acts as a catalyst for the characters to move on from their past and finally be happy. 

If even the idea of a mini dance-off between Ram Kapoor and Randeep Hooda isn’t enough to lure you into watching this masterpiece, then let the vibrance of the setting and the nuanced exploration of the human condition in a way that is inimitably Punjabi, convince you. Monsoon Wedding is an unfiltered celebration of Indian cinema and Bollywood which doesn’t hesitate before talking about mature themes and topics that were uncharted territory for those making such films earlier. Monsoon Wedding turned the definition of family drama on its head and gave us a delightful concoction of realism and exuberance, a truly rare combination that has barely been replicated since then. 

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