Directed by Mira Nair and written by Sabrina Dhawan, Monsoon Wedding was released during a decade of critically acclaimed Hindi films like Lagaan: Once upon a Time in India (2001), Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Swades (2004). The film is a refreshing take on arranged marriage in upper middle-class, north Indian households and the women in these households.
Nair claims that she wanted to make a Bollywood movie of her own. The film has song and dance sequences, and the required family drama, but it is anti-Bollywood in various ways. Most of the songs are pre-released and there are no pre-choreographed chiffon-clad-heroine-dances-in-the-snow sequences in the film. Although, it does involve a big fat Indian wedding, Nair always shows us the behind-the-scenes: a frazzled father, a mother who secretly smokes in the bathroom and the bride who sneaks out at night to meet her married lover.
The film was shot on a tight budget in a record time of six weeks, which makes it significantly less grand and over-the-top than most commercial Bollywood films. It beautifully showcases urban India’s balance of modernity and tradition for the global audiences. When I first watched the film, I was stunned because of how revolutionary it was. It was one of the first mainstream Hindi films (that I knew of, at least) that dealt with paedophilia, extra-marital affairs, India’s fixation with NRI grooms and the casual sexism, classism and homophobia ingrained in upper-caste families in Delhi. I watched the film with my family and they enjoyed it too. It’s reasonably popular within mainstream film circles and a favourite amongst film critics and art lovers. Essentially a paradox: a Bollywood film with a cause. The film is visually stunning, vivid and vibrant (Declan Quinn’s cinematography). It is dominated by reds, oranges and yellows and seems to have a sepia tinge throughout. There seems to be literal humour involved here too, when Lalit Verma, the bride’s father, argues with PK Dubey, the wedding planner, about the colour of the tent. “A white tent? Is this a wedding or a funeral?”
Nair says in an interview, “I gave the film the simple and beautiful name of Monsoon Wedding because it is about how rain brings liberation to a wedding. I have used rain very carefully in the film.” There is a hint of rain from the beginning of the movie. From Verma’s incessant demand for unaffordable waterproofing to the song ‘Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai’ playing during Alice’s first interaction with Dubey, there is an ominous warning of a monsoon storm throughout. In spite of Dubey’s reassurance that “the peacocks have stopped dancing: it won’t rain”, it does end up raining on the day of the wedding. However, instead of ruining the celebrations, it adds to them, washing everyone’s worries away. The ending is cathartic and it’s only fitting that it ends with the family dancing in the rain.
Nair wanted to “make a film that didn’t involve millions of rupees, special effects and other excesses associated with fiction films. I hoped to inspire younger people to make films cheaply.” The technique Nair uses can be described as ‘handheld realism’; the shots are intimate close-ups of people in authentic households, not film sets. The rule of thirds is hardly followed, there are shots where limbs and heads of people are cut off and the focus is lacking. But none of this distracts the viewer from the plot; it adds to it and makes the spectator view the family from an internal lens; it’s almost like the audience is eavesdropping. The camera is shaky and the dialogues, a mixture of Hindi, English and Punjabi, do not feel scripted at all. In the outdoor shots, where the women are shopping or when Hemant and Aditi are walking hand-in-hand through the identifiable Connaught Place, Nair has chosen to keep traffic noises and other ambient sound in the movie. This makes the experience, as A.O. Scott from The New York Times put it, “overwhelmingly Indian”.
Speaking of the plot, even though her father arranges for her to marry a person she does know, Aditi negotiates a space for herself to fall in love, to tell her fiancé about her past lover and to get an on-screen happy ending for herself. In discussions with her cousin, she talks about “wanting to settle down” and finding passion in the same breath. Towards the end, it is clear that she did not have to compromise on either. Rhea, her older and (as it is constantly stressed) unmarried cousin is another powerful and complex character. She speaks out against the family elders, which brings out the ultimate conflict in the movie.
The relationships in the movie are tricky and Nair never clearly spells out who is related to whom. It is only in my re-watching of the film that family dynamics become clear. However, the hierarchy between Lalit and his brother-in-law Tej is something that the script always stresses upon. Lalit is constantly reminding his in-laws of everything that Tej bhaisa’ab has done for the family. It is clear that Lalit owes a huge debt to Tej, mostly financial. Lalit is the typical example of the trope of the ‘father of the bride’ as he organises celebrations for his only daughter. He is frazzled and goes about borrowing money from friends and colleagues and then making those accounts by hand because he is “too old to learn how to use a laptop”. In such a state, no one expects him to take a stand against Tej so when he finally does, even Rhea is left stunned.
Speaking from a feminist film theory perspective, there are clear male circles and female ones. This can be seen with Lalit entering the women-only sangeet, ‘the harem’ as he calls it, and berating his son for being amongst so many women. There is intense camaraderie between Lalit and Tej, which Lalit breaks in the end with the statement “They are my children. I will protect them from myself if I have to.” The patriarch destroying the bromance and standing up for the women in his family is what makes the film truly feminist for me.
It can be argued that the trope used here is a common one of a man having to save the woman, but in context of its time, I don’t really fault it. Rhea fought her own battles when she finally revealed the sexual abuse Tej had put her through. She risked being disbelieved by her family and ridiculed by Tej’s wife. The next and final step had to necessarily be taken by Lalit for the film to get a believable happy ending.
The growth of Rhea’s character is exemplary to watch. In the beginning, she is desexualised and desexualises herself while listening to taunts from everyone about being unmarried. “I don’t know… I mean kissing could be great but my mind starts buzzing with the weirdest thoughts and suddenly I’m thinking of some banal, practical thing that needs to be taken care of.” She skips shopping with aunties to enjoy a baraf ka gola on the roadside. During the final sequence, she finally lets go and dances in the rain, carefree and jubilant. This is in direct contrast to the family picture in the previous sequence where she poses stiffly and awkwardly next to Tej. There is also a brief moment in the end where she views the handsome latecomer, Umang, with interest and fascination. This subtle look is enough to convey that she is healing from her childhood trauma. Nair leaves some possibility of and hope for romance for her character. It can be argued that this is unnecessary – that she does not need to fall in love in order to be happy – but I staunchly believe that this is a film about love, not marriage.
Speaking of love, there is so much of it between Alice and Dubey that the film would lack love without them. The simplicity and honesty of their courtship is endearing to watch. Nair calls it the real romance of the film: “There’s blind love between the tentwala and the aayah.” I would not call their love blind, I would call it hopeful, young and definitely the real romance of the film. The score throughout the movie is beautiful but there is a shift in tune every time Alice and Dubey come into the frame; this makes them seem almost ethereal.
The criticism this kind of cinema often gets is that these are films made by rich people, for rich people. There is some discourse about the problematic portrayal of Alice and Dubey in the film and how it lacks a critical understanding of class. However, I believe that the fact that Nair gave the screen space to two people who were employees of the family to fall in love is a pretty remitting factor in itself. The film can be put in the same category as a film like Kapoor and Sons (2016) or the web series Made in Heaven (2019) because it is an intimate portrayal of a kind of Indian family.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.