in Criterion Month

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Well, I’ve made it to my final Criterion review with what feels like a good one to go out on. Mainly because this might be the most purely enjoyable film I watched all month, almost to the point where I’m a little surprised that this film is in the Criterion Collection at all. Though I suppose the Criterion catalog does have a few crowdpleasers scattered amongst their various films aspiring to be “Art” with a capital A. Also, it does share the Criterion commonality of being a mere “indie hit”, even though it seems like it easily could’ve been a cross-over sensation. Instead, My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the big indie breakout wedding movie of the ’00s. Oh well.

As you might guess, Monsoon Wedding centers on a wedding in Delhi, as we see the Verma family preparing for the arranged marriage of its oldest daughter Aditi (played by Vasundhara Das) to an Indian living in America, Hemant (Parvin Dabas). However, pretty early on we see that Aditi is already in a relationship with a TV host, which obviously creates some complications in the lead-up to the wedding. Then on top of that, there are rifts that start to form between the Verma family’s patriarch, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and the groom’s family. Yet a romantic mood for celebration seems to permeate everything as the guests converge on Lalit’s home and engage in all the ceremonies of a traditional Indian wedding.

This is one of those Altman-esque ’00s movies with a lot of characters and storylines all revolving around one event, and so there are a lot of different plots to comb through. In addition to the marriage at the heart of the film, there are two other budding romances. One between two members of the respective families, and another between one of the housemaids and the lead wedding planner. Meanwhile, there’s another far less romantic subplot involving Aditi’s cousin Ria being suspicious that there’s something sinister going on with the groom’s father Tej.

Though the film is ultimately a celebration of family, this last plot element hints at a desire to paint family as anything but perfect. I think there were times when I was almost expecting the film to conceive certain characters as just these quirky family members, but that never really happens. Even P.K., the wedding planner, at first seems to be purely comedic relief, but then ends up being the most sincere character in the whole film. That said, his defining act of lovelorn sincerity rang a little corny to me, almost like something out of Love Actually. Though I’m willing to overlook it since Monsoon Wedding otherwise earns its air of romantic revery.

This gets at another thing I was constantly thinking about while watching this movie, which is that it’s very easy to imagine a much schmaltzier, much whiter version of this film being made in Hollywood. I’m thinking of a Garry Marshall-directed movie called Wedding Day or some shit in which we a see a bunch of boringly attractive movie stars falling in love over the course of one wedding celebration. Somehow, Monsoon Wedding manages to avoid the clichés of your typical ensemble romance, because these characters feel so fully realized and so specific to India at the turn of the century.

Another reason for the film never feeling like fluff is Declan Quinn’s cinematography, which has a bit of a documentary feel, and thus makes each moment between these characters feel completely organic. It was not surprising to find out that Quinn also shot Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which also takes the docudrama approach to a wedding, though in a somewhat less joyous way. In Monsoon Wedding, the strange thing is that despite the documentary feel, it still looks so vibrant and alive, perhaps due to all the colorful costumes and decor inherent in an Indian wedding.

One of my goals during Criterion Month is usually to see a few films by directors whom I’m not that familiar with, which doesn’t give me much chance to talk about their oeuvre as a whole. The only other film directed by Mira Nair that I’ve seen is Salaam Bombay!, and I think just from watching these two movies I can tell that she loves engaging with people on the set of her movies, whether they’re professionally trained actors or not. Monsoon Wedding seems to be a mix of nonprofessional actors and prominent Bollywood actors, which makes for a film rooted in reality, but also has the flair and professionalism of a first-rate production.