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25 January 2006

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Naseeruddin Shah (Lalit), Lillete Dubey (Pimmi), Shefali Shetty (Cousin Ria), Vijay Raaz (Dubey)

Directed by Mira Nair (Vanity Fair)

Languages: Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, and English

From IMDB: "A stressed father, a bride-to-be with a secret, a smitten event planner, and relatives from around the world create much ado about the preparations for an arranged marriage in India."

Oh, if I had known that Mira Nair had also directed the tedious and unfortunate Reese Witherspoon remake of Vanity Fair, I would not have been as open-minded about this film. Luckily for all concerned, I was ignorant of her Hollywood misfortune until writing this review.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding this is not. Unlike other (insert ethnicity) family reunion pictures, this movie was more than just a humorous look at the culture of a wedding, where family, national, and religious customs are so peculiar. While funny, Monsoon Wedding was, foremost, about a middle- aged man's attempt to understand and cope with the changes in his family, his relationships with family members, and his new role in that structure. Naseeruddin Shah, as Lalit Verma, was the heart of this film, and his struggles held more emotional sway and power than any of the various sub-plots that provided direction for the other characters (except for Dubey, who I will discuss).

Lalit gave credit to the success and stability of his family (and "family" entails his siblings and various cousins) to his brother-in-law, Tej Puri. However, with Tej living in America, Lalit is the center of all that is most Indian about his family. He adopted his nieces, Ria and Aliya, after the death of his brother. He manages and massages every reluctant individual until they are part of the coherent whole. But to Tej Puri he gave all the credit, neglecting both his own contribution and the ultimate weight of his role.

Events and revelations throughout the story, in the vein of the Danish film, Festen, challenge Lalit's view of himself and his hero, Tej Puri. He must slough off the last vestige of immaturity, step forward as the true leader of his clan, and bear the consequences of his decisions. In this way, even at middle-age, he finally comes into his own and achieves the independence of a fully-grown man. The struggle is a difficult one, putting him at odds with his wife, his son, his relatives (who would rather not acknowledge the truth), and tradition, but he does so on behalf of those who depend on his strength and guidance.

What I most appreciated about this story was the unresolved nature of the ending. While most wedding films end with "happily ever after" finales, and here I'm thinking of all the Pride and Prejudice versions I have seen recently, this film ends with uncertainty. The bride, Lalit's older daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), and the groom, American-raised Hemant (Parvan Dabas), throw themselves into their arranged marriage for questionable reasons. How would they fare, living together in Houston after having only known each other for four days? The hesitation on their faces as they complete the final wedding ceremonies is easy to read, the truth of which is more authentic than the happy smiles worn by most film newlyweds.

Also, issues with Lalit's son, Varun, are left glaringly unresolved. Is he gay? Is he going to boarding school? Is Lalit going to allow Varun to become a chef or a dancer, as opposed to the "educated profession" he imagines? These questions are raised throughout the film, but the issues are dropped in favor of family harmony at the wedding. As everyone knows, questions of such importance cannot be pushed aside indefinitely. Varun, the man-child of the house, will break free of his parents' supervision and care, but the nature of his future is left for another day. A wedding in a family does not solve every problem. There is a day after the wedding when almost everyone picks up where their lives were temporarily halted.

Finally, there was the sub-plot concerning P.K. Dubey, the event planner. From his first moment on screen, Dubey is Lalit's biggest difficulty. Fast-talking, rude, and jester-like in his dualistic personality - at once fawning over his employer and then bad-mouthing him to his staff - he appeared the kind of character that can ruin an otherwise enjoyable film (the "Mr. Collins" character in any Pride and Prejudice adaptation). But I was very wrong.

What a pleasant surprise, to be so intrigued by the transformation of an otherwise unattractive character. Like Lalit, Dubey passes from immaturity to maturity, but his journey is prompted by his unexpected love for the Vermas' servant, Alice. The first encounter between Dubey and Alice, with falling marigolds and the glasses she dropped, all slow-motion and heavy with promise, is one that will live in my memory. There was subtlety, grace, and a sense of destiny - of belonging - so at odds with Dubey's character. He becomes a different person when exposed to those unexpected elements, like having undergone a chemical reaction that alters him in every way.

Woven throughout the elaborate and staged events of the wedding, from the engagement ceremony, the henna painting, the dance festival, and on to the final ceremonies - which were entirely scripted and proscribed by custom - is Dubey and Alice's love story, none of which is choreographed. Everything about them is hesitation and misunderstanding. They are slow and longing, in doubt. The wedding party is rife with forced smiles and people rushing to and fro in order to complete everything just right. The counterpoints balanced nicely, creating a film about two different sides of love - the kind that happens to you and the kind you create through hard work. In marriage and family, both are essential - but with no guarantees.

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