Criterion // 2001 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 20th, 2009
The Rain is coming...and so is the Family.
2008's Slumdog Millionaire brought the current tension between traditional India and global India into the international spotlight in a big way, but other filmmakers have been dealing with the subject of Indian "progress" for quite a while. One such filmmaker is Mira Nair, who was educated at Delhi University and Harvard before becoming a filmmaker. She has bounced between features (like her award-winning debut Salaam Bombay!) and documentaries focusing on the social plights of her native India. These two strains are united in Monsoon Wedding, a feature film that takes a documentary style look at family relations during a wedding in modern India. Criterion has brought out Monsoon Wedding in a fantastic hi-def package that includes the feature film, their usual high-class supplements, and seven of Mira Nair's short films.
The film opens on Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah, Shoot on Sight) who has four days left to organize a so-far chaotic wedding for his only daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das, Film Star). The marriage is arranged, and Aditi is having second thoughts. With the whole family brought together, secrets and tensions run wild.
Supposedly, young people (especially women) have an idealized view of their wedding day, where everything is perfect and beautiful. Honestly, I wonder where these ideas come from, because so many of the weddings we see (except for the lavish real-life ones) in the media are full of bickering, intense stress, and family tension. Sure everything usually works out in the end, but the road to getting there is particularly rocky. Monsoon Wedding shows that the pre-wedding hoopla is not confined to those in America. Even with an arranged marriage, we have stressed out parents, cold feet for the bride and groom, wacky relatives, and a wedding planner who doesn't seem capable of orchestrating the gathering chaos. In fact, this was my favorite part of Monsoon Wedding. Despite the differing customs (like arranged marriages), there's a basic set of human values expressed when two people decide to tie themselves together forever. Everyone, Indian or American, male or female, gets nervous and questions their situation. Nair also makes clear that we don't just share happy experiences; rather, both tragedy and family are shared experiences across cultural divides. Even better, though, is that Nair manages to capture all these layers of meaning without resorting to greeting-card style "love will conquer all" rhetoric.
In fact, Nair goes for complexity and subtlety at every turn. There are at least three different "couple" stories going on in Monsoon Wedding, the bride and groom, her parents, and the relationship between two members of the staff. By cutting across lines of class and age, Nair paints a delicate portrait of Indian family life at the turn of the millennium. The parents show us a hard-won love that has survived, while the bride and groom represent love as potential. As an arranged marriage, neither partner knows exactly what they're in for. Finally, the wedding coordinator and his love, Alice, are almost pure fairytale, with him as the passionate clown and her as the stoic servant. Throw in temperamental cell phones and flickering lights and Nair has a recipe for a love story that feels both real and idealized.
Nair is also aided by her documentary background. Most of the film is shot in a fast-paced documentary style. The handheld camera lends a sense of urgency to the more dialogue driven scenes, and mirrors the frenetic pace of the wedding preparations. It also provides a "you are there" feel that gets over the initially unfamiliar setting of a Punjabi wedding.
Keeping the documentary feel, Nair also elicits some fantastically naturalistic performances from her cast. Watching Naseeruddin Shah as Lalit is sometimes harrowing as his face balances worry over the financial cost of the wedding with obvious pride with his daughter. Similarly, Shefali Shetty as Ria (Lalit's niece) must balance her tough, "bad-girl" persona with the vulnerability at her core. The scenes the two share are especially brilliant, but the talent doesn't end there. Each character is beautifully realized by perfect casting.
As usual, Criterion has stepped up to bring Monsoon Wedding to home video with a solid transfer and excellent extras. Monsoon Wedding is not a big-budget film, and the documentary style ensures that it'll never be a reference-quality film. With that said, the film looks great in hi-def. Detail isn't particularly high (which is probably the result of the film's 16mm origins), but color is sumptuously realized. Grain can sometimes be a bit much, but overall this is a great looking film. The DTS-HD track matches the film's visuals, providing strong rendering of dialogue and ambient effects. The surrounds don't get a work out, but that's not surprising in a drama of this variety.
The extras start with a commentary to the film by director Mira Nair, where she discusses the film's origins, as well as casting and post-production with very little silence. She also appears to interview Naseerudin Shah in a 22-minute featurette that covers the making of the film as well as Naseerudin's history as an actor. The other featurette is a conversation with Declan Quinn (the cinematographer) and Stephanie Carroll (the production designer). The final Monsoon-related extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
But the fun doesn't stop there. We also get seven short films by Mira Nair:
* So Far From India
* Indian Cabaret
* The Laughing Club of India
* The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat
* 11'09"01 -- September 11 (Segment: "India")
* How Can it Be?
The first three are documentaries, while the last four are fiction films. However, concerns about Indian culture and the plight of the less fortunate cut across the fiction/non-fiction divide. Films like Indian Cabaret paint a fascinating portrait of the underclasses (in this case, strippers), while Migration tackles the transmission of AIDS in India. Considering the stylistic overlap between Nair's documentary and fiction work, these seven films are a brilliant addition to Monsoon Wedding, providing background and context on both film and filmmaker.
I love that the characters of Monsoon Wedding feels so familiar, but the film runs a little slow at times and I can see some audiences getting frustrated with the slow narrative development. Monsoon Wedding is certainly a more thoughtful kind of film, and those looking for a more action-oriented look at Indian culture (or even the spectacle of a typical Bollywood film) will likely be disappointed.
Monsoon Wedding is a brilliant portrait of family life in modern Indian that simultaneously captures that country's struggles with globalization and the human struggles with family obligations. Criterion has done their usually masterful job with the film, providing a strong transfer and a boatload of supplements that should keep Nair fans quite happy. Fans will certainly want to upgrade for the improved visuals and the inclusion of so much of Nair's other work.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English, Hindi, Punjabi)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Films