Criterion // 2001 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // October 20th, 2009
The rain is coming...and so is the family.
While we're still basking in the glow of 2008's underdog Oscar champ, Slumdog Millionaire, the Criterion Collection offers a new release of 2001's Monsoon Wedding, which should serve as a gentle reminder that much of what Danny Boyle brought Western audiences in Slumdog had been seen before. While the Brit Boyle blended infectious Bollywood music and dance, a heartwarming love story, and a frank look at modern India in his film, native Indian Mira Nair had already infused Monsoon Wedding -- also a hit in the West -- with those same elements, minus the frenetic cinematography and suspense. The recent success of Slumdog, as exciting as that film can be, makes this an opportune moment to revisit a cinematic India seen through Indian eyes in the subtler, quieter Monsoon Wedding.
With a pretty solid transfer of the gorgeous movie, and a second disc full of Nair's short films, this Criterion Collection release is a very good way to relive that Wedding.
Fretful father Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) enters his garden four days before his only daughter's grand wedding to discover the first of his many problems: an archway of marigolds is shedding and fraying. He makes the first of many irritated calls to "P.K." Dubey (Vijay Raaz), an ambitious but bumbling "event manager" overseeing the enormous tents, thousands of marigolds, and full marching band ordered for the big day. While Dubey manages the wedding's chaos and falls hard for the household servant, Alice (Tillotama Shome), extended family pours in to the Verma's estate, along with the groom. But unbeknownst to most of the family, Adita the bride (Vasundhara Das) has cold feet about her semi-arranged marriage. She poses as much of a threat to the festivities as the impending monsoon...
It's hard to run through the plot of Monsoon Wedding without making it seem like a wacky wedding comedy. Though there are certainly moments of laughter, Nair actually strives to give us something much more ambitious, taking her time to meander through as many different tones as there are subplots. The structure risks a disconnected, episodic feeling -- shifting from physical comedy to unabashed romance to accusations of child molestation -- but somehow manages throughout to bundle all its elements together in an organic way. It's surprising, almost unseemly, that Monsoon can get us to transition from the child molestation plot to jubilant celebration within a span of about 15 minutes, but it does -- and the method it uses in that specific case feels fully earned. Perhaps the film's trick is to parallel the disparate-yet-cohesive tones with the diverse and scattered family that is nevertheless bound by palpable love.
Credit for these cinematic feats should go partly to the deft screenwriting of Sabrina Dhawan (at the time, one of Nair's film students at Columbia University). But it really does feel like Nair's show here, as her direction shines brightest. Bringing together a motley collection of her country's stars, struggling actors, her family members, and even her neighbors, she manages to foster a sense of community and warmth among her performers. We really feel like guests looking in at a real Indian family celebrating a real wedding. On that note, I have to mention that watching Monsoon Wedding restored my faith in the potential of slow-moving wedding dramas -- a faith that the tedious Rachel Getting Married had shattered a few months before. In Monsoon, a rich Indian family hosts a thrilling Indian wedding full of affection that I felt privileged to look in on; in Rachel, a rich New England family hosts an endless (partly Indian) wedding full of pretension that bored me almost to tears (really).
Of the performers, Shah as the beleaguered patriarch and Shefali Shetty as Adita's unmarried cousin left the strongest impression on me. While the father of the bride and the bride's cousin/confidante could be stock characters in a wedding film, Monsoon takes the unusual but effective approach of distributing characterization and storylines equally among many of the wedding's guests, so that the marrying couple doesn't hog all the screen time. Thus, these two characters each get compelling plots and these two performers each deliver very moving moments of vulnerability and of strength.
Supported by Nair's direction, the actors and actresses captivate our attention on-screen -- but so do the eye-popping set decorations and costumes. So many weddings are all about spectacle, and Punjabi weddings seem to be no exception, as this one offers up amazing colors and textures as far as the eye can see. Nair and production designer Stephanie Carroll wisely narrow the wedding's color palette to vibrant reds and oranges, which allows for a level of visual excess that the narrow color range keeps from being overwhelming. All of these sights are sumptuously lit by cinematographer Declan Quinn, who does truly beautiful work with the film's many night scenes, especially in his outdoor lighting.
The reds and oranges and the luminous outdoor lighting all appear vibrant in this new transfer from Criterion, supervised by Nair and Quinn. For a movie in which color and light are so important, they certainly look stunning here and are the greatest strength of Criterion's edition. I also found the image fairly sharp and quite clean, untroubled by scratches or the like. Where I did feel some real disappointment was with the noticeable compression artifacts dancing around the frame in the film's darker scenes and also in its colorful opening credits sequence. The 5.1 soundtrack fares well on Criterion's release, with the monsoon rains providing a nice feeling of sonic immersion. The Indian music that pumps itself into the mix at key points in the celebration also a has a lot of power and depth.
With Monsoon Wedding, Criterion serves up the quantity and quality of special features we've come to expect from them. The offerings fall into two groups: those related directly to Monsoon Wedding and those that flesh out Nair's work as a maker of short films and documentaries. In the first group, we get an excellent commentary track from Nair, though it was recorded in 2002 and featured on the previous non-Criterion edition of the DVD. Nair provides the usual behind-the-scenes perspective, focusing on the challenges of making Monsoon in a very short timeframe with a small budget (30 days and 1.5 million dollars). Beyond that, though, she also illuminates lots of cultural nuances in the film that non-Indian viewers might not pick up on otherwise. For example, while the father of the bride was portrayed as a typical Punjabi patriarch, the father of the groom was characterized with touches of British imperialism; and the romance between Alice and Dubey is more star-crossed than we may have realized because she is a Christian and he is Hindu. Nair also talks about how personal the project was for her, coming from a Punjabi family, and how her mother catered for the film every day and loaned so many of her saris to the actresses that she worried she'd have nothing to wear to the premiere that wasn't already up on-screen. New for this release are two conversations recorded in 2009, the first between Nair and Shah and the second between Quinn and Carroll. Nair and Shah share an animated 21-minute chat that ranges from discussion of their work together on Monsoon to reminiscences about how he was such a bad boy in his youth that he never got a part in his school plays. Quinn and Carroll's conversation is shorter, at ten minutes, and focuses on the challenges of the chaotic, on-the-fly shooting style of Monsoon and how beautifully everything came together despite it. There's also your standard theatrical trailer and, according to Criterion, an improved English translation for portions of the film that are subtitled. Lastly, the booklet features an essay from Pico Iyer that is quite eloquent, adding new facets to our interpretation of the film (like a comparison with Shakespeare) and an assessment of Nair as a truly global director.
The second group of extras is a large collection of Nair's short film and documentary work, featuring three documentary and four fiction pieces. Note that six of these seven are gathered on disc two of the collection, but "The Laughing Club of India" is for some reason shuffled onto the first disc with the feature. Each of these seven films is given a new video introduction by Nair, who talks -- usually for four to five minutes -- about the origin of each project and what she wanted them to accomplish. Collectively, these introductions give us a great sense of Nair's (quite charming) personality and a hint of her biography. We learn that she got her start doing activist theater in India before taking up documentary work in the U.S. with guidance from Richard Leacock. It's also clear from this collection that Nair remains a committed activist, and a good portion of these short films were made to support humanitarian causes.
Here's a breakdown each film:
* "So Far From India" (1982, 50 minutes)
This observational documentary examines the relationship between an Indian husband and wife living separately in the US and in India. He's making money running a subway newsstand in New York while she's back home in India raising a family. Nair reads the situation this way, "she has spent a mere two weeks with her husband, and now her life is defined by his absence." Getting both spouses to warm up to her, Nair teases out the pain and loneliness that infuse their marriage, along with the joy and expectation of his visit home to India. And while making this film, Nair, too, is living "so far from India." At the end of her introduction to the film, we get a brief update on what has happened to the couple in the years since.
* "India Cabaret" (1985, 60 minutes)
Nair examines the lives of a group of Indian cabaret dancers who nightly perform for lascivious men in the hopes of maintaining financial independence. Her interest here was to think about the line that divides "good" women from "bad" women in India, and she ended up living with the dancers for several months before filming their story. That level of intimacy creates a feeling of true insider's look at their world, even more so than in "So Far." Nair points out in her introduction that although there are challenges to being a female filmmaker, "If I was a man, I would never have been allowed in to that intimate circle of these women -- how they think and how they live." In a confession of questionable ethics, Nair amusingly adds, "Alcohol was my best friend on 'India Cabaret' because often -- mostly -- people were totally drunk" and would agree to give her access they otherwise might not have. In both this documentary and "So Far," Nair uses the somewhat irritating tactic of reading a translation of her speakers' words in English right over their voices, but in "Cabaret" the DVD offers the option of listening with just the original Hindi and English subtitles.
* "The Laughing Club of India" (2000, 35 minutes)
Depressed after the collapse of a major film project, Nair stumbled upon a bizarre phenomenon in Bombay that she decided to document: the emergence of popular "laughing clubs" at which Indian folks gathered every day just to laugh. While the groups tout the physical health benefits of laughter, Nair gets at the psychological appeal that draws many to the laughing clubs. As one woman says, "The thing with laughter is that I don't feel empty, and I don't think of the past so much." As Nair puts it, this is an absurdist film about people who take laughing seriously.
* "The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat" (1993, 11 minutes)
Made when Nair was living in South Africa, this short takes place just after the assassination of the country's Communist Party leader, Chris Hani. Overcome with fear of violence from agitated black South Africans, a wealthy white family packs up their estate ready to leave the country. As the parents deal with their sadness and anger, their son shares a wordless encounter with a black child playing in the street. Though its politics are in the right place, the script here can feel a little clunky, in the white mother's greed and racism, especially; no doubt women like her were common, but they could be better written. The end of the film also feels very confusing without Nair's explanatory introduction.
* "11'09"01 -- September 11th (Segment: 'India')" (2002, 11
Asked to make a short film about September 11th with the symbolic constraint that it had to be 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and 1 frame in length, Nair chose to tell the story of a Pakistani mother living in New York whose son never came home on that tragic day. She and her family are soon ostracized, despite their worry and grief, because he is suspected of terrorist involvement. This was my favorite of Nair's shorts, made especially moving by a stunning performance from Tanvi Azmi in the lead role of the mother.
* "Migration" (2007, 19 minutes)
Participating in a filmmaking project on AIDS education in India, Nair connects a group of characters of different genders, classes, and sexual orientations through the transmission of the HIV virus among them. This is a brief but poignant story with an important message, though it annoyed me that the opening sequence shows a bunch of male and female symbols bumping into each other and turning red to visualize the spread of the virus. Only male and female symbols connect, so is AIDS a hetero disease? The film itself doesn't think so, but the credits sequence seems to.
* "How Can It Be?" (2008, 9 minutes)
Contributing to a United Nations filmmaking project on global society, Nair takes on the topic of gender equality and a woman's right to express herself. To treat that topic, she gives us a snapshot of the life of Zainab, a woman just deciding to leave her husband and son to pursue love. The lighting and set decoration here is a high point, creating a warm and safe cocoon-like space of the family home that underscores how hard it is for Zainab to leave.
In her commentary track, Nair opens by saying "Monsoon Wedding was inspired from the idea of making something out of nothing." The "something" that emerges is truly a wonderful little film -- one that takes its time, chooses its look carefully, and weaves together an intricate web of stories surrounding one Indian wedding. It certainly deserves its spot in The Criterion Collection. This release also serves as a nice affirmation of Mira Nair, whose cinematic voice we should treasure -- both because she belongs to a rare breed of international female directors, and because she's simply a great filmmaker.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Hindi, Punjabi)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Films
* Official Site