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Mira Nair's vibrant, joyous Monsoon Wedding is a celebratory comedy about traditional values in a transformed society by an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Criterion's dual DVD and Blu-ray releases enrich our viewing (and educational) experience with a fine selection of Ms. Nair's shorter docus and fiction films, ranging from seven to fifty minutes. After seeing the variety of her subjects and her impassioned approach, one could be forgiven for concluding that feminine artists will dominate the future of humanistic filmmaking.
Ms. Nair's colorful dramatic comedy uses an elaborate arranged wedding to examine modern India. An upscale Punjab household is abuzz with preparations and arriving relatives for a ceremony that may be threatened by the bride-to-be's wet feet. Adite Verma (Vasundhara Das) is still carrying on her affair with a television director, and is unsure about her husband-to-be Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), who she has met only a couple of times. Her father (Naseeruddin Shah) and mother (Lillette Dubey) struggle to hold their household together as it's invaded by a huge extended family. Ria (Shefali Shetty) is Adite's unmarried cousin, and her discomfort at the presence of a certain invitee is an object of curiosity. Adite's younger sister Ayesha (Heha Dubey) flirts openly with Rahul (Randeep Hooda), a college student visiting from Australia. And the wedding contractor P.K. Dubey (Vijay) has fallen in love with the household maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome), who knows how to flirt as well. It's a jumble of emotions, cell phones, confrontations and drama ... all of it leading to a wedding day unlike anything seen in the West.
We know that Monsoon Wedding is going to be different right from the start. The alien cultural context prompts us American know-nothings to grasp onto things that seem to be familiar, only to find that they are not. Adite's romance with a married television personality carries a lot of tension -- if the affair becomes known an awful lot of elaborate arrangements are going to be spoiled. Adite's father may seem to be fully in charge, but he shares familial authority equally with his loving wife.
The Vermas are fairly well off, but we soon see that that the family has gone deep into debt for this important wedding rite. The house has only so much space, so a bunch of kids and bachelors end up bunking in the living room. That's where Ayesha pays a romantic visit to Rahul in the middle of the night, a bold hi-jink that's all the more risky under the crowded circumstances.
Dad has borrowed much of the needed money from the most respected member of his immediate community, a man later revealed to have a dark secret. The most compelling subplot involves Adite's unmarried cousin Ria, who is definitely upset about something. The moment Ria comes face to face with a certain man, most women viewers will immediately know what her conflict is. Dad sorts out a conflict between conflicting loyalties, proving his worth as the patriarch.
The immediate shock to Western viewers is the film's attitude toward the arranged marriage, a practice that probably still exists in our own culture more than we realize. Adite and Hemant are perfectly ready to marry, barring her illicit side affair. She's mostly concerned about her own worth, not jeopardizing her marriage, and not cheating her intended. Adite eventually decides to confront Hemant with the fact that his bride is neither chaste nor virginal. It's a modern twist on a traditional situation. The film doesn't claim to be anything more than a particularized instance, so the issue of whether many arranged marriage-ees rebel doesn't become a factor. We get the idea that Adite was behind the plan from the start.
For side interest Monsoon Wedding offers a lighter but sweet romance between the housemaid and the wedding contractor, an upwardly-mobile fellow clearly from a lower social register than the Vermas. He idly moons after her and absent-mindedly eats the flowers that seem to grow in every part of the Verma's property. Apparently Marigolds are the Indian wedding flower.
Preparations for the wedding include an interesting musical variation on a bridal shower and dances by Adite's little brother and sister. Ayesha's dance kicks off the wedding party in high style, while her brother's un-manly interest in dancing gives his father the idea of sending the kid off to a boarding school.
Monsoon Wedding is wall-to-wall music and color, which throws a near- magical spell over the proceedings. There's nothing actually fantastic about the huge party that ends the picture, but the outdoor setting takes place in a designed space that seems like something from a film musical. It's quite unique, at least to our eyes.
Director Mira Nair succeeds 100% in creating credible and interesting characters with universal appeal. Monsoon Wedding is not only hugely entertaining, it's a nice antidote to Hollywood's quaint and condescending images of a nation with multiple cultures that we Americans know almost nothing about.
Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of Monsoon Wedding completely erase memories of an older Universal disc, which was both soft and unenhanced for widescreen. Criterion's terrific transfer renders the Super 16mm image as sharp as a tack, with dazzling colors. The audio track is in surround stereo.
Both releases contain identical extras, which is Criterion's standard policy. The feature comes with a full commentary from director Mira Nair and interviews with actor Naseeruddin Shah and cinematographer Declan Quinn & production designer Stephanie Carroll. The original trailer rounds off what would normally be a full contingent of extras. Criterion disc producer Kate Elmore has instead arranged for the inclusion of seven Mira Nair short films made from 1982 to 2008. The scope of these great films is truly impressive; as a group they're as provocative as the more joyous feature.
So Far from India is an ethnological study of a young Indian man who sells magazines in a Manhattan subway station; his bride lives and works back in India waiting for his return. India Cabaret follows several stripper-prostitutes and listens to various viewpoints about the hypocrisy of "fast women" in India. One eloquently outspoken girl states that as long as the men who stare at her are without shame, she will be without shame for being stared at. A third documentary called The Laughing Club of India is an uplifting look at an amusing new Indian phenomenon of organized group laughter sessions, as explained by enthusiastic participants.
The remaining short films are dramatic fictions keyed to specific social issues. The brief The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat jumps to South Africa at the end of Apartheid, showing a white family's last day before fleeing their fancy neighborhood. 11'09"01 - September 11 was Ms. Nair's contribution to a feature compilation about the meaning of 9/11. A Muslim mother in the Bronx is traumatized when U.S. authorities identify her missing son as a terrorist suspect ... until a much different truth is revealed. The compact, compelling Migration educates Indians about the AIDS epidemic with a pointedly affecting drama. How Can It Be? is a short but wrenching drama about an Middle Eastern woman in the U.S. exercising her freedom to leave her husband and child.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Monsoon Wedding Blu-ray rates:
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