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Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding
2001 / Color / 1:85 flat letterbox / 114 min. / Street Date September 24, 2002 / $32.98
Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome, Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dabas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kamini Khanna
Cinematography Declan Quinn
Production Designer Stephanie Carroll
Film Editor Allyson C. Johnson
Original Music Mychael Danna
Written by Sabrina Dhawan
Produced by Caroline Baron, Caroline Kaplan, Mira Nair, Jonathan Sehring
Directed by Mira Nair

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

2002 is turning into the year of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a perfectly fine comedy with modest ambitions and a few good laughs. But much more interesting (at least to occidental-fed moviegoers) is this colorful, very musical drama from India. Like the Greek-American film, Monsoon Wedding is a comedy about traditional values operating in a transformed society. Both pictures poke gentle fun at paternally-run family systems, but Monsoon is both more serious and more deeply felt.


In an upscale Punjab household, an upcoming arranged wedding is a chaos of preparations and arriving relatives, secretly 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 nervous about her husband-to-be Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), who she's only met a couple of times. Her father (Naseeruddin Shah) and mother (Lillette Dubey) try 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 alongside 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) discovers he's smitten by 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.

You know that Monsoon Wedding is going to be different right from the start. The cultural context is so alien to us American know-nothings that we respond immediately to things that seem to be familiar, yet are not. Adite's romance with a married television personality is familiar enough, and it carries a lot of tension - if the affair blows up, an awful lot of elaborate arrangements are going to be spoiled. At first, Dad seems to be in charge of everything, like the clownish, tyrannical Pop in Big Fat Greek Wedding who has to be humored, even though his narrow prejudices routinely determine the lives of many around him. In Monsoon Wedding, Adite's father has only the responsibility, and shares the authority equally with his loving wife.

The Vermas at first appear to be very wealthy, but we soon see that that the wedding rite is so important that the family has gone deep into debt. There are only so many rooms, 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 hijink 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 who's later revealed to have a dark secret. The most compelling subplot involves Adite's unmarried cousin Ria, who at first seems vaguely bitter. Some things are universal: the moment she comes face to face with a certain man, most women viewers immediately know what her conflict is. When Dad has to sort out the problem between a pair of conflicting loyalties, he proves his worth as the patriarch.

The immediate shock to Western viewers is the attitude toward the arranged marriage, something that probably still exists here more than our culture admits. 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 Hemant - and she eventually decides to confront him with the fact that his bride is neither chaste nor virginal. It's a modern twist to a traditional situation that turns out to be the right path. 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. Here, we get the idea that Adite was behind the plan from the start.

For side interest, there's a lighter but sweet romance between the house maid and the wedding contractor, an upwardly-mobile fellow clearly from a lower social register than the Vermas. He idly moons after her and just as absent-mindedly eats the flowers that are all over the place. 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 the 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 throw a sometimes magical spell over the proceedings. There's nothing actually fantastic about the huge party that ends the picture, but the outdoor setting has a design that makes it seem 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 & condescending images of a nation with cultures that we Americans know almost nothing about.

Universal's DVD of Monsoon Wedding can't help but be a positive experience, but it's a little disappointing visually, especially at the price. The photography looks rapturous, but even though the color is well transferred, the 1:85 film is not anamorphically enhanced, lacks finesse, and tends to look too soft on a large monitor. Theatrically, the Super 16mm image was as sharp as a tack. The package will trick many purchasers into thinking the film is 16:9 enhanced, by its use of the word widescreen instead of letterboxed. The soundtrack does not suffer, however, and the amazing music carries the mood without distortion.

A special bonus for devotees of the picture is a detailed commentary from the director, Ms. Nair. There's also a thorough behind-the-scenes featurette that concentrates more on the very-different Indian production, than on the usual talking head platitudes common to EPK (Electronic Press Kit) filler.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Monsoon Wedding rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, featurette
Packaging: keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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