While Mira Nair returned to New Delhi to shoot her most recent feature, Monsoon Wedding, the spirit of the film wound up defying the conventions of any specific national cinema. Written in three languages (Punjabi, Hindi, and English), shot by a predominantly American crew on Super 16mm, cast with actors from Indian television, film, and theater, and scored by a Canadian with music selections that jump from hip-hop to traditional folk songs, the film ultimately embodies a pan-cultural eclecticism that roots it within a new, emerging international cinema style.
For Nair, the film's diverse references, resources, and influences simply reflect her Indian roots. "For many years," she explains, "India has received influences from others — first the British, and now American globalization. But if there is one place that can stand up to cultural imperialism, it is probably India. We can beg, borrow, assimilate, steal all of these influences and still make something distinctly Indian out of it." For Monsoon Wedding, the assimilation of cultures arrives via a strange cyclic route, as Nair uses American independent filmmaking strategies to re-animate the Bollywood wedding film into something more personal. "While Monsoon Wedding is a portrait of modern contemporary India," Nair says, "it is also a very personal story about my kind of people, Punjabi people. It is a community that works hard, parties hard and has a huge appetite for life."
It was, however, the failure of traditional Bollywood films to represent this world that initially inspired the film. (Bollywood, the name given to India's thriving commercial film industry, is known for pageant-like musicals and comedies.) "A few years ago," Nair recounts, "there was a huge Indian blockbuster, a family-wedding film with 21 songs that was four hours long. I remember going with my whole family. Sabrina `Dhawan` and I were discussing this movie, sort of tongue-in-cheek, and said, 'Let's make a realistic family movie, one that actually shows you what it is really like.'"
While the center of the narrative is a Punjabi wedding, it's the relationships, affairs, accusations, and loves orbiting about it that take up the film's real energy. The proud parents, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) and his wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), have invited family from around the world to celebrate the arranged marriage of their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) to Hemant (Parvin Dabas), an engineer from Houston, Texas. Yet the classical wedding drama pretty much falls apart after that. Nair does, of course, mimic the resplendent blur of music, dancing, and pageant that is characteristic of the Bollywood marriage film. But these generic motifs are filtered through a contemporary sensibility, one that realistically represents India's changing sexual mores. The bride Aditi, for example, has been having an affair with her old boss, and her slacker cousin from Sydney starts up a steamy affair with another Dehli relative. Such indiscretions are for Nair part of "the new sexual revolution that is happening now with young people having affairs and sleeping with people before they get married to an arranged suitor." (Even Aditi's fey younger brother's love of musical theater seems to suggest the future "coming out" of other sexual revolutions.)
Nair, who pushed cultural buttons with her earlier retelling of the Kama Sutra, finds it imperative to continually push the bounds of cultural representation: "I always like to push the envelope, and I am not that good at making films which are pleasant Sunday afternoon movies, even though Monsoon Wedding comes as close as I can to clean family entertainment." But even in the film's comedic pageantry, there's a subplot concerning sexual abuse and the brutal aftereffect it has on the family. For Nair, "The whole darker quality of this love, this twisted dysfunctional love, needs to be uncovered. India, fortunately or unfortunately, doesn't have an 'Oprah culture.' We don't sit around talking about how we were first molested or not. But when I was pitching and talking about this movie, almost every second person had a story to tell me — both men and women. We protect our families so much, and we regard our families so highly that they are the anchor of our existence in Indian life, and so it seems that much more blasphemous to challenge the family in any way."
In creating the film's soundtrack, Nair used her free-wheeling sensibility to articulate the sensation of Indian life. "Some filmmakers look at every movie as the opportunity to create a whole new soundtrack," Nair explains, "but I don't look at it that way. For me, the soundtrack is about reality or, really, hyper-reality. When you walk down a street in India, you hear four transistor radios with four different Indian pop songs."
Even the intrusion of Bollywood dance and spectacle into the film was more a reflection of lived Indian life than those cinematic forms. But Nair, despite her Indian heritage and her current experience making a music-filled wedding film in the shadow of Bollywood, says she doesn't really like the tunes in the typical Indian musical.
"I don't really like the use of music in Bollywood cinema," she says. "It's so heavily orchestrated and synthesized. It's very reductive while trying to be slick and hip!"
This article first appeared in Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2002
"A little song, dance, and sex"
Dir. Mira Nair; writ. Sabrina Dhawan; feat. Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome, Vasundhara Das (R)