So many worlds stream in from every direction in Monsoon Wedding that it comes to seem as if the whole globe is converging on a single family home in New Delhi: relatives from Houston, from Australia, from Dubai (“Muscat, actually”); workers from the countryside and rainfalls of marigolds; cousins whom no one can quite place and brass bands and white horses and event managers and the eventfully managed. “I don’t even know who’s who half the time,” says the groom, in a wonderful moment. It’s as if every kind of mood and genre—dreams of escape and memories of brutality, uncertain futures and promises of a better life—is converging too, to make a glorious celebration as teeming and fond and constantly shifting as any uncle’s reunion I’ve attended in India.
The first time I saw Monsoon Wedding was one day after I had left a large assembly of family and friends in Delhi, and its portrait of life was so vividly real, and familiar in every particular, that I felt as if I’d never left Delhi at all. I recognized the cool global kids trying to slip away from their families, even as a fussing, anxious father was calling his youngers idiots and fools (and in one priceless coinage, Number One Most Stupid Duffer). Several languages were mingling in every sentence, so that even a two-word curse was sometimes polylingual—“bloody feranghi” (dutifully translated in the subtitles as “bloody foreigner”). Here was all the laughing chaos, the delighted jostle of a country where phone connections suddenly go dead in midsentence, the electricity flickers into darkness, a downpour threatens at every moment, and nobody knows when anybody is coming (“Ten minutes, exactly and approximately,” promises the unreliable organizer in the opening moments). And as with any family reunion—in Poughkeepsie as much as New Delhi—the mood is that of a golden castle constructed, step-by-step, on thinnest ice, as always happens when people who know, and don’t know, each other too well get together. Which means that comedy, song and dance, romance, and the outlines of tragedy also all flow in through Mira Nair’s wonderfully open door.
This mingling of genres was, of course, no accident: all these strands had been gathering in Nair’s work for two decades before they were woven together so seamlessly here. Born in India and raised all around the country, Nair had learned theater—and the streets—while at Delhi University and then, at nineteen, had gone to Harvard to study sociology. From a young age, then, she had been setting the New World where she’d arrived against the Old India she’d left, and, perhaps, been seeing her home country better with a new perspective from abroad. She came to most viewers’ attention with her stunning first feature, Salaam Bombay!, in 1988, the rare debut to be nominated for an Academy Award (as best foreign-language film). But she had been making shorts and documentaries for years before that, generally set in India and gently excavating precisely the social issues her homeland most wanted to keep under wraps: prostitution, the medical testing whereby parents try to ensure their children are all boys, the ache of emigration. Monsoon Wedding, which came out in 2001, can almost be seen as a marriage between the conscience-driven documentarian of those early works and the poet of the big screen who had by then mastered the art of international coproductions and gone on to capture large audiences with such big-budget movies as Mississippi Masala (1991) and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996).
Immediately before Monsoon Wedding, Nair had made the thirty-five minute short The Laughing Club of India, which marked a return to her documentary roots, a refreshed interest in the middle-class families of her youth, and a mounting commitment to close focus—seen in the way she often comes to laughter in the context of the most anguishing losses. And in many ways, Monsoon Wedding was an extension of these impulses by other means. In going back to her deepest home, in shooting in friends’ houses, with a script by one of her students at Columbia (Sabrina Dhawan), and in setting up a kind of impromptu troupe of pals, using borrowed props, she was working in Monsoon Wedding to bring ravishment and intimacy together and to show how high production values and low-budget spontaneity could collude.
Made for only $1.5 million, Monsoon Wedding quickly became one of the top ten highest-grossing foreign films in U.S. history, and has been beloved for its warmth, its familial bustle, its radiant colors, ever since it came out, just as Mississippi masalas were becoming a local specialty in every global neighborhood. Shot in “40 locations, 30 days, exactly and approximately,” in the mischievous last words of the credits—as if a coproduction of the event manager Dubey and his irascible employer, Lalit Verma—it was nominated for a Golden Globe (as best foreign-language film) and awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Its conviviality and charm spoke instantly to viewers across the world. Yet underneath its gregarious magic, it is as precise in every detail as a perfectly constructed short story, reminding us how and why the prodigally talented Nair has become not just her country’s leading filmmaker but also one of its finest dramatists.
She gives us, for example, a quiet and passive-seeming young man who suddenly, in the face of a terrible challenge, finds a wisdom and understanding that humbles us. She shows us a bewildered and beholden older man whom we take to be a comic character and lets him turn the film around with an act of courage that can bring tears to the eyes. In a film swarming with characters from abroad with Englishy accents, the only one with an English name—the servant girl Alice—is, of course, the only one who can’t speak English. But when the fuses blow, it’s she who comes to the rescue with a single, solid candle.
In short, the Old India, of tradition, villages, and changelessness—Alice comes from one of the poorest states in the country, Bihar—quietly holds up the glitzy new India of air kisses and scorpion tattoos and requests for Bacardi and Coke. Yet the drama of the film, as of all of Nair’s movies, is that everything is trembling between the pull of the old and the new. At the center of Monsoon Wedding is a bride who is torn between her illicit affair with a married man and the marriage others have planned for her. She is every woman caught between duty and passion. But she is also, very specifically, contemporary India, divided between the new possibilities of a global world and the respected traditions of its past. Her secret lover is—no coincidence—a TV presenter, on a show called Delhi.com, and the segment of it we see features a debate on how global and American India should or shouldn’t become. These days, everybody is talking about the slick and media-wise “India Rising.” But Nair showed us its outlines at the very beginning of the new century, before most people knew such a high-tech India existed.
I sometimes think that the most important sentence in the entire film comes right after the final shot, in the simple dedication: “For my family.” The central line of dialogue may well be Lalit Verma’s moving and heartfelt assertion, “My family means everything to me.”
Yet family is also, of course, exactly what the young and the dreaming long to escape—Nair sees the plight of the young as well as of their elders—and the only people who look out of place amid all the excitement of the nuptial arrangements are, in fact, the prospective bride and groom: they can talk only by meeting secretly in coffee shop and tea stall. A moment they share in a car betrays all the frozen silence of an enduring relationship, in comparison with a parallel scene in a car, ten minutes before, that catches the humid desperation of adultery. These kinds of contrasts and subtleties are threaded lightly throughout the film, as when the bride is found asleep in a bed, under a romantic mosquito net, with her cousin, one of them perfectly stretched out next to a copy of Cosmo, the other next to a book by Rabindranath Tagore.
It took several viewings of Monsoon Wedding before I could fully appreciate the density and texture of Nair’s artistry and the way she strings marigold plots together. Declan Quinn’s camera plunges us right into the chattering commotion of an Indian gathering, where everyone seems to be talking at once, and too loudly. But Nair is always developing another narrative in the background. In a scene on a fancy golf course, where businessmen are discussing shipments to Macy’s and a “cash flow problem,” women in saris walk past silently with pots on their heads. At another point, a truck trundles by with the sign New Variety Tent House. Just after an agonized conversation about arranged marriages, we spot an Airtel ad for The Good Life. It is as if Nair is always telling at least two stories at once, which is apt for a movie that is so much about secrets (secret smoking, secret drinking, secret sex) but that also deepens and ripens as perhaps we never expected, so that a casual reference early on to a young man not recognizing his family members at the airport comes to acquire much larger, and more ominous, significance.
From this point of view, you could almost see the central figure in the movie as the one outsider, Dubey—the resourceful, somewhat slippery event planner—whose face shows all the avidity and unexpected sincerity you find everywhere on the streets of India today. He is the picture of the brash, fast-developing India of the new millennium, calculating fees on his wristwatch, handing out multiple copies of his business card, chattering about “millennium style, Y2K dot.” He assures his employers that he’ll observe a contract “foreign style,” though he is the only one among them who doesn’t know the foreign world. Yet beneath all his quick-talking gestures is something open and yearning and sweet. And Nair has the grace to take us into his life, far from the wedding scene, and into his quiet thoughts as he sits out on his roof. Even as he’s hungry for the foreign and the new—the stuff his privileged employers can take for granted—in the subplot the movie gives him, he’s as traditional as the red bindi he wears while telling a cell phone caller to use his pager.
The lovely scene of Dubey watching the lights of Delhi from his flat, in flight (like the rich kids) from the lectures of his mother, also speaks to one of the elegant inventions of Nair’s filmmaking. For even as the director fills the screen with colors, sidelong glances, pulsing music, and all the textured details of an instantly recognizable middle-class Indian family, she also, quite remarkably, gives us room to breathe. One liberating surprise of the film is how it abruptly breaks into soaring song-and-dance numbers, as in the popular films of Bollywood. But another is how, in the midst of all the activity, it opens out into sudden moments of tenderness and quiet as the camera pans around the city’s unlikely beauty, catching Delhi in the rain, Delhi in the ghostly hours after dark, Delhi in all its impossible congestion. This is, apart from an ode to family, a love letter to one of the many places Nair calls home.
Viewers of Monsoon Wedding may see how it draws for its many-storied tapestry on the dense, elaborate films of Robert Altman—A Wedding in New Delhi!—and so has kinship too with other, more contemporaneous multichambered movies, such as Magnolia and Love Actually. But it takes a little while to notice how the shimmering midsummer night’s dreaming of this film, with its late-night liaisons and narrowly averted tragedies, its many kinds of love—unexpected, doomed, and strikingly fresh—might almost be invoking the Shakespeare play that gave us an enduring image of lovers converging on a spellbound evening. Here are the “rude mechanicals,” diligently, sometimes clownishly, working to put on a show while their lords and ladies frolic—and stopping at one moment to watch a beauty through a window as she watches herself in a mirror putting on her mistress’s jewels. Here are a kind of Oberon and Titania, surveying all the others as they sleep, in one of the deeply moving and ruminative scenes that remind us that this is more than just a romp. Here are bawdy jokes, pudgy boys dancing charmingly with beauties, and eight different characters, by my count, going through some kind of transformation. The building of the stage set for the finale, the background song called “Nice Guys Finish First,” the whispers and plots on every side, all take us to the enchanted minglings of Shakespeare’s gossamer comedy. (Those attending to
the credits may even notice that one assistant director rejoices in the first name of Monsoon.)
As all these realms converge, Monsoon Wedding becomes almost a compendium of many of Nair’s most memorable movies. The laborers here might have stepped out of the harrowing slums recorded in Salaam Bombay! (the only film I ever saw with my Bombay-raised father that reduced him to helpless sobs). The lush, red and gold sensuality—recall, if you will, that kisses have long been forbidden on the Indian screen—shows what she learned from making Kama Sutra. The intricate dynamics of family—you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it—she’d investigated in The Perez Family. And in her searching, poetic evocations of Delhi, we see the beginnings of what she would do so heartbreakingly in The Namesake, where she contrasts an India where there are sometimes too many family connections, responsibilities, people, with an America where there are too few.
We can also see a continuation of what she had been doing in her earliest work. Look at her bare-bones documentary India Cabaret, from 1985, and you see the secret lives of India already being unveiled, and the plight of women seeking independence in a society that still prefers to keep them shackled. Watch So Far from India, from 1982, and already you see bridges—a classic Nair image—and the pressures arising out of arranged marriages as she pushes at all the complexities of migration and people torn between their homes and a Promised Land. Part of the particular beauty of Monsoon Wedding is that it looks unflinchingly at painful social issues while still keeping up its infectious energy, and if you turn to the stylish and subtle eighteen-minute movie that Nair made in 2007 to warn her countrymen about AIDS, Migration, you see her gift for bringing together different classes, for dramatizing human emotions in scenes of beautifully lit, tender seductiveness, for telling stories without words. These are evident even in the interlocking worlds of city and village that she orchestrates in her short The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat, shot in South Africa, reminding us that she has a home in Africa (in Uganda, where she has set up a school to encourage African and Asian filmmakers) as well as in Delhi.
Nair, in fact, has been one of the most sensitive and original explorers of exile and globalism since the beginning, even as she shows us, like her precursor Satyajit Ray, a human, conflicted India a long way from maharaja wealth and shocking poverty. In that regard, her peers are such writers as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, and Jhumpa Lahiri (author, of course, of the novel The Namesake). And home itself is one of the ideas that she’s explored and exploded, as it becomes a moving target in her work. When, in Monsoon Wedding, one character says, “In my opinion, you Punjabis are way too ostentatious!” and is told in turn, “In my opinion, you Bengalis are way too pretentious!” you realize it’s a line that could come only from a Punjabi partly raised in Bengal.
Anyone who goes to India tomorrow will encounter the same scene: you show up for some grand occasion to find everything in chaos. The men who are meant to be responsible for putting things together are so quick and crafty in their responses that you’re fairly sure they must be lying. Everything is lurching toward calamity and conflict, and the character who’s in charge of the final production (he might almost be a movie director!) is standing in the rubble of his set, wondering how anything is going to get done on time and under budget. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere it seems, a resolution is found, and everyone ends up happier than ever, friends for life.
Monsoon Wedding begins with the father of the bride standing in his garden, which is in shambles, as the wedding date approaches. No one knows where anybody is, and the man who’s meant to be managing the event is somewhere else. It moves, as the best comedies do, through disruptions and revelations so terrible you are convinced that it will end up as tragedy. And then, somehow, it all comes together in a jubilant communion so happy that it can outlast even the rains. In the very last frame, for the first time ever, upstairs and downstairs, the lord of the festivities and one of the laborers, join together, in a dance. A comedy, the literary critic Northrop Frye once said, is a battle between the School of Youth and the School of the Old. A Shakespearean comedy, traditionally, is a drama that ends in a wedding and a dance. In Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair brings those classic definitions into the new global century, and constructs, with unquenchable enthusiasm, a beauty as Indian as kerfuffle—or epiphany.
Pico Iyer is the author of many books on globalism, the diaspora, and even his parents’ India, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Global Soul, and The Open Road.