Monday, January 18, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #132 - Monsoon Wedding (2001, dir. Mira Nair)

Simply put, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding is a romantic comedy of great substance! What on the outside would seem to be a straightforward story of an extended family and their friends preparing for the wedding of their daughter becomes something much more multifaceted and captivating. In the true fashion of a Shakespearian comedy the central storyline is complicated and littered with an array of side stories that vary from directly related to almost completely unrelated to the central story and therein lies the true charm of this film. Additionally what makes this film important is the way that Nair and writer Sabrina Dhawan have crafted a film that highlights and plays with the conventions and traditions of the Indian culture and its evolving place in the modern world.

At the heart of it, this is the story of an arranged marriage. But when you take a step back after the first few scenes it becomes obvious just how many different plotlines are working to tell this seemingly straightforward story. Of course there is the central love story of the arranged couple, Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas) and Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das ), and all of the complications therein, including (but certainly not limited to) Aditi's prior (and somewhat current...) love affair with the married talk-show host Vikram Mehta (Sameer Arya). While this is certainly an engaging story arc the most engaging stories are those that happen around this central tale. There is the stressful story of a father, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), and mother, Pimmi Verma (Lillete Dubey), planning the wedding that relatives and friends from all around the world are flying in to attend; the humorous dealings of Lalit with the lovable fool of a wedding planner "P.K." Dubey (Vijay Raaz); P.K.'s own love story with the housekeeper Alice (Tillotama Shome); and a number of additional love stories sprinkled in for good measure and tumultuous issues bubbling just under the surface. While most of the stories described above are cheerful and exciting with a hint of drama, there is another brooding story of familial and monetary obligation and a family friend's abuse of power to exploit the daughters of his friend.

This is most definitely a film that focuses on the tensions involved in life, and by zeroing in on one very stressful and happy moment in the life of a family, Nair and Dhawan are able to portray not only the surface but the thoughts, emotions, secrets, joys, and sorrows that make us human. And the success of the film truly hinges of the way in which the story is told. The dialogue is succinct and subtle and the yet the way that the actors deliver the lines says way more about what is going on than the simple text would lead you to believe. In this film, as in life, it is all about subtext and reading between the lines. The way that the film was written and directed as well as the way that the actors portray their characters brings an undeniable, humanist element to every aspect of the narrative.

In addition to the complex and relatable Shakespearian story and amazing dialogue, two other things that make this film so special are the performances from all of the actors and the way that it was shot. Nair wanted to use several non-actors for the film as well as some seasoned and extremely talented Indian actors and actresses, which serves to amplify the human element of the film as many of the performances seem untouched by the craft of acting, lending a more "real" quality to some of the performances. Additionally, what really rounds out the humanity of this story is the fact that it was shot in around 40 days on handheld camera (with cinematography by Declan Quinn). While this technique isn't always effective, here, as in Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, it places the viewer squarely in the action and we feel as if we are a part of this family. We are there with them witnessing their triumphant celebrations as well as moments of defeat and desperation.

While this entry got quite wordy quickly, I assure you this is one of the most purely enjoyable, relatable, and engrossing films that I will have a chance to write about for this blog. Within the first half hour of the movie I can almost guarantee that you will absorbed in the plot and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. So consider this your cordial invitation to Monsoon Wedding.

-         Edward Hill

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