by Elizabeth Stoddard
The trailer for actress Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming drama, Queen of Katwe, dropped last week. Months away from release, the film is already getting some awards buzz. This is notable because a) it’s a movie about a chess prodigy who is a girl, b) it’s directed by a female director, and c) that director is Indian director Mira Nair.
Nair, the filmmaker behind Salaam Bombay! and early Denzel Washington film Mississippi Masala, became one of my favorite directors after I happened to rent her Monsoon Wedding over a decade ago. The ensemble dramedy is now a film I revisit at least once a year.
Nair’s 2001 movie is based on a screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan, a student in the filmmaking program of Columbia University at the time, and features a large cast. Multiple stories and romances weave in and out seamlessly, with the action centered around a Punjabi wedding celebration in Delhi.
Relatives from far and wide amass at the house of Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Pimmi (Lillette Dubey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) for the arranged marriage of their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das, Lagaan). Lalit is overwhelmed by the cost and scope of this wedding, keeping wedding planner P.K. Dubey (character actor Vijay Raaz) on task. Meanwhile bride Aditi hasn’t quite broken off her destructive affair with a married man, and her cousin/almost sister Ria (Shefali Shetty, who delivers a powerhouse performance) is distracted by the appearance of her uncle.
Amidst the many love stories — Lalit/Pimmi, Aditi/husband-to-be Hemant (Parvin Dabas, My Name Is Khan), kissing cousins Ayesha (Neha Dubey, real-life daughter of Lillette)/Rahul (Randeep Hooda), and the sweet awkward attraction between Dubey and maid Alice (Tillotama Shome) — Ria tells a long-held secret that could destroy family bonds. While the story is full of laughs, this plot point is dead serious and carefully handled by actress, screenwriter and director.
One of the many (MANY) elements I appreciate about Monsoon Wedding is the importance it places on setting. The vibrant colors of the costuming, the marigolds everywhere… Among the many family scenes are interspersed Delhi street scenes, crowded with cars and people, electrical wires strung and jumbled above. Dubey sits on his porch after a stressful day, kites flying in the background as evening falls.
The music by Mychael Danna, who would go on to win an Oscar for his Life of Pi score, contributes to the sense of place as well. A boisterous, playful theme accompanies the opening credits, preparing us for the brass band that will play at the eventual wedding. Another quiet and lilting theme is used for the couples falling in love — it recurs in different variations, with different traditional instruments as lead.
Even with the numerous romances, Monsoon Wedding is far from sticky sweet. The drama with comedic elements has bite as it depicts the hassle and chaos in these preparations for a wedding ceremony. If you have yet to see a movie by Mira Nair, let this be the one you start with.
Monsoon Wedding is available from the Criterion Collection.