There’s something to be said about the significance of rain in films. A backdrop for the protagonist’s tear-jerking arc coming to a close, a union of the star-crossed lovers, and a looming bearer of bad news. With ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ Mira Nair (director) and Sabrina Dhawan (screenwriter) weaved a tale of conflict, love, and liberation across the big fat Indian wedding that had the audience visibly rejoicing at its Venice Film Festival premiere on 30 August 2001. The interplay of the family’s highs and lows with New Delhi’s buzzing monsoon brings a surreal rawness to the film, contributing to its relevance 20 years later.
The second Indian film to receive the Golden Lion award (Venice Film Festival’s highest honor) after Satyajit Ray’s ‘Aparajito,’ was adored by critics and unanimously considered ahead of its time.
Behind the vibrancy of a Punjabi wedding lies the entanglement of emotions and relationships. The plot is centered around Aditi Verma’s (Vasundhara Das) arranged wedding ceremony to Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), an NRI living in Texas. Unbeknownst to him and her family, she yearns for her married lover, who she rendezvouses with covertly. Her parents, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Pimmi (Lillette Dubey) are scrambling to ensure their only daughter has a perfect wedding. Their son, Varun’s (Ishaan Nair) ‘effeminate’ dancing habits and watching Sanjeev Kapoor concern his father. Ria (Shefali Shah), Aditi’s cousin, struggles with her trauma as her abuser participates in the celebrations with everyone singing his praises. One of the cousins, Ayesha (Neha Dubey), is having her first-ever romantic encounter with Rahul (Randeep Hooda), Pimm’s charming nephew from Australia. Sparks are flying between the wedding planner, PK Dubey (aka Dubeyji) (Vijay Raaz), and domestic worker Alice (Tillotama Shome), in what can be described as a love story out of a fairytale.
Rewatching it in 2021 washes you with a wave of nostalgia — to see Tillotama Shome, Vijay Raaz, Randeep Hooda, and Ram Kapoor (in a cameo role) in the early innings of their career is humbling. Yet, for all of its nostalgia from the characters and the atmosphere created, the themes it dealt with were shunned and extremely straightforward for its time. With other wedding-centric films of the era, such as ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!’, tradition and familial ties were the driving themes and the ultimate resolution. Monsoon Wedding dared to break down familial ties and examine the cultural flaws we’ve internalized, like unconditional respect for elders despite their immorality, severing ties with those who’ve betrayed your trust regardless of the social consequences, and sexual abuse.
For instance, Ria’s abuser and wealthy uncle, Tej (Rajat Kapoor), was praised for helping the Vermas gain stability after the Partition. Behind closed doors, he was molesting Aliya (Kemaya Kidwai), one of the younger cousins. Ria relieved her trauma by watching Aliya with despair and protecting her whenever she could. When she came clean, her confession resulted in her getting slapped and sealed her silence. Twenty years later, this isn’t surprising to witness, unfortunately. However, one of the shining moments of this film arises when Lalit (who is like a surrogate father to Ria) emotionally appeals to her, knowing very well nothing would be enough to heal her pain. All he could do was console her like she was his own, something Ria was longing for.
The beauty of Nair’s filmmaking lies in her portrayal of the human dynamic and its symbolism. The day after, the news broke, and they gathered for Aditi’s big day. There’s a thick tension in the air coupled with nervous laughter and uneasy glares around Tej, but nothing that would make him feel unwelcome. There’s much symbolism to be decoded when the photographer asks Ria to sit at Tej’s feet, parallelling the hierarchical structure of control and autonomy embedded in society. As she looks around for some support, she’s disappointed — not surprised — to find none. Perhaps this scene makes Lalit’s firm stance on asking Tej to leave so empowering; he had his reputation and finances at stake, something he was especially concerned about during the wedding planning. But after his emotional declaration to Ria – “You’re not my own, so why should you believe me?”. This gesture broke down the patriarchal wall surrounding their family, allowing him to focus on the legacy he wants to leave behind and a new life for Ria as she lets go of her burden and can freely dance in the rain.
Aditi’s character arc is also interesting to witness. The trope of ‘following your heart’ and consequently breaking off the wedding would certainly be a fan favorite, a projection of our daydreams. Seeing Aditi choose herself over the endless wait for her illicit lover and driving away from him is unusually empowering, acknowledging her silent victory knowing she’s still trapped in emotional complications. In confessing to Hemant about her affair, she finds acceptance and a clean slate for the next chapter. The decision to choose love based on honesty is a refreshing representation of the marriage scenario in India. Keeping in line with the monsoon parallels, the conclusion of her storyline feels like the calm after the storm.
Of course, it isn’t a film about Indian weddings without its fair share of banter, music, and emotion.
The back-and-forth between Lalit repeatedly asking Dubeyji to get back to work and Dubeyji charming his way out of trouble is a classic example of wedding shenanigans. As he chats away with other workers, Lalit pokes him with a stick (metaphorically) for him to hyperactively reassure Lalit that this wedding is as dear to him as if it were his own daughter’s. Coupled with Dubeyji and Alice’s whimsical romance born out of stolen stares and carefully counted sentences, the light-hearted moments are an escape from the more serious matters unfolded in the ‘Monsoon Wedding’. Their simple wedding on a bridge surrounded by heavy showers is a classic Bollywood moment, indulging the audience in the best of both (matrimonial) worlds.
The soundtrack is an integral aspect contributing to the film’s wonder and nostalgia. Most notable is Sukhwinder Singh’s ‘Aj Mera Jee Karda’ spaced throughout the credits with Aditi and Hemant’s big day footage. The Punjabi folk melody was recorded six months after the shoot. After multiple attempts at finding the right scene for the song, it found its place closing the film — leaving the audience on a high as many danced during the performance at its premiere. The sangeet and mehndi ceremonies beautifully capture the spirit of belonging and togetherness as they dance the night away and sing several songs reminiscent of the 2000s era.
The ‘Monsoon Wedding’ saga isn’t over just yet — a musical based on the film has been in the making for 11 years, featuring new faces such as Namit Das. Vishal Bhardwaj’s music will feature 21 new songs and is expected to debut in India this year.
‘Monsoon Wedding’ borders on the fine line between traditional and modern, exploring the beauty and consequences of both in society. It’s the kind of film that leaves you experiencing a myriad of emotions with every watch. The portrayal of desi culture through a voyeuristic lens is amusing, touching, and introspective all at once. Twenty years on, it’s as relevant as ever and certainly in the leagues of the greatest cinema that has made its mark on history.
Monsoon Wedding is a 2021 Drama Comedy film directed by Mira Nair.