Movie Review: Monsoon Wedding (2001)

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In the dawn of the new millennium, after the Y2K scare and the dot com boom, Mira Nair searched for a project about her people — her family — a film that would take her home.

Set in Delhi, India and centered on a Punjabi family's mad preparations for their eldest daughter's upcoming nuptials, Nair found exactly what she was looking for in the script for Monsoon Wedding, which had been written in a one week burst of creativity by Columbia University MFA student Sabrina Dhawan.

Striking a fine balance between her background as a documentary filmmaker, which she used to great effect in her heavily neorealistic 1988 Oscar nominated debut feature Salaam Bombay! and her more sensual side on display in Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding infuses an awareness about the socioeconomic plights its characters into even the sudsiest of subplots.

Gorgeously lensed by her Kama Sutra cinematographer Declan Quinn and shot on location in Delhi, Nair's film — comprised of sixty-eight actors helping bring to life five interconnected stories — is bursting with laughter, tears, music, dance, and color.

Using marigolds as a symbol of romantic longing by Vijay Raaz's lonely wedding planner P.K. Dubey in what is easily the film's most endearing subplot, Nair embraces the magic in realism as he falls in love with a domestic worker he later marries under a marigold umbrella in the rain.

Contrasting the beautiful simplicity of their ceremony with the more elaborate and expensive goings-on in an everything but the kitchen sink Punjabi affair, Nair opts not to show us the expensive wedding until the film's closing credits, perhaps to remind us that while weddings might go by in the blink of an eye, it's the drama surrounding them that we remember most.

Heartsick over ending her affair with a married man she still miserably loves, Aditi Varma (Vasundhara Das) struggles to go through with the marriage her loving parents have arranged to the sweet, American based Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas). Concealing her feelings from her family as the wedding draws closer, she calls and visits her lover more desperately as if to play emotional chicken with him, but Aditi, we quickly learn, is far from the only member of the family hiding a secret.

Ranging in seriousness from her mother sneaking cigarettes to her cousin Ria's (Shefali Shah) struggle to reveal a painful truth about a horrific event, Monsoon Wedding navigates these emotional landmines expertly, managing to alternately delight us with a musical henna ceremony before it devastates us with a revelation that rings even truer today in the wake of Me Too.

Blooming with warmth, pathos, and humor to create some of the most indelible and emotionally affecting sequences of Nair's career, Monsoon Wedding fully immerses us in the spirit and culture of India. And while it is very much a celebration of the Punjabi people as Nair intended, similar to other titles of the era like Edward Yang's Yi Yi or Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the universally appealing film's wide array of characters are easy to identify with regardless of one's background.

Reminding us of our own home while inviting us into someone else's, much like the marigolds that fill so many of its frames, love for this crowd-pleasing triumph comes on strong.

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