What would happen if a younger, less disciplined, more nakedly optimistic Robert Altman was an Indian expat who returned home to make a movie about love, humanity, and the efforts of the two different faces of India to coexist? And also if he was a woman?
Luckily we don’t have to ponder a ridiculously hypothetical question like that for very long at all, because reality provided an answer for it back in 2001. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, from a script by Sabrina Dhawan, is a joyous, exuberant, sprawling, and gorgeous celebration of humanity that should be seen by everyone.
Deservedly winning the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, Monsoon Wedding could in some ways be interpreted as a ‘message movie’ — concerned as it is with culture clash and familial dynamics — but if Monsoon Wedding is a ‘message movie’ then it is one without any of the stodgy, drab, and frankly patronising baggage that so often accompanies those entities. Where those works sag with self-importance, this one bursts with life.
Following a traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding, the movie — like Altman’s works — tracks an almost dizzyingly huge cast of characters, and Nair manages, somehow, to prevent any of them feeling like cardboard cutouts. Even those few that at first might appear on the surface as empty, functional archetypes are granted humanity and depth by Dhawan’s script and the actors’ performances. And, really, those performances are fantastic. Alternating effortlessly between Hindi, Punjabi, and English, the actors do wonderful, naturalistic-and-yet-melodramatic work.
Because this is another central part of the film’s charm and success: as well as addressing the new, globalised India encountering the older, traditional India through the rather overt actions of her characters and the machinations of her plot, Nair also works her theme more subtly by combining stylistic elements borrowed from Hollywood with flavours more often found in Bollywood, resulting in a heady and indelible mixture.
If it seems like I have barely spoken about the plot, that’s by design. There is little to be gained from describing in any depth what happens in Monsoon Wedding. The joy comes in letting yourself be swept up in the mood, the ambience, the music, the cast of characters, the gorgeous (and effective handheld) cinematography; and in being wowed by Mira Nair miraculously managing to deliver a message of humanity while at the same time evading the all-too-common ‘we are all the same’ condescending nonsense. Yes, there is a holistic, feel-good message here, but it is one grounded in cultural specificity, and that makes it all the more universal.
And, goddamn it, that monsoon. When it hits, it hits.
Petr Knava lives in London and plays music.