When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
Monsoon Wedding opens with a shower of crumbling marigold petals and closes with a torrential downpour. While the early shot seems to portend trouble for the couple entering into an arranged marriage a few days later, the rain itself doesn’t ruin their wedding so much as enrich it. The deluge outside only adds to the warm atmosphere inside the colorful, waterproof reception tent where the bride and groom’s massive, multi-generational families dance alongside servants and wedding planners. The characters have come out of a harrowing, chaotic week more level-headed but also more romantic. You can’t control the weather, so you might as well embrace it.
In the era of Runaway Bride and The Wedding Planner, Monsoon Wedding pointedly offered a different kind of romantic comedy, one that mixed pragmatism and romanticism in a way that left audiences around the world captivated. The film—which turned 20 this year—won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, making director Mira Nair one of just six women who’ve taken home the coveted prize. And its universally relatable story of love and family led it to become one of the highest-grossing foreign films in U.S. history. Coming off her more conventionally shot Mississippi Masala and Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love, Nair wanted to bring a cinema verité approach to the romantic comedy genre. In fact, she was specifically looking to offer a more grounded flipside to the wildly popular Bollywood musical wedding extravaganza Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! The occasional songs in Monsoon Wedding emerge organically, like when tipsy relatives start singing together after a reunion event. “The genesis of the film,” Nair explained, “was to make one which felt like two hours around my dining table, at home.”
For those who haven’t seen Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Monsoon Wedding equally feels like a more grounded take on Father Of The Bride or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Offering an Altman-esque ensemble structure, the film centers on five different types of relationships: the pragmatic romanticism of an arranged marriage, the “old shoe” love of the bride’s middle-aged parents, the charged sexual chemistry between two young wedding guests, a love-at-first sight fairy-tale connection between a working-class couple on the periphery of the celebration, and an abusive dynamic hidden behind a veneer of familial respectability. Nair developed the intersecting stories with screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan, one of her graduate students at Columbia University’s film school. The two women shared a desire to shine a light on contemporary life for a sprawling, upper middle class Punjabi family. Their central characters freely shift between English, Hindi, and Punjabi while welcoming relatives whose Australian, American, and British accents reflect a global lifestyle. (Fittingly, Nair herself cites influences as wide-ranging as D.A. Pennebaker, Raj Kapoor, John Cassavetes, and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.) “I don’t even know who’s who half the time,” the groom hilariously admits at one point.
Making Monsoon Wedding quickly became a family affair as well. Nair set herself the challenge of filming the project in just 30 days on a small budget the same size as her earlier films. She wanted to return to her roots as a run-and-gun documentarian with a film that evoked the spirit of her Oscar-nominated debut feature Salaam Bombay! Nair filmed in friends’ houses and used her own family members as part of the massive 68-person ensemble. Not only did Nair’s mother lend saris to the production, she also cooked meals for the cast and crew. To get the chaotic, improvisational feel Nair wanted on such a limited shooting schedule, she held a three-week workshop where she rehearsed the entire script with her actors, bonding them together as their own kind of family. One week before shooting, they visited the set with cinematographer Declan Quinn to carefully design the shots in the actual space his handheld camera would be navigating. That extensive preparation resulted in a swift but relaxed shooting process. “It was very constructed to appear that it wasn’t,” Nair explained. “The camera was to be the pulse of us, never static but also not kinetic, a chosen thing.”
Monsoon Wedding is so elegantly balanced that there are any number of characters who could rightfully be described as the heart of the story. The structural backbone and emotional core come from frazzled father of the bride Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), whose world-weary yet deeply hopeful story intersects with every major through line. As much as this observational film has a plot, it centers on young bride Aditi (Vasundhara Das) and the question of whether she actually wants to go through with her arranged marriage to her Houston-based fiancé (Parvin Dabas), a man she’s only known for a few weeks. Aditi has somewhat impulsively agreed to the match in hopes of getting over her broken heart from an affair with a married co-worker. She’s pragmatic enough to know not to wait around for her lover to leave his wife (“I’ve read too many magazines,” she sighs), but also romantic enough to think that a new life in America will give her the fresh start she needs. Or maybe she’s just hoping to use the wedding as leverage for a different kind of happily ever after.
Nair lets those questions linger without providing didactic answers, even as she paints an optimistic portrait of the way love can grow based on communication and honesty. What initially seems like the cold practically of Aditi’s arranged marriage blossoms into a uniquely romantic look at hope, faith, and commitment. Transformation is a major theme of Monsoon Wedding, which sees the intoxicating stupor of the wedding unlock new emotions in just about everyone. During a gorgeously shot Mehndi party, where the women gather to apply the bride’s henna, Aditi’s mother (Lillete Dubey) finds herself nostalgically thinking back to her own newlywed days and yearning to recapture some of that passion in her present-day marriage. Wheedling wedding planner P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) starts as the movie’s most clownish figure, before morphing into a romantic hero right out of a silent film as he falls for the Verma family’s demure maid, Alice (Tillotama Shome). Nair pointedly saves her most classically romantic slow-motion shots for the film’s humblest couple.
Yet if I had to pick just one character to exemplify what makes Nair’s genre-blending film so special, it would be Aditi’s cousin, Ria (Shefali Shah), a no-nonsense young woman initially defined by the fact that she’s unmarried and career-focused. As the wedding comedy unfolds around her, however, Ria is given the film’s weightiest storyline. Nair lingers on the tension that crosses Ria’s face as her wealthy, beloved uncle, Tej (Rajat Kapoor), arrives for the engagement party. And we come to understand all that terrified look implies as Ria swoops in like a hawk each time Tej gets too close to her 10-year-old cousin. For as much as Monsoon Wedding celebrates familial love, it also has a pointed message about the way that horrors can be swept under the rug in favor of “protecting the family”—an idea so often applied to powerful patriarchs and seldom to the young children they abuse. Shah gives a breathtakingly fierce performance, capturing both Ria’s quiet moments of shock and her eventual cathartic eruption.
As in a Shakespeare comedy, Monsoon Wedding isn’t afraid to add some heavy drama to the otherwise upbeat story. In explaining the film’s ability to elicit joy, Nair observed, “That is because the film is unafraid to be deeply truthful about darkness, and therefore we understand the light.” Monsoon Wedding balances a frank look at life as it really is with a more optimistic vision of what it could be, and Dhawan drew from her own experience to give Ria an arc that’s ultimately empowering rather than exploitative. More so than maybe any other film I’ve covered for this column, Monsoon Wedding really rewards multiple viewings, both to understand how everyone is related to one another and to appreciate how elegantly Nair and Dhawan lay out their intersecting, ever-shifting storylines.
Beneath the film’s constant hum of surface level chaos, there’s an incredible sweetness to Nair’s focus on the small daily interactions, which define a family as much as the big eventful celebrations do. It’s that mix of realism and romance that makes Monsoon Wedding so special—and so relatable. After all, what is a wedding but the ultimate mix of fairy-tale romance and expensive, exhausting logistics? Monsoon Wedding is deeply rooted in the specificity of its upper-middle-class New Delhi milieu and yet universal to anyone who’s ever experienced the hustle and bustle of a massive extended family. The film’s climatic monsoon functions as a metaphorical cleansing, offering a fresh start for the Vermas as they welcome some honorary Vermas into the clan too. And for two hours, at least, Nair makes us feel like we’re part of the family.
Next time: Long before Logan, Hugh Jackman and James Mangold combined forces with Kate & Leopold.