Fatima Jafar pens a love letter to a beloved childhood film.
The first time I watched Monsoon Wedding I was ten years old. My mother sang its praises all throughout my early childhood, and I finally watched it sitting in my parents’ bedroom one summer. My most recent viewing was last week. Over the last decade, this film has snaked its way into each year of my life, appearing silently, softly, always when I needed it most: during the perennial tug of homesickness, countless flus, exam seasons, birthdays, goodbyes. I wanted to write something for the film, in exchange for everything it has been for me.
Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding tells the story of a summer wedding in a Punjabi Hindu family. On the surface, it appears a stereotypical ‘South Asian wedding movie’: peppered with a Bollywood Item number, family drama and, of course, romance. But Monsoon Wedding remains unwaveringly self-aware. Nair subverts the cinematic trope of brown weddings as exotic, vivacious, colourful — ideas which often cater to Western fetishisation of South Asian culture — and holds a critical mirror to the genre itself.
The film places the viewer within the home of the Verma family, where Aditi Verma is about to be married. As the film begins, we see each family member arriving to the home, and the tension builds concurrently. We view each scene from inside the spaces that the characters occupy, traveling from bathroom to bedroom alongside each of them. This enshrines a deeply personal, intimate atmosphere that remains with us throughout the film– it begins to feel as though we are part of the family itself.
Once the family has arrived, a gnawing anxiety bleeds through the narrative. We see the relationship between Lalit and Pimmi—Aditi’s parents—straining, as the pressure of the matrimonial preparations builds. They argue about money, sending their ‘sensitive’ son to boarding school (he is chastised for enjoying cooking and dancing), and all the while their sex life remains stagnant. Lalit struggles financially, having to borrow money from his friends to cover the costs of the wedding. Pimmi feels constantly alienated by her husband, her sexual desire unfulfilled. As the film continues, their relationship is punctuated with short, explosive arguments that often end with the slamming of doors and cold silences. Nair sheds light on the perils of the idolisation of ‘wedding culture’ in many South Asian families. She reveals the debilitating effect ‘wedding culture’ can have on people, both financially and personally.
While the tension in this relationship increases, Nair conversely explores the dynamic between cousins Ria and Aditi. They talk about men, sex, marriage, and familial pressure without a filter. The power and comfort that their friendship contains remains a rooting force throughout the ensuing chaos of the film. Nair deals with female sexuality with great sincerity, creating an unabashed space within which these conversations occur, that never feels contrived or fetishised.– Aditi is set to marry Hemant in an arranged marriage, but is having an affair with her married boss. Aditi speaks of the affair openly with Riya and the strict margins of taboo are tossed out as each character confronts their own uncomfortable truths head-on. Nair is not interested in painting an image of the idealised Indian family; she is interested in telling the story of a real one.
In an act characteristic of her subversion, Nair also brings the camera to the back of the house, away from the image of the upper-middle class family. At the back of the house, she explores the slow-burning romance between Alice, a woman who cleans the Verma home, and Dubey, the event manager of the wedding. Nair explores this love story in forgotten spaces: dirty kitchens, generator rooms, and balconies— hidden, secluded areas at the back of the home, where lovers cannot be seen by others. She explores the taboos existing around interfaith marriages (Dubey is Hindu and Alice is Christian), as well as the depiction of romance, love, and sex in non-upperclass, non-uppercaste contexts.
The film focuses extensively on hidden spaces, the oft-overlooked rooms and areas where many things can exist at once: love, sex, pain, trauma, secrets. Nair presents a family with stories and experiences enmeshed in its fabric, and how these secrets become rents when the entire family comes together in the singular space of a home. The tension is pinned between the closed doors behind which conversations are held. As we watch the film we get the sense that, even if we are viewing a scene set in a certain room, much more is going on in the house than meets the eye. The deep-seated anxiety embedded within the film comes to the fore through the revelation of a pattern of continuous abuse occurring within the family. At this point, all of the seams binding the home and the family together, are torn. The facade of a perfect, happy family breaks down and the characters are left to contend with the truth.
The reason I love Monsoon Wedding so deeply—a love that has been sustained over ten years— is because it is honest about everything that it is: it is a wedding movie, but also a film that critically explores marriage, sex, class, abuse, trauma, secrecy, and illusion. The viewer is never entirely sure of which neat genre-box the film ticks, and by remaining resolute in transgressing these cinematic borders, Monsoon Wedding does not exist as any one thing—it is a complex story about a family and the home they live in: closed doors, creaking floors and all.