Pico Iyer Journeys

A Marigold Tapestry

It was only after I’d seen Monsoon Wedding three times, I think, that I began to see how dense and textured Nair’s artistry is, as she brings her marigold plots together. Declan Quinn’s camera plunges us right into the chattering commotion of an Indian gathering where everyone seems to be talking at once, and too loudly. But Nair is always developing another narrative with her backgrounds. At a scene on a fancy golf-course, where businessmen are discussing shipments to Macy’s and a “cash-flow problem,” women in saris are walking past, silently, with pots upon their heads. At another point, a truck trundles past, saying, “New Variety Tent House.” Just after an agonized conversation about arranged marriages, we spot an Air-Tel ad, for “The Good Life.” It is as if Nair is always telling at least two stories at once, which is apt for a movie that is so much about secrets (secret smoking, secret drinking, secret sex), but which also deepens and ripens as perhaps we never expected, so that what began as an everywhere comedy is peeled back to reveal private depths, and the casual reference early on to a man not recognizing his family members at the airport comes to acquire much larger significance.

From this point of view, you could see the central figure in the whole movie as the one outsider, Dubey, in whose face I see all the avidity and unexpected sincerity that you find everywhere on the streets of India today. He is, of course, the picture of the new, rising India of a new global century, working out rates on his wristwatch, handing out multiple copies of his business card, chattering about “Millennium-style, Y2K dot.” He assures his employers that he’ll observe a contract, “foreign-style,” though of course he is the only one among them who doesn’t know the foreign world. Yet beneath all his quick-talking gestures is something open and yearning and sweet. Dubey blithely prevaricates about many things, from the moment we meet him. But underneath the hustle is a kind of secret innocence. And Nira has the grace to take us into his life, far from the wedding scene, and into his quiet thoughts, as he sits out on his roof. Even as he’s hungry for the foreign and the new–the stuff his privileged employers can take for granted–in the subplot the movie generously gives him he’s as traditional as the Hindu caste mark he wears while telling a cell-phone caller to use his pager.

The lovely scene of Dubey watching the lights of Delhi from his flat, in flight (like the rich kids) from the lectures of his mother, also speaks for one of the elegant graces of Nair’s film-making. For even as the director fills the screen with colors, sidelong glances, pulsing music and all the textured details of an instantly recognizable middle-class Indian family, she also, quite remarkably, gives us room in which to breathe. One liberating surprise of the film is how it abruptly breaks into soaring songs and dance numbers as in the popular films of Bollywood. But another is how, in the midst of all the activity, it opens out–just as India does–into sudden moments of tenderness and quiet, as the camera pans around the unlikely beauty of the city, catching Delhi in the rain, Delhi in the ghostly hours after dark, Delhi in all its impossible congestion. This is, apart from being an ode to family, a love-letter to one of the many places that Nair can call her home.

Many a viewer of Monsoon Wedding–in Nashville, let’s say–may see how it draws for its many-storied tapestry on, perhaps, the dense, elaborate films of Robert Altman, as if Nair were bringing A Wedding into New Delhi; it enjoys kinship, too, with other near-contemporaneous, many-roomed movies such as Magnolia or Love Actually. Several moods are always developing at once here, as different as the drenched exasperation of the monsoon and the ceremonial formalities of a wedding. But it took me a while to notice how the shimmering midsummer night’s dreaming of this film, with its late-night liaisons and narrowly averted tragedies, its many kinds of love, unexpected, doomed and strikingly fresh, might almost be invoking the Shakespearean play that gave us the image of lovers converging on a spellbound evening.

Here are the “rude mechanicals,” diligently, sometimes clownishly working to put on a show, while their lords and ladies frolic–and stopping at one moment to watch a beauty through a window, as she watches herself in a mirror, putting on her mistress’s jewels. (The lowest of the laborers is even called “Lottery,” today’s equivalent to Bottom). Here are a kind of Oberon and Titania surveying all the others as they sleep, in one of the deeply moving and ruminative scenes that reminds us that this is more than just a romp. Here are bawdy jokes, pudgy boys dancing charmingly with beauties and eight different characters, by my count, going through some kind of transformation. Here, finally, is a married man who doesn’t know the meaning of “uxorious” (the key word, let’s recall, in the movie of The English Patient). The building of the stage-set for the finale, the background song called “Nice Guys Finish First,” the whispers and plots on every side all take us to the enchanted minglings of Shakespeare’s gossamer comedy. Those attending to the credits may even notice that one assistant director rejoices in the first name of “Monsoon.”

For those who have been following Mira Nair through her dazzling career, it’s tempting to see the film as a small and temporary culmination of what has been building since the beginning. She was born to a social worker (and a civil servant), after all, and after completing her studies at Delhi University, where she got to know theater and the streets, she came to Harvard at 19 to study sociology. Very soon, she was using the camera she’d begun to master to go back to her home country to chronicle some of the issues that were being kept secret–prostitution, the medical tests whereby parents try to ensure their children are all boys, the ache of immigration–and, in the process, also to show us the rending gulf that still exists between the New World and Old India, even as people move more and more between them.

Look at her early documentary, India Cabaret, from 1985 (included in this package, along with two other documentaries and four shorts), and you see the secret lives of India and the plight of women, looking for independence in a society that still prefers to keep them shackled. Watch So Far From India, from 1982, and already you are seeing bridges–a classic Nair image–and the pressures arising out of arranged marriages, as she pushes at all the complexities of migration, and people torn between their homes and a Promised Land. Part of the particular beauty of Monsoon Wedding is that it looks unflinchingly at painful social issues, while still keeping up its infectious energy, and if you turn to the incomparably stylish and subtle 18-minute movie that Nair made in 1999 to warn her countrymen about AIDS, Migration, you see her gift for bringing different classes together, for dramatizing human emotions in scenes of beautifully lit, tender seductiveness, for telling stories without words. Those are evident even in the interlocking worlds of city and village she orchestrates in her African short, The Day The Mercedes Became A Hat, reminding us that she has a home in Uganda, as well as in New Delhi (while sometime teaching at Columbia).

If you take in all these earlier works–and the way she harmonizes jollity and life’s difficulties in The Laughing Club of India–Monsoon Wedding becomes almost a compendium of Nair’s most memorable movies. The laborers here might have stepped out of the harrowing slums recorded in her first major feature, Salaam Bombay! (the only film I ever saw with my Bombay-raised father that reduced him to helpless sobs). The lush, red-and-gold sensuality–recall, if you will, that kisses have long been forbidden from the Indian screen–shows what she learned from making Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. The intricate dynamics of family–you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it–she’d investigated in The Perez Family. And in her searching, poetic evocations of Delhi we see the beginnings of what she will do so heart-breakingly in her next film, The Namesake, as she contrasts an India where there are sometimes too many family connections, responsibilities, people, with an America where there are too few.

Nair has been one of the most sensitive and original explorers of globalism and exile since the beginning, even as, like her precursor Satyajit Ray, she has managed to show us a human, conflicted India a long way from maharajah wealth and shocking poverty. Her peers, in that regard, are such writers as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri (author, of course, of the novel The Namesake). And home itself is one of the ideas that she’s explored and exploded, as it becomes a moving target in her work. When, in Monsoon Wedding, one character says, “In my opinion, you Punjabis are way too ostentatious!” and is told in turn, “In my opinion, you Bengalis are way too pretentious!”, you realize it’s a line that could come only from a Punjabi partly raised in Bengal. Mississippi masalas are the local speciality in every neighborhood these days.

Anyone who goes to India tomorrow will encounter, several times a day, the same scene. You show up for some grand occasion to find everything in chaos. The men who are meant to be responsible for putting things together are so quick and crafty in their responses that you’re fairly sure they must be lying. Everything is heading towards calamity and conflict and the man who’s in charge of the final production (he might almost be a movie-director) is standing in the rubble of his set, wondering how anything is going to get done on time and under budget. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, so it seems, a resolution is found and everyone ends up happier than ever, friends for life.

Monsoon Wedding begins with the father of the bride standing in his garden, which is in shambles, as the wedding date approaches. No one knows where anybody is, and the man who’s meant to be managing the event is somewhere else. It moves, as the best comedies do, through disruptions and revelations so terrible that you are convinced that it will end up as a tragedy. And then, somehow, it all comes together in a jubilant communion so happy that it can even outlast the rains. In the very last frame, for the first time ever, upstairs and downstairs, the lord of the festivities and one of the laborers, come together in a dance. A comedy, the literary critic Northrop Frye once said, is a battle between the “School of Youth” and the “School of the Old.” The definition of Shakespearean comedy, traditionally, is a drama that comes to an end in a wedding and a dance. In Monsoon Wedding Mira Nair brings those classic definitions into the new global century, and constructs, with unquenchable enthusiasm, a beauty as Indian as palaver–or epiphany.

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