Monsoon Wedding (2002, U.S. release)Rated R for language, including some sex related dialogue.
Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome, Vasundhara Das.
LVJeff's Rating: 9/10
Photo ©USA Films. All rights reserved.
As a boy, I always hated going to the parties of my parents' friends. Growing up as a Chinese-American, I was accustomed to the American way of life, but often found its presence uncomfortably lacking at these gatherings. They would always be for birthdays or holidays, always in someone's big house, always crowded with noisy adults. We, the children, never paid attention to what they were saying -- never, that is, until they started bad-mouthing their own kids. "All they do is play video games," they'd complain. "Don't your kids eat Chinese food?", one would ask. "Are you kidding? They only eat hamburgers! McDonald's!"
Though seemingly unwelcome, the atmosphere in those houses was unmistakeably memorable. It featured the lovely smell of Chinese food, interior decorations that one would only find in a Chinese family's house, and always a piano and clean, polished furniture. And yet the latest technology could always be found lying around; these rich families could afford those new-fangled amplifiers, big tv's, and vcr's. This was an interesting blend and, truth be told, I miss it a little. It's not the Chinese aspects I miss so much as it is just the fact that, inside one of those houses, we were walking in a space separate from the rest of the world. It was a unique space where old traditions resided while new technologies crept in.
Monsoon Wedding brought me back to that place. No, it's not a Chinese movie; it's Indian, directed by Mira Nair with her colorful, non-Bollywood style. But it features such a skillful blend of Eastern tradition and Western invasion (including the realistic mixture of languages used, mostly equal parts English and Hindi) that I couldn't help but to be taken back to those big parties of my parents' associates. From an observational standpoint, this was nostalgic enough. Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan's story of a family gathering in New Delhi for the arranged marriage of an upper-middle-class couple's daughter feels so real, it could have been a documentary. Watch as the parents try to preserve cultural traditions (the father defiantly and the mother joyfully) in the face of cell-phone wielding event handlers, Western-influenced kids armed with Western-influenced notions, and the constant presence of the American way of life, brought in by visiting relatives. Those of the elder generation hang on to the pieces of the world they were brought up in, but can't stop the outside world from slowly coming in. This predicament has always fascinated me, and continues to do so.
But Nair doesn't use the occasion to lament the loss of culture. Instead, she sees it as a chance to revitalize what is and always has been remarkable about clung-to traditions. As the wedding preparations continue, separate forces subtly conspire to wreck the proceedings. The bride-to-be doubts if she can be with a man she's just met, and prefers liaisons with an ex-lover. The costs for constructing a traditional and weather-proof tent may be too much for the father to handle. The event planner who has spent his whole life devoted to his profession suddenly has a crisis and wonders where the love is in his own life. And a dance number may be cancelled when one of the performers becomes disgruntled, thanks to the brutal hand of strict parenting.
Slowly and one-by-one, these forces are averted softly by the success and allure of traditional values. To say how this happens would be spoiling too much, but let's just say that, by the end of the movie, you too may be wishing you were Indian and able to partake in the wonder of a celebration of culture and love. A developing outside world doesn't need to threaten the existence of culture -- it can still be a part of it, and the culture can still thrive.
Perhaps this explains what I didn't like about those old parties. I always felt the adults were complaining too much about the way their kids were becoming, all the while trumpeting the superiority of their own ways. Their ways were not "superior," but they did have an immense appeal if only they were willing to share the joys of it. Monsoon Wedding isn't scared of the ways of the kids; instead, it offers to enhance their cultural perspective. If given the choice, I really wouldn't go back to one of those old Chinese parties, but I would love to join the party at the end of Monsoon Wedding.
©Jeffrey Chen, Mar. 27, 2002