Monsoon Wedding is one of my all-time favorite movies. I have surely seen it more than a dozen times, and I’ll likely see it many more…and I’m going to tell you why, because this is some good storytelling.
For those who have never seen or even heard of this movie, it is, at first glance, exactly what it says on the tin. The only daughter of a wealthy-but-actually-having-money-troubles Punjabi family is getting married–an arranged marriage–and the whole extended family is coming into town for all the sundry wedding-related events. Sounds simple, but it’s so much more than that.
There are several main threads followed throughout the story (SPOILERS: all of them):
-The mother and father of the bride are stressed and tense and are feeling disconnected from one another.
-The bride, Aditi, has a former lover (a married man) she can’t let go of
-Two of the young relatives (from different sides) have a flirtation.
-Aditi’s little brother is not interested in school or things stereotypically masculine and this creates conflict with his parents.
-PK Dubey, wedding organizer, and Alice, who is a maid at the house, have a subtle romance between them.
-Most importantly, the story of Ria, Aliya, and the Uncle (Tej) and what happened to Ria in the past. We’ll get back to this.
This last thread is the heart and soul of the story, in my opinion, and has wrung tears from me before. But I will explain why the whole story is beautiful to me.
The Story Threads
I’m going to focus mostly on Ria, but I want to give a few good nuggets about each thread.
Aditi’s parents, Lalit and Pimmi: One of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is after a terrible, terrible revelation, Lalit (the father) is at a loss. He feels a failure and he is confused. He breaks down. Every time before when Pimmi reached out to him, he was too tired or too distracted. They’ve been at odds. But now he reaches out to her, seeks comfort from her. “I’m falling Pimmi,” he says. And she helps hold him up. And, in that action, she too is comforted because she is able to offer strength and comfort when it is most needed.
Aditi might actually be my least favorite character for all that she is the bride of the titular wedding, but that’s okay, because the narrative acknowledges her immaturity. She is having an affair with a married man and she clearly doesn’t know what she wants out of life. There are subtle hints that she is a bit shallow and has a lot of growing up to do. The best part of her storyline is when she realizes that being “the other woman” and trusting a man who is willing to betray his own wife are two of the stupidest things imaginable. And then, she takes a daring step and is honest with her husband-to-be: “I don’t want to start something new based on deceit and lies.” She makes a first step towards real growth then, and gives her new marriage a much stronger foundation. I also appreciate how realistic it is that her fiance flies into a rage, at first, because he is deeply offended: but he is able to check himself and realize how much courage it took for Aditi to be honest with so much at risk.
The two young loves, Ayesha and Rahul, are part of a very minor plot, but the final result is that Rahul has to learn, in very minor fashion, a lesson best summed up by the following quote “Oh darling, you have to be standing up in order to even fall…’only brave warriors fall from their horses in battle; how can kneeling cowards know what a fall is?”
Aditi’s little brother gives up on doing the thing he loves (he wants to dance in the item number) and it is clear that he regrets it. This storyline is unresolved, but this makes sense as he is still young, and can still learn to both be responsible while still enjoying the things he loves.
PK Dubey and Alice are sort of handled as the “downstairs” people of the story, if this were Downton Abbey, but their story is beautifully, sweetly told. Dubey is a little ridiculous, and Alice from Bihar is the calm, quiet, reasonable one. Perhaps the most poignant scene with them is when they get married soaking wet in the monsoon rains, under a little marigold umbrella with just a few fellow working friends in attendance–quickly contrasted by the huge, lavish wedding put on by the family for the daughter. I think it is so easy for everyone to assume that the stereotypical lavish wedding they’ve seen in all the Bollywood movies is all there is to see or know about. They forget that perhaps not everyone can or will have such a wedding. But then, of course, Dubey and Alice are invited into the tent to celebrate at the end, and it all ends with dancing.
RIA!!!!!!! This movie is really about Ria. What happens to her and how she deals with it, and how the family deals with it–this is what this movie is really all about. Ria deserves her own heading.
So it is clear from early on that Ria has some discomfort with Tej Uncle. She freezes up when he enters the room. She is not happy, as one might expect, when he offers to pay for her education. She turns into a plank of wood when he touches her. But she says nothing, and the viewer does not know for some time what the problem is. Not until Ria finds Tej Uncle chatting with Aliya, who is about nine years old, do you begin to guess the problem. Tej Uncle is not to be trusted.
Ria’s heart stops when she sees Tej Uncle alone in a room with little Aliya. You can see it in her eyes: deep, deep dread for fear that something has happened and for fear that you have failed to stop it.
After a moment’s fearful pause, Ria bursts into the room, glaring at Tej Uncle and berating Aliya for being in that room. She breathes a desperate sigh of relief when Aliya explains she simply asked for Tej Uncle to reach something from a high shelf.
The crucial culmination of this is when Tej Uncle offers to take Aliya for a drive during one of the wedding events because she is tired and cranky, Ria rushes to stop him, stepping in front of the car. The courage it takes for her to do this is tremendous. Still more courage is required for her to admit to Lalit, her Uncle who raised her, that Tej Uncle molested her as a child, so that they will get him away from Aliya.
It is because everyone else loves and trusts this man that this is almost insurmountably difficult for Ria. No one wants to believe her because it means accusing someone they have thought of as family. Someone they have known for so, so long. Someone who has gotten them out of desperate financial straits before.
Lalit doesn’t know what to do. He is torn between his dear friend (Tej Uncle) and Ria. Ria leaves the wedding event, feeling abandoned by those she loves most, suspecting (reasonably) that they will want to just brush the whole thing under the rug.
And they almost do.
Ria comes back because Lalit begs her to, but you can see she is in turmoil. She is made to sit near to and take family photographs with the man who molested her. He is getting away with it, even though now (because of his attempts to target Aliya) they know Ria is telling the truth.
Finally they go to honor the deceased, Ria’s father. You see her terrible sorrow as she places a smudge of red paint on his old photograph.
Lalit cannot take it anymore. He sees her hurt. He loves her. He sees what he must do. He cannot allow a man who harmed Ria to carry on as if nothing has happened, nor pretend to honor Ria’s father in front of her very face.
He stops Tej Uncle and orders him to leave. And it is so, so hard for him to do this. He is very much beholden to this man. That is what makes it powerful. Now it is easy to say that that is what he should have done in the first place, but in the context, if you have empathy, you can see that what he is doing takes courage as well. “These are my children,” he says. “And I will protect them even from myself if I have to.”
It isn’t a fight. Lalit just quietly stands his ground and makes that man leave.
You see the love and gratitude in Ria’s eyes in that moment. She is worth the breaking of deep ties, she is worth losing face, losing security, losing comfort. She is worth all that to her family. The joyfulness she exhibits at the final wedding scene is that of someone finally freed from a great horror. She is safe. She is loved. She has hope for the future (The newly arrived and handsome Umang, perhaps?)
Other points of interest:
Obviously this movie is about family. Ria giving Aditi advice. Lalit and Pimmi’s love for their daughter and their niece. Their complicated love for their son who is not living up to their expectations, whom they do not fully understand. Mothers, Fathers, Daughters, Sons, friends, family, all coming together to celebrate.
The director, Mira Nair, said that she wanted to make her own version of a Bollywood film. If you watch Bollywood films, you will be familiar with the more typical aspects, mainly the impromptu dancing and singing, item numbers, and the occasional fantasy sequence. This film is not a musical, however, and nothing happens in it that would not happen in real life. But, oh so cleverly, there is a great deal of dancing and singing, and even a few moments that feel like a fantasy sequence.
-A hired singer sings during the henna painting ceremony
-The family, jokingly, sings half a song at the dinner table
-One of the family members is asked to sing as they sit on the ground during the Sangeet
-Ayesha practices a dance number with Varun (Aditi’s little brother) for the Sangeet
-Ayesha performs the “item number” with Rahul and, eventually, the whole crowd, joining her on the dance floor.
-When Dubey eats marigolds, marigold leaves are falling in a haze, and the music and cinematography gives the impression of something magical happening.
This film’s soundtrack is fantastic. Just a perfect mixture, somehow.
Little, Subtle Things
I do not profess to know very much about Indian culture broadly, or Punjabi culture specifically, and rest assured this movie is not “educational”: what I mean is that this is a beautiful story, rich in nuances, not designed to be “Indian culture 101” for those curious to learn. However, by the nature of being such a good story, and so well-grounded (and by virtue of my having watched this film SO MANY TIMES) there are little cultural things to be gleaned and appreciated.
Alice is from Bihar. Where is Bihar? What is unique about that region?
Lalit challenges Dubey’s cost assessment by saying, hey, look, “I’m not an NRI” (Non-resident Indian). What are the cultural perceptions about residents vs. NRIs?
The beautiful things Pimmi has been collecting for Aditi’s wedding since she was born.
The Verma (main family’s) very fine house which feels like an estate versus PK Dubey’s smaller, much less modern house…very different styles of living, and also interesting to observe, because Dubey is notedly not poor, yet might seem so to Western eyes.
All the traditions and ceremonies…some, admittedly, with the sheen rubbed off of them because of all the personal turmoil and real conflict.
Ria and her Bengali friend arguing about the stereotypes of their respective regions.
And so much more. But it’s just naturally there, and the story is so full and so very much alive with details.
There is certainly sorrow to be had in this movie, but the joy is present to, and I might as well tell you that it wins the day.