Published March 14, 2002
If I had to ask one question of a movie in order to distinguish a good one from a bad one, or at least a less- than-good one, it would be this: Does it start from the specific in order to get to the general, or does it start with the general and pick up the specifics as necessary? Or, to put it another way, do the characters make upon us an impression of being real outside the movie’s context? Does the plot present them with adventures that appear to have happened to them in the way that things happen to us in real life, or do those adventures look as if they have been created only so as to elicit a pre-ordained response? Do the authors give us the impression of having invented both characters and plot before they knew what general principle they were to illustrate, or is there some kind of thesis that the characters were designed just so as to illustrate?
Although there is a lot to like about Monsoon Wedding, written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed by Mira Nair, its answers to those questions would be all the wrong ones. Only the patriarch of the Verma family of New Delhi, played by Naseeruddin Shah, the arranged marriage of whose daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das) to a well-to-do émigré from Houston (Parvin Dabas) provides the “Wedding” of the title, seemed to me entirely convincing as a real person, one who was unconscious of the job of work he had in hand on behalf of the authors. And, good as he was, particularly in representing the quiet desperation with which his character tries to keep the family together and keep the money coming in to pay for its increasingly expensive tastes, he alone was not enough to infuse the necessary dollop of real life into a movie meant to be a sort of Indian version of an Altmanian spectacular, self-consciously full of “life.”
The latter kind of life is of the sort to which the verbal adjective “affirming” is often appended, and the movie is accordingly full of comedy and tragedy, joy and heartbreak, good and bad, with an upbeat ending designed to make us feel good — not only about the fictional characters whom we have naturally learned to like but also about ourselves. There now, that’s the worst thing I’m going to say about Monsoon Wedding: that it is a feel-good picture that takes a wry and humorous look at family and sexual relationships in the emerging middle classes of one of the most dynamic and promising of the world’s developing countries. From any other critic that would count as a blurb worthy of being slapped up on the poster, but I am perverse enough to resent being told to feel good about myself.
It is of course interesting from a sociological point of view to have Ms. Nair’s opinion that Western sexual customs are in the process of overpowering the traditional constraints of a society like India’s, and that with them are going such “patriarchal” family arrangements as have hitherto managed to survive there. It is also very much to the film’s credit, I think, that it so far refrains from taking a stridently polemical line about those arrangements, apart from one instance which I shall mention presently, that it can find something good to be said even about arranged marriages. Its immense sympathy to the principal patriarch, Papa Verma, is as I say almost enough by itself to make the movie worth seeing. But in the end one cannot — I could not — forget the sociological point for the sake of those who are meant to embody it.
The exception to the wry and humorous and forbearing portrait of a patriarchy in decline comes with the introduction of the motif of child-abuse. Now I look upon child-abuse in the movies the way I look upon the Kennedy assassination or the Holocaust in the movies. All three bring with them their own pre-programmed emotional responses which can only wreak havoc in the midst of the delicately-nurtured emotions native to the particular film into which they have been imported. Everything that the particular characters and their particular situation can build up in the way of a particular response is tainted by this moral enormity, which we know can only be present in order to bully us into thinking and feeling along certain lines. It is the feminist H-bomb, and where it is deployed nothing else can live.
The more’s the pity, as there were several promising shoots scorched to the earth by the fireball. I particularly liked the nagging of the mother (Sharda Desohras) of the “event planner,” who calls himself P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) and who has arranged the elaborate and traditional wedding for the Vermas while carrying on his own flirtation with their charming maid-of-all-work, Alice (Tilotama Shome). P.K. is a successful and enterprising sort from the lower castes who has obviously done well out of the growth economy of new India, but his mother is unimpressed by his upward mobility. All she cares about is that he should finally get around to arranging his own wedding so as to present her with grandchildren. “Your father’s name will sink without trace,” she whines to him. But of course his father’s name has already been changed from something traditional and unpronounceable to the Anglicized and fashionable.This kind of subtlety is too rare in the movie, but it shows what it might have been if its makers had cared more about their characters than about what they had to say about them.