I am not aware of any Film Festival retrospective ever devoted to directors who shoot movies in their own homes. The list is illustrious: John Cassavetes' Faces (1968), Blake Edwards' That's Life (1986), David Lynch's Lost Highway (1996), to name only a few.
When otherwise mainstream filmmakers resort to such means, it is usually an artistic gesture as much as a canny, cost-cutting exercise. Directors regularly 'return to their roots' in personal, independent cinema by bringing it all back home.
Indian director Mira Nair is the latest to join this trend. I have never been impressed by her work, from the mediocre Salaam Bombay! (1988) to the risible Kama Sutra (1996). It has always seemed bloodless, marked by good intentions but little cinematic energy or skill. Monsoon Wedding, although no world-beater, marks a significant and welcome advance in her career.
It is a crowd-pleaser in the tradition of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993). Members of a large, extended family descend upon a Delhi household in order to celebrate the wedding of Aditi (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant (Parvin Dabas).
Several intrigues lurk in the shadows. Aditi still pines for her lover. The groom-to-be seems rather stiff and morose. The celebrations manager, Dubey (Vijay Raaz), finds himself drawn to the shy maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome). Discrepancies of class and money problems reveal themselves in every exchange between the two families about to merge.
Nair's feminism announces itself in a cautiously dramatic subplot involving the unmarried Ria (Shefali Shetty) and her alarm at noticing the affections of family's benefactor, Tej (Rajat Kapoor), toward a little girl. This eventually forms the ethical core of Sabrina Dhawan's well-woven script.
As in The Wedding Banquet, the politics of Monsoon Wedding are respectful of family ties and traditions but also open to the varieties of human experience that characterise the modern world. Gay sexuality is celebrated as much as the decades-old romance of the bride's parents, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Pimmi (Lilette Dubey).
Since Nair's films are a world away from the Bollywood style, Monsoon Wedding does not have to suffer the patronising, ill-informed remarks that greeted the epic, Indian musical Asoka (2001) on its Melbourne release. Yet there is one level on which Nair does draw from the popular tradition – in her depiction of dance. Although the setting is naturalistic, Nair lets herself go when she arrives at the scenes of her characters dancing.
This is an especially affecting spectacle, because there is not a trace of self-consciousness, shame or posturing in these dancing bodies. Young and old, glamorous and mundane, everyone expresses their personalities on the dance floor, and no one cramps anybody else's style.
© Adrian Martin December 2001