“My family means everything to me,” Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a Delhi-based businessman, tells his niece, Ria (Shefali Shah). “I cannot break up my family. Please don’t tell me to make that choice.” These words have come to Lalit with great difficulty, for he dotes on Ria and knows that she is right. She’s walked out of a wedding that includes Lalit’s brother-in-law, Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor), who molested her in childhood. Ria’s childhood has come back to haunt her, because Tej’s recently molested her ten-year-old niece. But Lalit’s indebted to Tej, for he bailed out his penniless family a few decades ago. But that was then. At the moment, Lalit stands between moral duty and familial propriety. He is supposed to do the right thing, but doing that’ll mean refuting an institution that’s always considered right: the family. Most Indian families don’t look inwards, don’t question their elders, equating respect with age, placing accidents of birth above everything else. Which is why this scene from Monsoon Wedding was a watershed moment in Indian family dramas, and what happened next, equally important: Lalit forbids Tej to receive the groom’s family and asks him to leave the wedding. Our families aren’t as happy as we pretend or imagine them to be, and that’s okay, suggests Monsoon Wedding, let’s work on what we already have.
Even though seemingly happy and united, Monsoon Wedding’s Vermas, like people insecure about their identities, keep secrets from each other. Aditi (Vasundhara Das), Lalit’s daughter, is about to get married in a few days, but she still secretly sees her ex-boyfriend. Pimmi (Lilette Dubey), Aditi’s mother, frequently sneaks to the loo, adjoining her bedroom, for a naughty cigarette. Lalit and Pimmi’s son, Varun (Ishan Nair), more interested in dance, less in sports, wants to become a chef when he grows up, a career choice that embarrasses his father. Lalit and Pammi are happily married, but it’s evident, from a few scenes, that they haven’t had sex in quite sometime, a fact that only bothers Pimmi. Monsoon Wedding talks about the quintessential conflict that frequently rocks Indian families: reconciling personal and collective desires. Unlike many Indian families, which obsessively guard their image and social standing, Monsoon Wedding is fearless; it revels in the family members’ tomfoolery and celebrations, but also bares their suppressed emotions—frustration, confusion, and anger.
Nothing can be more boring and lazy, even disingenuous, than praising a well-made film with the cliché “it was ahead of its times”. But Monsoon Wedding indeed was, and by a good few years, if not a decade. Mira Nair, Monsoon Wedding’s director, entered a terrain long colonized by the Chopras and the Johars, the boisterous Punjabi family, and beat them at their own turf. Consider this: Monsoon Wedding released only a few weeks before the sappy and escapist Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a box-office blockbuster emblematic of the Hindi family dramas made in those years. 15 years have passed since, and we know which one of the two has stood the test of time.
Besides, Monsoon Wedding’s remarkable for a bunch of other reasons, too— its gaze, for instance. Here’s a film that does justice to its female characters, as they, even the supporting ones, are well-defined and complex, not confirming to the Bollywood stereotypes of aunts, girlfriends, and wives. Monsoon Wedding’s women drink and dance, sing and seduce, rib and laugh. Scores of scenes in the film are beautifully feminine, that accord singular intimacy to its women, whether they’re practicing dance moves for a sangeet, exchanging lewd jokes, or acting on their emotional and sexual desires. And it’s not far-fetched to conclude that such nuance is a direct result of the fact that Monsoon Wedding is both directed and written by women: Nair and Sabrina Dhawan (also Kaminey and Ishqiya’s screenwriter). Nair has, in fact, collaborated with women screenwriters—most notably with Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991), and The Namesake (2006)—throughout her career and, unsurprisingly, inspired two of the finest women filmmakers in the country: Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. Akhtar, who considers Salaam Bombay! her “biggest influence”, was one of the casting directors for, and appeared in a small role in, Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). Nearly a decade later, her name was mentioned in The Namesake’s credits, under the “special thanks” section. A few years ago, Kagti, who has worked with Akhtar in all her films, assisted Nair on Vanity Fair (2004), bookending the circular relationship shared by three fine Indian filmmakers.
Monsoon Wedding is one of those rare Hindi films that hasn’t gotten old with time. Its humour is still sharp, its social commentary—on modern Indian love, complex familial dynamics, class divide—relevant, and its empathy, cutting across class and caste, much-needed. And yet, watching Monsoon Wedding in 2016 is like watching the India of 2001, a country in transition, gearing to accept new social, economic, and technological changes: where, according to Dubey (Vijay Raaz), an outgoing call on cellphone cost “Rs 12 per minute”, panelists on a TV show discussed “censorship” and “India going global”, e-mail ids listed on visiting cards signified upward social mobility. India, like any other country, has undergone inevitable economic changes over the last 15 years, but its fundamental social concerns, as shown in the film—the conflict between being independent and yet being answerable to one’s elders, familial propriety overriding personal honour—remain as prominent. Monsoon Wedding, in that case, is not just a film about the India that was, but also what it can hope to become.
A slightly edited version of this piece was published in GQ.