Family dramas are tricky propositions. Invariably set during pressure-cooker weekend gatherings, such films are typically flatly filmed and prone to fall into cliché. Too often, the genre either whitewashes a family's cultural traditions in search of universality or focuses, in a pandering way, on ethnic archetypes to the exclusion of deep characterization. But when a gifted filmmaker with a strong point-of-view tackles the family-drama genre, the effect on an audience can be potent and transportive. Enter Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), the veteran filmmaker whose 2001 film Monsoon Wedding took art houses by storm.
Monsoon Wedding observes the activity around a wedding in New Delhi. To ask anyone but the bride, the arranged marriage between Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas) is happening, come hell or high water, in a few days. The father of the bride, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah, a force of nature), worries his way around the family home, berating the wedding planner PK Dubey (Vijay Raaz) to get the details just right. Others have their own distractions: the bride's sensitive brother Varun (Ishaan Nair) is misunderstood by his father, who wishes the boy would "man up." Cousin Ria Verma (Shefali Shetty), busy confronting the spectre of an uncle (Rajat Kapoor) who did her wrong in her youth, and cousins Ayesha (Neha Dubey) and Rahul (Randeep Hooda) are too busy making eyes at each other to notice the bride's own dismay. Aditi knows full well that if she's to marry Hemant, an acquaintance but hardly an intimate, she will have to sever ties with the man she's been seeing on the sly, married television personality Vikram Mehta (Sameer Arya).
Nair announces her film's energy with a title sequence that comes on with a blast of color and music. The pot is already bubbling at the film's outset and as the action heats up, the hot water's bound to boil over. In the fast-paced, sensual two hours that follow, screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan and Nair create a wholly credible portrait of an extended family, realistically portray a spectrum of old-school and modern family traditions, and even find time for a tender romance between two characters that would be considered throwaway in a Hollywood picture: the family maid Alice (Tillotama Shome) and Dubey, a walking stereotype breathtakingly deepened into a heartbreakingly human being through the persistent attentions of Dhawan and Nair. "Life's such a comedy," Dubey laughs, and the comedy in which he stars is so much like life.
Monsoon Wedding explores real love, dutiful love, and wrongheaded (unreciprocated) love; it also acknowledges the best and worst of family, love and marriage with admirable equanimity. The trick of the picture is that most of the characters force the audience to take the bad with the good. Dubey's short temper and nakedly weaselly business practices mask a loveable vulnerability. Though abrasively set in his ways, Lalit is a loving father, one who can look at his sleeping daughters and remark with piercing purity, "Sometimes when I look at them I feel love which I almost cannot bear." Even the evil of Uncle Tej cannot render him soulless; when his transgressions are revealed, they open fissures of sadness and shame at the tainting of years of positive familial interactions. In the end, without glossing over its ongoing struggles, Monsoon Wedding chooses life, ending with as much color, music and vigor as it conjured when it began.
Keeping in mind that Monsoon Wedding was shot on Super-16 (on a humble budget of $1.5 million), it probably will never look better than it does in Criterion's new hi-def transfer, supervised by director Mira Nair and director of photography Declan Quinn. The film looks as it did in theaters, which is praise enough, and certainly it has never looked better on home video. That said, the transfer does have the soft look to be expected of Super-16 and, briefly, a bit of print damage that comes straight from the original negative. With the picture's inherent limitations understood, viewers should be very pleased with the presentation here, which extends to a well-defined DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.
Crtiterion's special edition treatment of Monsoon Wedding is especially lavish, beginning with a thoughtful and detailed commentary with director Mira Nair.
Nair's 2009 interview with "Naseeruddin Shah" (21:24, HD) is a very welcome opportunity to eavesdrop on a discussion between actor and director, while "Declan Quinn and Stephanie Carroll" (10:35, HD) is a 2009 interview with the cinematographer and production designer, respectively.
Last up in the Monsoon Wedding extras is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:22, HD).
The disc moves on to celebrate Nair with a collection of seven of her short films spanning twenty-five years of activity.
Nair's 2000 doc "The Laughing Club of India" (35:03, SD) comes with a new introduction by Nair (4:20, HD).
The 1982 documentary short "So Far From India" (49:22, HD) comes with a new introduction by Nair (6:41, HD). The film profiles an Indian-American New Yorker.
The 1985 documentary short "India Cabaret" (59:42, HD) explores gender roles for women in Indian society; it comes here with a new introduction by Nair (7:59, HD).
The 1993 fiction short "The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat" (11:21, HD), set in then-contemporary South Africa, comes with a new introduction by Nair (4:39, HD).
The segment "India" (11:50, HD) from the 2002 anthology film 11'09"01--September 11 comes with a new introduction by Nair (3:17, HD).
The 2007 fiction short "Migration" (18:41, HD), part of a four-film series on the AIDS epidemic, comes with a new introduction by Nair (3:50, HD).
The UN-commissioned 2007 fiction short "How Can It Be?" (9:07, HD) comes with a new introduction by Nair (5:04, HD). The theme of the Brooklyn-set film is gender equality.
The generous package comes complete with a 32-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Pico Iyer, as well as credits, tech specs, and a guide to the short films.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer