A divided world
Class divisions run through Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, separating the haves from the have-nots. Were it not for this, it could probably be one of the greatest films made in post-Independent India, says T. G. VAIDYANATHAN.
The plot of the flim savours choice slices of New Delhi life.
WRITING in the October 19, 1988 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson noted that in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988): ``The streets of Bombay are choked with children... whose lives are lived at pavement level, with the stink of truck fumes and the din of traffic never out of their heads.'' There are no children to speak of in Ms. Nair's Monsoon Wedding with the "shining" exception of Aliya the youngest sibling in the Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) household whom we first espy hiding in a closet and browsing through one of those fat GRE tomes. The plot of Monsoon Wedding which has hitherto been ambling along at a leisurely pace, picking up and savouring choice slices of New Delhi life both high and low suddenly sits bolt upright at the impending fate of Aliya at the hands of the not-so-ageing patriarch Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor, who explores the full range of complex emotions from wide-eyed innocence to outright denial). This is staved off by a last minute rescue by U.S.-headed Ria (Shefali Shetty, in, surely, one of the film's outstanding performances), the unmarried daughter of Lalit's elder brother. Paedophilia is probably the most detested crime worldwide today and the scene a faire of the film is the come-uppance of its perpetrator, Tej Puri, as he makes off with a thoroughly sleepy Aliya in his car only to be stopped dramatically by a screaming Ria who spills the beans (viz., that she herself was an earlier victim of Uncle Tej: ``He took off my clothes... I didn't even have breasts then,'' she yells to a wholly bewildered Lalit). After a bridging sequence where, ironically, Ria is made to sit at the feet of Tej Puri! for a family photograph, we reach the nerve centre of the film when, in a scene of impassioned silence, Tej is asked to leave the place by Lalit, his younger brother, to the consternation of all present. Thereafter the film resumes its previous gaiety and merriment and the briefly interrupted wedding takes centre stage as the credits come on and Aditi and her Houston-based groom exchange marital vows before the sacred fire but, apparently, without the benefit of clergy. An odd wedding indeed, especially an arranged one!
The working class is seen, if seldom heard, in this film devoted to New Delhi's monied and globe-trotting elite which does not allow even a wedding to interfere with its weekend golf. The two worlds of Monsoon Wedding are like chalk and cheese and they never meet. If they did, Monsoon Wedding would be one of the greatest films to emerge from post-Independence India after Ray's Pather Panchali. But sadly it is not so. Class divisions run through Monsoon Wedding like inexorable lines of fate, separating the haves from the have-nots, the latter mainly through the antics of Dubey (Vijay Raaz, in a highly overrated performance the mandap decorator with the cellphone) who is often the object of derisory laughter throughout the film.
It's hard to believe that Mira Nair who did such a searing exposé of street life in Salaam Bombay! and who established the Salaam Baalak Trust (a non-profit Foundation based in Bombay and New Delhi) can be so unmindful of the poor in Monsoon Wedding.
They are a truly faceless lot here, glimpsed fitfully at night in the crowded thoroughfares of Delhi. In marked contrast, the upper-class is given the full sensorium of their inner lives: even the tone and timber of their orgasmic moans are simulated by a whimpering female on that TV Talk Show hosted by the bearded Vikram (Sameer Arya) Aditi's boy friend and Talk Show host on Delhi.com. It is true the Indian upper-class does come in for some mild criticism as in Chadha uncle's (Kulbushan Kharbanda) pathetic attempt to enlighten Aliya on the spelling of Roman names and in the groom's U.S.-based father (Roshan Seth wasted in an inconsequential role) telling Lalit in that first get-together that rocks is a modern synonym for ice. In fact, Lalit's grasp of the niceties of correct English is so weak that he can actually introduce his son-in-law-to-be with the words ``He is soon to be in the family way''. As against this, there are several scenes devoted to the osculatory prowess of the upper-class: the nocturnal rendezvous of the tattoo-sporting Ayesha (the truly alluring Neha Dubey) and the Muscat-based Rahul (Randeep Hooda) which culminates in that long, lingering kiss; the worst of them is the cold, bloodless kiss between Aditi (Vasundhara Das, who has accumulated a lot of puppy fat since her cameo in Kamal Haasan's Hey Ram!) and her married boss in their midnight rendezvous which is mercifully interrupted by those lathi-wielding policemen.
Several characters in Monsoon Wedding testify to the upper-class hegemony.
There are several osculatory pecks in the movie all testifying to the sovereign upper-class hegemony of this amatory field. Mild and uninflammatory these kisses might be (despite Aditi's paean to passion in her taxi ride with Ria) but the upper-class has a notoriously short fuse. Car doors are slammed shut after Aditi comes clean to her Houston-based fiancé, Hemant Rai (Parveen Dabas), a confession clearly triggered by her humiliation at the hands of those prying cops the previous night when her boy friend lets her face the music alone. More doors are slammed shut in the Verma household as Lalit Verma (a truly staggering performance by Naseeruddin Shah) clumsily deals with the tantrums of his recalcitrant son (he wants to be a chef!) who doesn't want to go to boarding school. But neither amatory bliss (albeit of a tepid, lukewarm variety) nor the cathartic release of anger is the prerogative of the working class who must cool off perched on dizzy poles or douse themselves in ice cold water from plastic buckets at homes off seedy lanes. This is the nadir of Mira Nair's examination of class relations. Instead of conflict we get meek submission. However, as in a circus, the working class mimics the master class for laughs. Thus we have Dubey pathetically proposing to Alice (Tilotama Shome, too upper-class in her gestures and gait for my comfort) on bended knees with that heart-shaped bouquet of marigolds! Just once, in a surprising lapse, Monsoon Wedding juxtaposes the two worlds in that procession of female workers with loads on their heads who walk along the gently sloping parabola of grass as that cute golf-cart drives Lalit and his golfing companion away. But the two worlds of Monsoon Wedding never really meet although Tagore a copy of whose poems is seen on the bed in Aditi's room on that night of many lubricious escapades dreamt precisely of ``a world not broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls'' in his famous Gitanjali. The marigolds a veritable leitmotif throughout the film that shower on Lalit under the bower at the opening of the film are causally eaten by Alice at one point and liberally too by Dubey throughout the film except at the finale when he presents that heart-shaped bouquet to her. At this point, Alice and Dubey their nuptials solemnised on that picture-postcard bridge, the couple shielded by a discreet umbrella like their masters have joined their masters with whom they are seen dancing at the end in a monsoon downpour. Only Alice and Dubey, mind you, are admitted to the inner circle, not the others. Truly, Monsoon Wedding is riven in half by disparate ideals. Mira Nair has gone on record that Monsoon Wedding is ``my ultimate love song to Delhi''. But unlike Othello in Shakespeare's play who ``loved not wisely but too well'', Mira Nair loved the street children of Bombay wisely and well. Hence Salaam Bombay! must remain Mira Nair's chef d'oeuvre.
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