by Tony Dayoub
This week, Criterion releases Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, an intimate look at the group dynamics of a family that gathers from all around the world in Delhi for a traditional Punjabi wedding. This edition, available on both DVD and Blu-ray, is a significant improvement on previous releases of the film. Though the screener received was only a DVD, even in this version its picture is sharper, cleaner, and more saturated with brilliant color than any previous version. One could go on rhapsodizing about how the film looks, but it is becoming a bit predictable when it comes to Criterion reviews (and that's a good thing). Here's the real reason why this is the definitive version to own.
Criterion's Monsoon Wedding is an outstanding piece of film curation. It finally emphasizes why Nair, an often misunderstood director, and her filmography begs to be reconsidered. Though the centerpiece of the double-disc set is one of her most personal films, a movie that deals with not only her Punjabi culture but is set in her home city, her usual tendency for melodrama (at least in her full-length films) does not seem to reside as much in the foreground of Wedding as it does in her other films. This is surprising because of the soapy family drama that characterizes the film. But Criterion's inclusion of seven of her short films, three of which are documentaries, causes one to reassess this Wedding from a different perspective.
In each of her short films, Nair is particularly adept at honing in on the central subject. Whether its the New York newsstand worker of So Far from India (1982), or the large crowds of Indians who participate in The Laughing Club of India (2000), Nair effectively conveys the lifestyles of her subjects in an informative and richly entertaining way. And those are just her documentaries. Her fiction films give us a peek at the director's socioeconomic and political concerns. In The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), Nair—who lived in Uganda for a time—focuses on a white South African family who abandon their home in Johannesburg after the assassination of a black communist leader leads to instability in the city. In the short span of ten minutes, one is able to identify not only with the frightened matriarch of the family but with: her apprehensive mother; her servant, loyal to both the matriarch and her people; her seemingly oblivious young son; and a street kid who plays/performs for the young son—confined to his property as demonstrations start becoming less than civil.
The effect of reexamining Monsoon Wedding within the context of these varied short films is that one can now look beyond the histrionics that afflict the storyline, as it does in most family reunions. Instead one now sees the rich cultural detail that enlivens the film, such as one character's continued predilection for eating marigolds (which in Hindu culture are revered for their sacred healing powers). Nair uses documentary techniques like hand-held camerawork and the ability to continuously cut away to the most interesting corner of the room, so to speak, unafraid to sacrifice plot contrivances in order to spotlight real human interaction. And her political views still manage to inform the film in subtle ways. Nair is unafraid of facing the issue of arranged marriages through a subplot that looks at the bride, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), and her affair with a married man—rekindled just days before her wedding. Another potent subplot does not shy away from the subject of incest, taboo in any country but especially unspoken in Indian culture.
Mira Nair directed a short segment starring Natalie Portman in New York, I Love You, currently in theaters. Her film Amelia, starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, opens tomorrow. Word on each of these has not been very promising. But Monsoon Wedding represents Nair at her peak, and Criterion's new edition of the film goes out of its way to make sure you know why she should not be ignored.