The good folks at the Criterion Collection have set a new standard for themselves with their edition of Mira Nair's 2001 'Monsoon Wedding', out today, and, if it wasn't for the fact that they're giving us 'Wings of Desire' in a couple of weeks, it would be my choice for simply the best DVD release of the year.
I remember being exhilirated by the film when I saw it in Belfast - a mostly handheld family soap opera centering on the microcosm of all human life that takes place around a Delhi wedding, that also manages to take in the impact of globalisation, the economic transformation of India, sexual identity, the re-interpretation of religious traditions to accommodate modernity, but most of all the question of how love on earth is possible. For four days it feels like the whole world has arrived in India to dance, to fight, to eat, to complain, to stress out, to wear extraordinary colors and carry out the tensest of rituals: a family gathering.
And so we get Old and New India scattered in our direction, English and Hindi in the same sentence, remixed Bollywood dance tunes underscoring ancient rituals (flowers arranged as if their lives depended on it, mothers-in-law hiding the fact that they smoke, motivations mixed). It's utterly exuberant, but far deeper than that: this is about what India is really like. It's kinetic enough to feel like a rehearsal for 'Slumdog Millionaire', its scope wide enough to invoke the spirit of Robert Altman, its high drama mingled with a smidgen of magic is undeniably sourced from Fellini. (While it's become fashionable to detract from 'Slumdog', I'm still a fan (with reservations); but there's a scene of a boy with an eyepatch carrying coconut halves through the rain in 'Monsoon Wedding' that's as evocative than anything I saw in this year's Best Picture winner.) Nair knows when to up the emotional ante (to 'milk it', as she says on the erudite and illuminating commentary track); her cinematographer Declan Quinn arrives at a representation of these people and this place that makes you feel like you're there (and was to repeat this technique for 'Rachel Getting Married' last year, a film that could be considered a sister to 'Monsoon Wedding'); the music and editing dovetail perfectly.
Nair's early work was in the theatre, and she says that with the wedding scene she wanted to create 'an enormous drama in one night'. It's obvious that in making this film she organised things so that something approximating real life would happen on screen. And you're into it from the opening frames; totally compelled by these people who remind you of yourself, even if you feel that you have nothing in common with their rituals or culture. What's most compelling is how there are so many well-rounded characters - Naseeruddin Shah's patriarch chief among them, granting his role dignity, soulfulness, authority, and - the hardest thing - a moment of change that feels completely convincing.
Now, I just got married, so I may be allowing the residue of sentimentality that derives from that day to prejudice me in favor of this movie; I'd counter that by saying I liked it when I was single too...It's a genre-defying film patched together from Bollywood/Hollywood romance, musicals, a bit of psychological thriller here, a family soap opera there. It will make you cry and laugh, and think about your own family while it teaches a gentle lesson about how the world is changing, and the place of India in the world (it shouldn't be a surprise that Steven Spielberg sees the future of Dreamworks as intimately bound with the country). Most of all, though, 'Monsoon Wedding' portrays the mad courage that it takes to enter into love with other people; it's liberating to imagine that life could be like this.
Criterion's edition includes several short documentaries and fiction films from Nair, and a crop of thoughtful interviews, alongside the requisite essay; there's almost nothing you could imagine being left out of the supplements. It's a fantastic edition of a wonderful film that repays repeat viewings.
*Images courtesy Criterion Collection.