There are many arresting moments in Monsoon Wedding, one of which comes at the very end. As the final sequence played out with characters dancing raucously to Punjabi pop in the midst of a downpour and the end credits began to roll, moviegoers shuffling for the exits froze mid-step, seduced by the collage of song, text and visual.
It wasn’t over until Sukhwinder Singh finished singing the glorious Aj Mera Jee Karda. The track was intercut with images of the nuptials promised by the film’s title and cards with the names of the cast and crew. Two decades after it was released in India in 2001, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding still invites us to wait until the party has well and fully ended, the last of the guests have departed, and the lights have been turned out.
Nair is a big fan of movie credits. “Every element of the frame in cinema should speak of your intention and vision,” she told Scroll.in as she revisited her most accomplished and beloved film in an interview from her home in Kampala, where she lives when she isn’t in New York or Delhi.
Monsoon Wedding won the Venice Film Festival’s highest award, the Golden Lion, in 2001 – only the second Indian movie to achieve this honour after Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito in 1957.
A critical and commercial darling in its time, the movie’s portrait of a relatable Indian family that discovers grace under pressure hasn’t faded over the years.
“The film is a real tonic, it has that rare thing that elicits joy,” Nair observed. “That is because the film is unafraid to be deeply truthful about darkness, and therefore we understand the light.”
The movie opens with the sounds of a brass band-style tune by Canadian composer Mychael Danna. The principal cast and crew are identified on solid-coloured backdrops across which graphic lines and dots and shapes go up, down and sideways.
The opening sequence, designed by Trollback+Company, invokes what Nair calls “the unbroken line of family”, apart from resembling an animated wedding invite. “The moment you enter, you are in a shaadi ma mahaul [a wedding atmosphere],” Nair said. “I have spent several years making Monsoon Wedding into a [stage] musical, and the unbroken line is the inspiration for a major song in the play.”
Monsoon Wedding was released in India in the same year as Lagaan, Gadar, Dil Chahta Hai and Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gham. Despite being set in an affluent corner of Delhi, led by an entirely Indian cast and buoyed by a feelgood flavour, this was no Bollywood product. That was obvious from the movie’s realistic examination of family dynamics, its playful use of songs and the irreverent conversational humour.
Through the arranged marriage between Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), Nair and writer Sabrina Dhawan explore romance old and new and the tussle between convention and individual freedom. Aditi still holds a candle for her married lover. Her parents Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Pimmi (Lillete Dubey) are running harum-scarum to ensure that the wedding goes off smoothly.
When he isn’t pulling favours to finance his daughter’s big day, Lalit battles with the wily wedding organiser PK Dubey (Vijay Raaz). There’s a second, unplanned wedding tucked into the plot. Dubey’s entanglement with the domestic worker Alice (Tillotama Shome) is this movie’s real fairy tale, which stands in contrast to the terrible truth that spills out as the wedding nears.
Aditi’s cousin Ria (Shefali Shah) has been sexually abused by her uncle Tej (Rajat Kapoor). Ria’s revelation threatens to derail the event, but equilibrium is restored by Lalit’s brave stand against Tej.
Though this superbly performed wedding movie came seven years after Sooraj Barjatya’s monster hit Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, it couldn’t have been more different. Where the Hindi-language Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! celebrated tradition and ritual, Monsoon Wedding took a hybrid, best-of-both-worlds approach.
Dhawan’s dialogue is a mash of English, Hindi and Punjabi. The ensemble cast includes veterans, recent entrants and newcomers. The soundtrack features folk, Hindi film music and electronica. The value system is progressive while being respectful of tradition.
The goings-on in the Verma household have a spontaneous, lived-in quality. The camera weaves in and out of scenes and leaps from one character to the next to create a sense of immediacy and rawness. The film was shot entirely with handheld cameras by American cinematographer Declan Quinn and his crew – among the reasons the movie still appears fresh and contemporary.
Weddings in Hindi films privilege frontality. Viewers are placed in the position of the guest seated before the ceremonial stage. They are encouraged to take in the details of the clothes, jewellery and decorations.
Monsoon Wedding was never meant to be that kind of “presentational story”, Nair said. “The camera was to be the pulse of us, never static but also not kinetic, a chosen thing,” she added. “It was very constructed to appear that it wasn’t. Nearly all the actors were in the frame all the time, so we did the blocking before the shooting.” The idea was to depict the “fullness and the truth and the family chaan chaan [hubbub]”.
One of the most successful applications of this verite approach is in the sequence in which Dubey, disturbed after a misunderstanding with Alice, leaves the wedding venue and makes his way home. It’s many kilometres and several social strata away, and is also one of the few moments when the movie acknowledges the vast economic divide in Delhi and elsewhere in India. Midivial Punditz’s Fabric provides an index of Dubey’s feelings.
The film was initially meant to take place entirely within the Verma household, Nair said. The rains had begun in Delhi, and whenever possible, the camera crew would sneak out and shoot montages of street life.
“The film started to open up with these montages,” Nair said. “And Vijay Raaz was blowing me away as Dubey. We sent Dubey out on a rickshaw with a camera unit,” Nair said. “They came back with this beautiful stuff and a song sequence was created.”
Several such moments of serendipity enhanced the production. The soundtrack had Mychael Danna’s original tunes, pre-recorded music and recontextualised Hindi film songs. Nair found the perfect spot for many of the tracks.
For instance, when Dubey first runs into Alice, Mohammed Rafi’s full-throated rendition of Aaj Mausam Bada Beimaan Hai from the 1973 Hindi film Loafer blares in the background. The tune was suggested by Nair’s husband, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani.
“Sometimes, songs or sound will inspire a scene but in this case, Aaj Mausam heightens the scene, the strange distention when you are in a love stupor,” Nair pointed out.
One of the album’s most popular tunes had not yet found its place in the narrative. Sukhwinder Singh’s Punjabi folk-inspired Aj Mera Jee Karda was recorded six months after the shoot finished. “It was made way after the film was cut and finished, and it was a question of how to use this great song,” Nair said. She tried to splice it into a rain sequence or the climactic wedding procession, but it simply didn’t fit.
“You didn’t have the high of liberation, so I sustained the cut, went to black on Naseer’s face and then started Aj Mera Jee Karda through the credits, interweaving this wonderful footage of the ceremony, which was affecting and touching and true,” she said.
The soundtrack was one of the high points of the premiere at Venice, prompting venerable delegates to dance in the aisles, Nair recalled. She had met Danna through the actor Ranjit Chowdhury, and was won over by Danna’s music for Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s Exotica.
When Nair first met Danna, he was wearing a T-shirt that said “Punjabi By Nature” – a reference to the bhangra band, but also a sign from above for Nair who, despite her surname, is Punjabi.
She should actually have been Mira Nayyar, but for reasons unknown, her grandfather and then her father chose to write their surnames as Nair. “I don’t have a good story for why they spelt it like that,” the 63-year-old filmmaker said. “My father’s brothers spell it as Nayyar.”
Monsoon Wedding, of course, is an unabashed celebration of Punjabi exuberance. Sabrina Dhawan’s screenplay has a line describing Bengalis as “pretentious” and Punjabis as “ostentatious”. The movie makes it clear which language group is having more fun.
In Scripting Bollywood – Candid Conversations With Women Who Write Hindi Cinema, Dhawan told author Anubha Yadav that community and family were her biggest influences. She drew on her formative years in Delhi to create the panoply of characters. She based Dubey on an uncle and Ria on herself.
“…the revelation about sexual abuse is autobiographical,” Dhawan told Yadav. “However, I didn’t get the happy ending shown in the film… I guess, it was my way of coping through fantasy.”
Dhawan’s initial screenplay was a little over 180 pages, Nair recalled. Dhawan was still a student at the Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program when she wrote Monson Wedding. (She is currently the area head of screenwriting at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.)
Dhawan had been the assistant editor on Nair’s documentary The Laughing Club of India. Even as Dhawan fine-tuned her screenplay, Nair was raising funds ahead of a scheduled month-long shoot in Delhi in August 2000.
“The foundational script was layered and clarified,” Nair said. A couple of scenes were improvised, including the one in which Dubey climbs to the top of a bamboo trellis to get better cellphone reception.
Nair initially wanted to open the movie with the scene in which the soon-to-be-married Aditi meets her lover. Dhawan plumped for the sequence featuring Aditi’s father Lalit, the “character that holds the story together”, she told Yadav.
“Mira and I had a major disagreement on this, but I was young and I did not have much of a choice, so I changed it,” Dhawan told Yadav. However, after viewers at test screenings echoed Dhawan’s advice, the sequence of scenes was altered. “The director brings something that you don’t, and vice versa,” Dhawan said. “Personality also plays a part in the collaboration.”
Indeed, Lalit Verma is the soul of Monsoon Wedding. Naseeruddin Shah beautifully captures Lalit’s financial worries, his disquiet over his younger son’s effete manner, his short temper but also his large-heartedness. When he learns about Ria’s abuse by Tej, the old-fashioned Lalit is broken. “I don’t even know how to console you – what you have gone through, I cannot even imagine,” he tells the distraught Ria.
Shah was Mira Nair’s first choice for her debut feature Salaam Bombay! The 1988 film, about the hardscrabble lives of Mumbai’s street children, includes a malevolent pimp named Baba. Nair approached Shah for the part, but he declined and recommended Nana Patekar instead.
Shah had no hesitation signing up for Monsoon Wedding. “I never stopped regretting having turned down Salaam Bombay!” Shah told Scroll.in. He was at that stage in his long career when he was looking to move beyond what he called “tour de force roles” in which he shouldered the narrative.
“Being part of an ensemble can be more rewarding than doing a film in which only your work is important,” Shah observed. “I wanted to be a part of films I would be proud of, films that reflected the times. My most successful performances have been the ones in which I have had to strain myself the least. Monsoon Wedding is a truthful text.”
Monsoon Wedding’s sexual openness, which comes through in its disinterest in punishing Aditi for her assignation with her lover the day before her wedding, is, for Shah, one of the film’s most enduring themes. The movie also reminded him of Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1983), which, although about a totally different subject, is also set in an affluent family in Delhi.
Nair told Shah, I want you to pour your personality into the character, I don’t want you to play a character, he recalled. “This was also similar to what Shekhar had told me about Masoom,” Shah said. “He had told me, I want you, so let your interactions be as truthful as possible.”
Shah conducted the acting workshop for the sprawling cast in Mumbai before the shoot commenced. Only, Paresh Rawal was cast as PK Dubey.
It’s hard to imagine any actor other than Vijay Raaz for the role, but there was a time when Nair had Rawal in mind. Before Rawal, she had chased Manoj Bajpayee, but he was busy with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s thriller Aks.
When Rawal turned up for Shah’s workshop, he looked a lot different from when Nair had seen him a couple of months before. “He had cheeks that were full and jowly, he had gained 25 pounds since I saw him,” she recalled. “He would have looked like Alice’s father.”
Nair finally broke the news to Rawal, despite being days away from the shoot. “He said the most beautiful thing – he said the film is going to be special and I don’t want to come in the way.”
She had already met Vijay Raaz, who had returned to Mumbai from Assam after having buried his father-in-law. Raaz had a tonsured head and “the sadness of the death and burial in his eyes and these crazy ears and mouth”, Nair said. Raaz joined the production a couple of days of days into the shoot, bringing along his young daughter.
“I had no idea about his comic abilities,” Nair said. “His timing was so great that I was in heaven, and he kept building on his scenes.”
Shefali Shah was cast because of her powerful performance in Ram Gopal Varma’s crime drama Satya (1998). “This was the first time in my life I picked up the phone and cast somebody without meeting her,” Nair said. Shah wore Nair’s own clothes for much of the movie.
The narrative in Monsoon Wedding is initially steered by Aditi’s ambivalence towards her arranged marriage and guilt about her previous relationship. After Aditi unburdens herself to Hemant, winning his respect and love, the story appears to have neared its end – before Ria takes over.
Vasundhara Das had made her acting debut in Kamal Haasan’s period drama Hey Ram! in 2000. Das was pursuing a career in music (she continues to perform) and was doing the rounds of recording studios in Chennai when she was spotted as a potential acting talent.
Das later moved to Mumbai from Chennai. She was recommended to Nair by a common friend. “Mira got on the phone and said she had seen my film and would love to chat over a cup of chai,” Das said. “In my naivete, I showed up at the hotel where she was staying expecting to have tea and found a hundred girls in line.”
Das didn’t have to wait for long. After a tryout, Nair “gave me a big hug and said, I have found my Aditi”, Das said.
Apart from working on her pronunciation of “thank you” – “I apparently sounded South Indian, so I had to work on it” – Das had warm memories of the shoot.
“We were there 20 days ahead, rehearsing with each other, getting a feel of the space and the city and the new group of people,” she said. “The rehearsals were great since I don’t come from an acting background.”
The scene that has stayed with Das the most is Hemant’s acceptance of Aditi. “To come from not being an actress and not wanting to be one and to be in a moment where you had to channel a different kind of emotion and pain – it was like a reckoning for me,” she said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
But the original footage was damaged, so the sequence had to be reshot in Mumbai. “A bunch of buffaloes was passing by, I was working up to the point,” Das said. “The tears came for real and luckily, they were ready to shoot.”
The success of the film put wind in the sails of many of the actors – not least among them Tillotama Shome, then only 19 and dreaming of doing a masters in the United States. Shome’s sweet-natured Alice was surely a reference for her live-in maid in Rohena Gera’s Sir many years later.
Shome was recommended to Nair by casting director Dileep Shankar. Summoned to India Habitat Centre in Delhi for an audition, Shome took along her mother. What if this was a hoax?
Shome had read up on Nair, and was most excited to learn that the filmmaker was teaching at Columbia University. “I remember being more thrilled about her being at Columbia than her other achievements,” Shome said. “I even asked her for a letter of recommendation. I remember taking the bus back with my mother and thinking that I had blown it.”
She hadn’t rehearsed with Vijay Raaz since he had been cast later. Did the lack of prior interaction make their shy and fumbling romance more credible?
“I guess in hindsight, Mira was so confident that she knew what she was working with and what would help,” Shome said. “She had an X-ray vision and knew how to make something out of vulnerability. I was like Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience to start my journey.”
Both Dubey and Alice absently chew on marigolds – the flower used for the wedding decorations that also symbolises the “cheap and cheerful and beautiful ways in which people express themselves”, Nair said.
Other hacks included borrowing saris belonging to Nair’s mother for the film as well as recruiting her to cook meals for the cast and crew. The end credits include the director’s statement “We are like that only; 40 locations, 30 days exactly & approximately.”
Monsoon Wedding has been released on the Criterion DVD label but isn’t available for streaming in India. The movie is expected to return to the country in another form in 2023: a stage musical based on the Monsoon Wedding film. It has an original score by Vishal Bhardwaj, expanded back stories for some of the characters, and new actors, including Namit Das (as Dubey) and Palomi Ghosh in several roles.
The musical was premiered in California in 2019. “It is very much the theme of the film, but the form is different – the musical is propelled by original songs and music,” Nair said. After playing for four months and undergoing revisions, the stage production was to have travelled to London in June 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic interrupted plans.
Monsoon Wedding is scheduled to return to the stage in Doha in November 2022. It will play in London in June 2023 before coming to India.
As Nair watched the Monsoon Wedding film again while working on the musical, she was struck by its ability to inspire a “feeling of expansiveness” in viewers.
“The great challenge was, when you were making an ode to the intoxication of life and you put at its heart the greatest abuse of all, could that work?” Nair added. The short answer: it did.