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Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 2001
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome, Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dabas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kamini Khanna
Director: Mira Nair
Release Date: October 13, 2009, 7:06 pm
Rating: R for language, including some sex related dialogue
Run Time: 01h:54m:21s

"Soon to be in family way." - Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah)

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Even as some grumble that Criterion should focus on bringing lost classics to DVD, it's tough to argue that the underappreciated Monsoon Wedding hasn't benefitted from the company's topflight treatment.

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: A

Criterion has been criticized for licensing Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding—a recent film, a cash-in on Slumdog fever—but the complaints strike me as simple cinema elitism. Yes, it is easily accessible, an art house crowd pleaser, but it's also heartfelt, intimate, and full of life. It focuses on a small slice of Indian culture, but at its core, it's the story of a family coming together, a celebration of a universal human desire to love and be loved—something that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless or race or nationality.

The story follows the Verma family, upper class Punjabi Indians who live in Delhi, as they prepare for the wedding of their only daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das), arranged to be married to Hermant (Parvin Dabas), whom she's never met—he's been living in America for years. Where Aditi and Hermant are stepping unsurely into their new lives, her parents, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) and Pimmi (Lillete Dubey) are in an altogether different point in their relationship: they've been married so long, the passion has gone out of their marriage, replaced by trust and familiarity. As the two watch their daughter slowly warm to the idea of marrying a man she's never spoken to, they rekindle a fire that they both had thought burned out long ago.

The kaleidoscopic storyline of Monsoon Wedding is rich in color and full of detail, contrasting the Old India of tradition and a new culture of modernity. Dubey (Vijay Raaz), the harried wedding planner (or, as he bills himself, "event coordinator") who designs classical Punjabi weddings while talking on his cell phone and trading stocks on the Internet, unexpectedly finds himself doting over the Verma's maid Alice (Tilotama Shome). Their blossoming love, one that goes against class boundaries, provides some of the most joyous moments in the film (both characters have an unusual taste for marigolds—she eats the flower, and Dubey pops the whole thing into his mouth; clearly they were meant to be together).

Elsewhere, serious subplots pop up as Aditi's sister Ria (Shefali Shetty) deals with troubling memories fro her past and must rely on her father to break tradition and do the right thing. And Aditi herself, even on the eve of her wedding, is unsure if she wants to marry Hermant, though he seems perfectly charming when they talk. She's lived at home her entire life, you see, and moving to America with a man she barely knows is the most frightening thing imaginable—worse, even, than choosing to end her relationship with her lover, a TV host. One of the most delightful things about Monsoon Wedding is the way that Nair reveals the Velma family in fits and starts. They are developed naturally and realistically; on-screen, they are never less than a living, breathing family. They fight (her parents have a heated argument about sending her younger brother, who wants to be a chef and loves dancing a little too much, to boarding school), but they are drawn together by unconditional love as well—Lalit stands over his daughters, watching them sleep, and promises to devote his life to improving theirs. Many Westerners question the tradition of arranged marriages, thinking it impossible to find love and build a family with a stranger. Nair reveals that, perhaps, simply committing together is the first step.

Wonderful details abound, including an intricate reproduction of the wedding ceremony and the preparations leading up to it. The hustle and bustle of the celebration adds not only a bit of structure to the storyline (building suspense as well), but revels in the examination of a cultural tradition in intricate, colorful detail. Throughout, the characters speak a mix of English, Hindi, and Punjabi, sometimes all at once, and the mish-mash brings the film to life, the competing languages matching the eccentric mix of characters, from the older traditionalists to young moderns like Dubey.

Nair decided she wanted to make a Bollywood film on her own terms, independently and with total creative control. Shot in only 30-odd days, the resultant picture is more alive and full of energy than the most frenetic blockbuster. Declan Quinn's gorgeous cinematography captures the rainbow palette; his use of handheld camera only makes everything feel more alive, more intimate.

The DVD: First released in 2002 by Universal almost as an afterthought (the transfer didn't even offer anamorphic enhancement), Monsoon Wedding gets its due with this Criterion Blu-ray, which also goes out of its way to highlight Mira Nair's extensive and acclaimed career making short films.

The new HD transfer is simply beautiful, making the most of a lurid color scheme and scenes set in the frenetic streets of Delhi. The low-budget production was filmed on Super 16mm, but this picture looks anything but cheap—images are highly detailed and exhibit minimal film grain, even in darker scenes. The DTS-HD audio track is likewise rather lively, spreading the sound of the bustling streetscapes and wedding celebrations across the front and rear channels.

Worthwhile extras from the previous disc are carried over—a strong commentary from the director and a trailer (presented here in HD). New interviews with actor Naseeruddin Shah, cinematographer Declan Quinn, and production designer Stephanie Carroll complete the extras specific to the main feature.

The real selling point, aside from the transfer, is the inclusion of seven of Nair's short films. She got her start in documentary filmmaking in the 1980s. So Far from India (1982, 50 min.) profiles an Indian immigrant running a newsstand in New York City and his first trip back home. The fascinating India Cabaret (1985, 60 min.) examines the lives of exotic dancers, women who own their sexuality in a deeply patriarchal culture. The Laughing Club of India (2000, 35 min.) investigates the popular phenomenon of laughing clubs (which are exactly what they sound like) in modern-day Mumbai.

Four fiction shorts are also featured. 1993's The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat follows a South African family as they leave the country on the same day as the funeral of assassinated Communist Party leader Chris Hani. Nair's contribution to the September 11 omnibus film 11'09''01 (2002, 11 min.) is based on the true story of the disappearance of a young Pakistani American on the day of the attacks; initially investigated as a traitor, his mother never gives up hope that she'll discover what really happened to her son. How Can It Be? (2008, xx min.), part of a series of films commissioned by the United Nations on themes of globalism, explores issues of gender equality among Muslims living in Brooklyn. 2007's Migration (18 min.), also part of a series (this one on the AIDS epidemic in India), shows that some things transcend India's rigid class structure.

All of the short films are presented in HD with introductions from the director. The insert includes a lengthy essay by author Pico Iyer.

Joel Cunningham October 13, 2009, 7:06 pm