I’m doing it, I’m reviewing that Indian movie that isn’t technically an Indian movie! Which means I am moving outside my area of expertise and can’t give the same level of analysis and context and stuff as usual. Or not the same way as usual?
My favorite class in grad school, the one that really challenged and changed my view of the world, was the one on Orientalism. Orientalism is a general term invented by Hot Hot Edward Said to talk about the way scholarly analysis broke people down into categories, invented narratives to make them different from each other, in order to support the group in power as they did terrible things to the group without power. He proposed a radical solution, no categories at all, accept that everyone is human and resist any story that does not start from that human point. And I think that is why this movie works. It doesn’t start with “I will show Indian culture to the West” or “This is what a Punjabi wedding is like”, it starts with “Here is a group of humans trying to get through a week together”.
This film does have a context, a couple of contexts actually. One is the 20 year history of “parallel” Hindi language cinema. As it was explained to me (by a commenter here actually!), in the 80s popular Hindi cinema took a sharp turn towards violence, Masala, escapism, all the stuff that DCIB loves. Indian art cinema had always been there, documentaries and English language films and really out there stuff. But mainstream used to be large enough to go from the Masala to the real. That shifted in the 80s, so to fill the gap artists started making what they called “parallel” cinema, not art and not mainstream but running next to and between both.
Another big factor was the rise of the Indian Institute of Film and Television as a major force. This is a world class institution, which brings in students based on merit and graduates them only after rigorous training. It was founded in the 60s, but by the 70s it had a strong pool of teachers and graduates and a general structure to it. The National School of Drama in Delhi, similarly, was now up and running and turning out talented young folks. Not just talented young folks, talented young folks who knew each other. There was this loose network of young writers/directors/actors who wanted to work together making things that were slightly different from the mainstream, while still not so divorced from the Indian tradition and Indian audience as the full on art films.
Mira Nair, who made this movie, is Indian and a filmmaker, but is not an Indian filmmaker. She has lived in America since college and trained in documentaries in the US, she never worked in the mainstream Indian film industry, never went to an Indian film school, never apprenticed with an Indian director, I’m not sure her movies even got an Indian release. She switched to feature films from documentaries but kept her documentarian’s eye, she starts by finding a real story somewhere and then gently turning it into fiction. At least, that is how I see her movies. As she grew as a filmmaker, she grew farther and farther away from her stripped down roots, her later Hollywood big budget films feel like any other well-made Hollywood movie, Vanity Fair and Amelia and The Namesake and Queen of Katwe. Good movies, for sure. She is one of the best American directors today. But they don’t feel like her earlier stuff, they don’t stand out as much.
This movie is a fascinating combination of Mira’s outsider eye and style, and the large friendly insider group of Bombay parallel cinema. Naseeruddin Shah had been in dozens of movies like this, realistic human dramas with no budget and no songs and performances that dug deep and found the truth inside without needing melodrama. He knows this kind of role down to his bones. Soni Razdan was there for a hot minute, Kulbushan Kharbanda too, they could go off in a corner with Naseerji if they wanted and compare this movie with the past 20 years of similar films they had worked in, is it better or worse than Arth? What about Junoon? Or 36 Chowringhee Lane? Mira brought in a kind of crowded “observing life without interacting” feel to the film, but her actors brought in the gravitas, the comfort with the Indian version of the “realistic” film.
There are two common mistakes in talking about this movie and I am trying to address both of them. First, this is NOT an “Indian” movie. If you watch this film, you can’t say “I’ve seen an Indian film”. And you definitely can’t say “I love this movie because it is all about love and family just like Indian films”. You really REALLY can’t say “I love this movie because in India they love their family and revere elders”. But the flip side, you also can’t say “This movie is amazing because it took all these Indian actors and made them do something different” or “This movie is amazing because it’s unlike any other film before”. Nope, also not true! Mainstream Hindi film is a particular discipline of film and this movie does not follow it at all. I’m not talking “it has no songs!”, I’m talking about stuff like the way the narrative is structured, the way the camera is used, and so on. But on the other hand, these are not poor uneducated Indian artists who don’t know what they are doing, India is more than just mainstream Hindi film, and these actors are perfectly capable of switching back and forth between genres as their director requests.
We can see that in what these actors did after this film. Shefali Shah, she went on to do Dil Dhadakne Do, and also Brothers. Randeep Hooda, he went on to Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and Love Aaj Kal 2. Tillotoma Shone, she just blew me away in the frothy streaming series Mentalhood earlier this year. Ram Kapoor, Udaan and Student of the Year. This is a large cast, but they aren’t defined by this film. It is just one of many similar roles for them, Mira brought them all together but she didn’t invent them, and they didn’t stop existing when she left.
Mostly though, I keep coming back to the humanity of it all. The wedding serves to bring all these people together, but they each come with their own stories, and they each have universal stories told in a way that respects their specific humanity.
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I’m gonna start with a couple of things I noticed this time around that I didn’t notice until this watch. First, the timeline is just wrong, gosh darn it! This is distinctly a post-Partition family story. The family loves each other so much partly because they survived so much, they cling to each other all the more because of what they have lost. It’s mentioned late in the film, that Naseeruddin is grateful to Rajat for helping them restart and thrive after arriving in Delhi. Lovely, important backstory, all of that. But the film is clearly set in 2001, Partition was 53 years earlier. Naseerji would have been a baby, Rajat would have been a child, this is a struggle their parents’ generation would have survived, not them. If the film is set 20 years earlier, it all works, but not in 2001. Didn’t bother me the first time around because I didn’t have the Partition date so firmly fixed in my brain, but it sure does now!
Second thing is the opposite, it bothered me the first time around and now it doesn’t. Vasundhara Das is clearly positioned as the “pretty one” while Shefali Shah is the “smart one” in the family. But looking at the two women, I just couldn’t see it. I thought it was a casting/make-up/costumes flaw every other time I’ve watched this movie. But this time, I finally got it! Vasundhara is light and Shefali is dark! THAT’S why she is “pretty” and Shefali is “smart”!!!! It’s not just that I am finally catching on that skin tone is A Thing, it’s also that I’ve seen Shefali in a bunch of other movies now. And she is not necessarily as dark as this film makes her look. That is, in other movies she has some face powder on and the right lighting and stuff. This film I think made a choice to not do any of that, and let us see the contrast right in our faces.
Anyway, movie! When I look at this narrative, what I imagine is the scriptwriter Sabrina Dhawan taking stories she knew, her friends and family, and writing each little one down and then weaving them together. Sabrina was still in college when she wrote this and says she wrote it in about a week, which makes me think my guess is correct. She started with the truth she already knew and pulled it all into a lovely tapestry that hangs together. That’s why it feels real, that’s why it feels human, it isn’t about invented stories and invented people, it is real stories and real people bought to life.
There is a wedding, so there is a bride and groom. The bride has been having an affair with her married boss and isn’t sure if she should tell her groom or not. That’s one story, and that is a true story, and that is a universal story. A “bride” has pressure to be perfect, to fulfill the dreams of her groom, and there is a good chance she has a dirty secret somewhere that she has to decide if she wants to tell or wants to keep hidden. There is also the bride’s father, who is worried about the wedding going smoothly and sad to lose his daughter. That is a universal story, trying to figure out what your family will be like when you are smaller by one person. There is the bride’s mother who worries about impressing the groom’s family, and fusses a little more over her remaining child as she prepares to lose her daughter. There are the relatives, a young nephew from Australia who keeps making mistakes because he doesn’t know how things work in India, and the “hot” cousin who causes much romantic distress without realizing it. There is the teenage son who is effeminate and it worries his father although his mother doesn’t care. And there is the realist part of the story, the revelation that years earlier an uncle molested the bride’s cousin-sister and she has been keeping it inside all these years.
The only part of the film that doesn’t quite fit for me is the Vijay Raaz-Tillotama romance. I think perhaps because it is the only part that our American college student scriptwriter was not quite sure of herself. They fall in love almost without dialogue, the actors do most of the work with their faces, which is lovely but also perhaps because the scriptwriter just couldn’t imagine what they would say to each other? We see Vijay Raaz briefly at home with his mother, but we don’t know how he started his business, where his father is, where the rest of his family is. We don’t know how Tillotama landed as a maid in this house, where her family is. It’s this lovely little fairy tale magic in the midst of all these real stories. But maybe it makes the film better for it? The realism of the bride and groom talking through their problems, and Naseeruddin fighting with Lillette Dubey about her smoking in the bathroom feels a bit MORE real when contrasted with Vijay falling in love at first sight. But really, this is a Christian probably lower caste maid who marries a middle-class/caste and rising Hindu wedding planner without any family involved or discussion of any kind, I just do not believe it.
Most of the reviews, and even general informal opinions I hear about this movie talk about “I love it because it shows this wonderful unique Indian wedding”. But I think people are lying, I think they love it because it shows a universal wedding. All of those plot points I mention above, they could be translated to literally anywhere in the world. The distant relative from far away who doesn’t know how to behave, the parents’ of the bride anxiety, the bride’s guilt over not being “perfect”, and of course the hidden secret of molestation. Putting it in a new place (to the West, who ended up being the primary audience for this film) lets us see and acknowledge these things we may resist if they were set in our own culture. We can accept more easily a molesting Indian uncle and a father who doesn’t want to believe than if we saw it in English, in white people. That’s them, not us. And yet down deep we know it is “us” and that is why we can’t look away.
I don’t think the West was necessarily the intended audience for this movie. There is nothing here that makes it easy particularly for a westerner to watch it, for one thing I still don’t know how the heck everyone is related to each other and I am pretty sure the Hindi relationship words would have made it clear if I could understand them. I think the script, and the directing, and the performances simply wanted to tell a true story of these people. Somehow it landed in the right film festivals at the right time and this true story of these people resonated beyond the usual art film and diaspora crowd. People responded and wanted to find a reason for their response beyond “people are people everywhere, and this story reminds me of me and those I love”, so it became part of the general early 2000s craze for “Bollywood”.
It doesn’t belong there though. This film is better than just “Indian culture, oooo!” It is one of the most purely humanist films I have ever seen. Nothing in this movie is about people reacting because of how society tells them to react, or because the film itself is trying to fit into some box, it is all just about natural human instincts. The young people flirt and fall in love a little because that is what young people do. A bride and groom feel scared and excited and loving just before the ceremony because that is what happens. A father loves his children because that is what a father does. A family is generally happy to get together because that is how families are. And child sexual abuse brings with it a legacy of secrecy and guilt and anger that doesn’t fully go away until it is spoken and believed.
What I am saying is, don’t watch this film if you want to learn about Indian culture. Do watch this film if you want to learn about human culture.