At the tony and opulent theatre in Lido, Venice, last Friday, a 2,000-strong audience clapped and boogied to a bouncy bhangra soundtrack as the credits rolled up and brought the curtains down on the world premier of Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair's latest celluloid offering. Then came a 10-minute-long standing ovation that left the filmmaker "speechless." Late that night, at the end-of-the-picture party, some two dozen Indian members of the cast joined local eminences, including "Venetian aristocrats, gowns up to their shoulders", to dance the night away to the film's jivy bhangra-pop soundtrack. "The party just went on and on. It was such a high," says Nair.
Very much like Nair's film itself, really. Monsoon Wedding, the peripatetic director's sixth full-length feature, is a long, rambunctious party, except that, in the words of Sunil Sethi, Limelight anchor and friend of Nair, "skeletons keep tumbling out all the time" as it goes on. This 110-minute low-budget ensemble family drama is about a jovial, upwardly-mobile extended Punjabi family congregating in a plush Delhi farmhouse for a four-day wedding where old connections are revived, petty and personal wars are fought and dark secrets creep out of the woodwork—a part-happy, part-picaresque look at the ways and workings of the great Indian family in today's globalised world. Enough to turn on the seven-member jury-led by celebrated Cannes-award winning Italian director Nanni Moretti—of the Venice Film Festival last week: it conferred the prestigious Golden Lion award on Nair for the film. In the process Nair, 44, became the first woman and second Indian after Satyajit Ray to pick up this prestigious award at the world's oldest film festival. "It's changed my life all right," she says, between some 200 interviews in Venice and Toronto over the past week.
Like the film, Nair's triumph at Venice unspooled dramatically. After showing Monsoon at the festival, she had flown back to New York to put finishing touches to her latest feature Hysterical Blindness, a slice-of-life film for hbo about two women looking for love in New Jersey, starring Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands. That was when the festival authorities rang her up in Big Apple asking her to return immediately to Venice during the weekend for a ceremony. Says she: "I had no idea why they were calling up."
Nair got a hint when festival authorities whisked her away from the Venice airport and smuggled her into a five-star hotel through its backdoor and kitchen. When they took her to the flower-bedecked rather "funereal looking" presidential suite, she sensed that something was going awfully right. As Nair tells the story, she turned in a 50-minute yoga session to calm herself down—the filmmaker is a yoga buff. Then she went up to the window, pulled the curtains and was greeted by the sight of Shahrukh Khan alighting from a boat and being greeted by a pack of delirious fans. He had just shown Asoka at the festival. "It was surreal, surreal," remembers Nair.
At midday, she left her suite for the awards ceremony at the Mussolini-built palace on the Lido lagoon only to be accosted by the paparazzi in the elevator. "What do you think about being the Lioness from India?", they howled. Lioness from India? When the ceremony climaxed four hours later and the award went out, Nair had the answer to the question which she feels, everybody seemed to know before she did. "When I hit the catwalk up to the auditorium, the crowds were yelling out the names of the characters—Verma, Dubey, Alice!!! Amazing," she says.
Interesting too. The journey of an up-with-the times Punjabi wedding, described as a madcap spoof comedy by some and 'splashy, noisy and downright fun' by Variety, US, seems to have touched an international chord. "It's a very personal film for Mira," says Sooni Taraporevela, long-time friend and scriptwriter of Salaam Bombay!, the 1988 feature on street children which grabbed the Best First Film at Cannes. One reason a quintessentially Delhi-Punjabi family Mardi Gras did so well in Venice, reckon people who've seen Monsoon, is that Punjabi bacchanalia, machismo and excesses—'masti' as Nair calls it—is very similar to the Italian way of life.
Monsoon is also a take on globalised upper-middle class India and its hybrid patois and mores. The dispersed greater family that gathers at a farmhouse outside Delhi is made of the usual stereotypes and oddballs: there is the family patriarch Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a garment exporter and the father of the bride; there is Dubeyji, the cellphone-wielding tent-and-catering contractor and an upwardly mobile pimp; there is Aditi, the bride recovering from an affair with her married boss; and there are the expat cousins checking out the native girls. "This is not meant to be a preachy movie. It's a dramatic comedy set in this arranged-marriage backdrop with a contemporary setting," says Parvin Dabas, an American Academy of Dramatic Arts major, who plays the role of the expat groom in the film.
Made on, what Nair insists is a "ridiculously" low budget, lower than, she says, what Salaam Bombay! cost 10 years ago, the film stretches the limits of an ensemble performance with 70-odd performers shooting two-thirds in the farmhouse in a month's time. The director cut corners furiously on this film because she confesses to a rage against the Hollywood system ("I was tired of the emphasis in the West of needing millions to tell a good story"). She began the film using the frugal digital video, with plans of releasing it on the Internet, then switched to inexpensive Super 16 stock using additional funds. Like in Salaam Bombay! where she got 130 street kids to attend acting workshops, Nair put her cast through rigorous two-week rehearsals, that included a mandatory 30-minute yoga session.
The month-long shoot at the farmhouse also turned out to be a convivial friends-and relatives-of-Mira affair: her mom supplied "underwear to china to jewellery" to keep costs down. Delhi-based Ira Pande, who works with a publishing firm and has a small role in the film, remembers that most of the cast wore their own dresses and all the chiffoned, coiffured, bejewelled women in the film are all doing their own thing. Nair's documentary experience, five films in 22 years, helped: Monsoon was shot by Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare) with hand-held cameras giving it an in-your-face cinema verite feel. Yet, Monsoon is opulent and plush and looks handsome. "It looks fabulous in the end really," says Annie Mathews, a production designer.
Sometime next year, Monsoon Wedding should make it to Indian shores. Till then Nair has no plans of starting work on a new film: after the whirligig of Monsoon promotions, she returns to Kampala, one of her three homes, next March to rest and "watch the birds in my garden". Yes, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri is interested in Nair filming her short story A Temporary Matter and that is at the back of her mind.For the moment, she heads back to shell-shocked and tragedy-ridden New York, where she spends a major part of the year, and chill out a bit if the city allows it. Not so long ago, critics at home wrote off the filmmaker after her corny and lush Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love. Like Monsoon's climax—a happy, cathartic family jig in the rain and cleansing away of the troubles—Mira Nair seems to have got her groove back. n