Wait, what happened to Monsoon Wedding vs. Salaam Bombay?? As it turns out, some of these movies are extremely hard to find on streaming platforms (even more so when you're looking for subtitles), and Vanity Fair was free. Sorry! Also, I have low key been wanting to see it since I read the book in high school, but then 16 years passed and I had no reason to watch it anymore. ...Until now!
But first, a little about the sumptuous and unparalleled Mira Nair...
Mira Nair was born and raised in rural India, and at 13 attended an Irish-Catholic missionary boarding school in the city. It was here that she became enthralled with English literature, subsequently influencing her decision to attend Harvard University (where she received a full-ride scholarship). She studied sociology and film, making her first documentary short for her thesis in 1979. She spent the next few years gaining experience by making docs, and in the early 80's she directed and co-wrote her first non-doc feature, Salaam Bombay!, for which she was the first the woman to receive the Golden Lion Award from the Venice Film Festival.
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Directed by: Mira Nair
Written by: Sabrina Dhawan
Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shah, & Tillotama Shome
IMDB Synopsis: A stressed father, a bride-to-be with a secret, a smitten event planner, and relatives from around the world create much ado about the preparations for an arranged marriage in India.
I am low key excited about how un-American this film was, because it gives me an opportunity to briefly talk about a subject that I know intimately but rarely have a platform to discuss...
Y'all ever heard of Warm Cultures vs. Cold Cultures?
I doubted as much. Fun Fact, I was born in Paris, France, moved to Menlo Park, California when I was 4, moved to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, when I was 12, moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, when I was 17, then moved to the Midwest when I was 21. My parents are Evangelical Christian missionaries, so I was raised participating in aggressive amounts of hospitality to a global melting pot of fellow missionary guests, and the differences between "Warm Culture" and "Cold Culture" was something that was discussed frequently.
This was a particular hot-button topic while living in Hawaii, when my parents were working with YWAM Kona, a base that attracted a large population of Korean missionaries. The school was suddenly facing a number of issues between the folks from Southeast Asia and those from, say, Germany or Norway, and it all came down to their massive cultural differences.
Eventually someone wrote a book about it called From Foreign to Familiar (which was low key the second Bible in our home), and at some point after that, an graphic designer named Yang Liu made a series of illustrations that super succinctly describes some of the fundamental differences between these two types of cultures:
I am taking the time to point this out because I believe it is essential to a critical appreciation of a film like Monsoon Wedding, and to all films made from a non-Western point of view. While the illustrations are certainly simplified and a little over-generalized, they capture the spirit of how different the non-American approach to life, family, and story-telling can be.
Which brings us to Monsoon Wedding, a film that leisurely meanders from one sub-plot to the next, rarely bothering to explain who is who or hint to where we can expect this journey will take us. We can determine that there is a young woman, Pimmi, who is low key having an affair with a married man, but decides to cut it off because she's decided to let her parents arrange a marriage for her, and the groom is coming TODAY. Pimmi's "older and unmarried cousin," Ria, is older and unmarried, and thinks romance is dead, probably because she is older and unmarried (they seriously describe her in those three words at least a dozen times).
But Ria is far more concerned with her 10 year old niece, Aliya, who is garnering the attention of Creepy Uncle, and her reactions indicate to us that Ria might have some legitimate reasons (of the repressed-memory variety) for being so offensive.
Parallel to the story is the super obnoxious wedding planner, Dubey, who I think might be India's Hugh Grant? Unclear. I found him a little yelly for my test, but he is otherwise befuddled and hapless, making him the perfect catch (not) for the totally underrated and secretly very hot family waitress (?), Alice (also unclear on her position. Also I am low key in love with Alice. YOU CAN DO BETTER, SWEETIE!) Anyway they have a meet-cute over some marigolds, and Dubey spends the rest of the movie following her around in a supposed-to-be-cute-but-mostly-creepy kind of way, and it's by the saving grace of Tillotama Shome's unparalleled eyeball acting that you end up cheering for the (eventually) happy couple.
Pimmi eventually tells The Groom about her affair and he takes it like a champ, applauding her for starting their marriage out honestly. Ria catches Creepy Uncle definitely about to do something creepy, and confronts him, culminating in a very public confession: Creepy Uncle molested her as a child, and now he's after Aliya.
At first, Father of the Bride is in denial. Then he breaks down, ashamed that he didn't know his niece was vulnerable. He apologizes to Ria, but tells her that Creepy Uncle basically paid for the wedding, and he can't just ask him to leave. Please, will she take (another) one for the team, and come to the wedding anyway? Then just when you think Father of the Bride is really just gonna let the wedding photographer tell Ria to kneel by Creepy Uncle's feet "for composition," he has enough and tells Creepy Uncle to GTFO.
This is massively significant for a Warm Culture, which is all about saving face and "the best of the group," but it's also pretty huge for a family in general. Frankly this film actually normalizes a number of things which you don't see often enough:
- women acknowledging they have been abused
- women being BELIEVED
- men crying
- men hugging
- men not being huge douchebags when they find out their girlfriend's aren't virgins
As someone with two sisters who married in our family's backyards, I can attest to the palpable anxiety of planning a wedding, which Monsoon perfectly captures. There are so many scenes of random family members swarming the house, the kitchen, the dance floor, and I couldn't help but grin and roll my eyes at the memories that evoked.
Truth be told, as much as I have come to loathe the wedding experience, I would still give anything to go to a proper Indian wedding. The colors, the fabrics, the textures, the ritual, the sacredness of it all, is something that the West has all but abandoned, and something I think we long for deep down.
Vanity Fair (2004)
Directed by: Mira Nair
Written by: Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet, & Matthew Faulk
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Romola Garai, Rhys Ifans, & James Purefoy
IMDB Synopsis: Growing up poor in London, Becky Sharp defies her poverty-stricken background and ascends the social ladder alongside her best friend, Amelia Sedley.
As is quickly becoming my tradition, I must acknowledge the Art Dept for their exceptional skill at delivering this aesthetic feast: Maria Djurkovic (Production Designer) & Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (Costume Design) for bequeathing us with these numerous ~ Delicious Moments ~. Instead of posting a hundred (or more) screen shots, I have to say the trailer actually captures all the best ones:
Special shout-out to my personal fave #deliciousmoments...
I remember reading this book in high school and actually loving it, largely because I low key identified with its scrappy, clever, and charming anti-heroine, Becky Sharp. I haven't thought about that book in years, but upon reflection, I must say I have MUCH stronger opinions about it now, and they're all mostly along the lines of: why all the hatred?
Nair's film was criticized for sugar-coating Becky to make her a more palatable protagonist, most notably from Rotten Tomatoes: "A more likable Becky Sharp makes for a less interesting movie." First of all, I don't know that that's true; regardless of how the audience may feel, all the other characters definitely still view her as a villain. For what it's worth, I don't remember ever feeling like she was villainous at all.
She was a woman in survival mode, in a time when your only options were to be Super Fucking Ridiculously Rich or to be literally on your hands and needs scrubbing the floor in the one dress you owned and getting sexually harassed by your creepy boss who also owned the castle you lived in. Like of COURSE she was going to "do whatever it took" to NOT live like that, and frankly it is bonkers to me that she is described as being so "manipulative" and "conniving" when literally all she did was be a little bit smart and a little bit polite and speak FRENCH and half the the rich people were like "oh we like you now come sit with us" and the other half were like "what a VILLAIN."
I, for one, am relieved to read that Nair felt the same way I did about Becky: she was not a villain, she was just a woman who acted like a man before it was cool. (Just kidding, we still get harassed for it)
I must commend Nair for squeezing a nearly 1,000 page book into the two-hour format, and while the pace did leave one with occasional emotional whiplash, I for one had zero complaints about the ending. If anything, I wish that the book had maintained more of the cruelty that society thrust upon Becky, to highlight how absurd it was that this woman was JUST TRYING HER BEST and she was all but tarred and feathered for it. You can't help but fall in love with a woman who works that hard, so I am on board with her Katy Perry Indian wedding (minus the cringey colonizer-ness of it all, of course).
And the winner is...