The Alamo Drafthouse Omaha is celebrating "Colossal Women Month" by asking women to program films that are important to them. Guest Programmer Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel chose Monsoon Wedding. Live near Omaha? You can get your tickets HERE.
I grew up attempting to sway my non-existent child hips in just the right Sridevi style, rewinding and scrutinizing her fine movements, hardly perceptible via fuzzy bootleg VHS tapes. Every word of every song, every beat, every flirty gesture memorized for every Bollywood movie I could get my hands on.
My sisters and I were the ABCD generation: American Born Confused Desi. South Asian immigrant parents, North American values. Strong cultural joy ran right alongside intense fear and mortification at getting caught being Brown by White friends. Listening to Ammie and Papa wax poetic for hours recalling thick kulfi, vibrant weddings and crowded bazaars left us starved for any scraps of their homeland.
Every few months Ammie and Papa would haul three disgruntled children to Chicago for the sole purpose of replenishing our kitchen with spices and meats not readily available in Indiana (it was not until well into my teens that I realized there was more to Chicago than Devon Avenue, with its Indian and Pakistani restaurants and grocers). Goat hooves for paya, fresh garam masala, whole cardamom and, if we begged and pleaded enough, a new Bollywood VHS. Oh look at this poster, Kajol has a new movie! LOOK at her clothes! I bet this one has the best songs! Please, Ammie, please! I think my mother was equally excited.
Those Bollywood movies were my culture the way Vegas is to America: exaggerated, artificial, showy. But for those of us Pakistani and Indian-American kids living in early 1990s Midwestern America, sans Netflix, or hell, sans even the Internet, over the top was what we needed.
But then we grew up. I grew up and I began to see the song and dance sequences as the daydreams of sex they were, and the women protagonists as entirely unlike me.
In Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, I found my real family on screen for the first time. I found my family legitimized, no longer Bollywood caricatures or American stereotypes. Monsoon Wedding is an equally beautiful and rich Bollywood movie but with logic, truth and reality. The characters mix and mingle English, Hindi and Punjabi effortlessly, like my family. Most poignantly though, Monsoon Wedding captures a culture at a crossroads, a family trying to proudly hold their ground against assimilation - returning to India for an arranged marriage was never archaic, never out of the question, while at the same time characters embrace change as flickers of new technology and philosophies are woven into every scene. Just like my family.
But not everything in Monsoon Wedding was familiar. Actually, in many ways it was quite different. While I did not see myself in the heroines of traditional Bollywood films, I did see my mother and the other matriarchs of my family - women responsible for upholding our culture’s traditional values, and clicking their tongues against Western corruption and overt displays of sexuality. Even when these films flirt with modernity, ultimately the heroine learns only through Indian values, particularly sexual chastity, is there true love and happiness.
Bollywood films seek to contain women’s sexuality, and Monsoon Wedding chose to center it through the protagonist, Aditi, a big city working woman who reads Cosmo and is having an affair with her former boss, a married man. Aditi rejects her lover in favor of an arranged marriage, but only because he refuses to leave his wife. But the night before the wedding, she chooses to tell her fiancé, Hemant, of her love affair. Though he is upset, he soon fesses up to his own affairs. In doing so we see the double standard of sexual chastity imposed on women. Hemant responds, “What marriage isn’t a risk? Whether our parents introduce us or we meet in a club, what difference does it make?”
I was 18 when I heard those words that ultimately lifted the pressure of who and how I would marry. In one scene, Monsoon Wedding deftly removed both the Western stigma of arranged marriage as backwards and archaic and the South Asian stigma of “love marriages” as immodest and doomed, all while placing the decision, the right to choose which is best, into my own hands. The liberation from this pressure was as cathartic for me as I imagine the monsoon rains are after the oppressive heat of Indian summers.
It took a woman-run show (the director, writer and primary protagonists are all women!) to break from the Bollywood formula of rebelling against traditions just to recognize them as superior even when at the expense of women. Monsoon Wedding refused to sacrifice women in the name of family honor and masculinity. Respecting women and embracing South Asian culture need not be at odds. Aditi’s decision-making power and the ejection of Uncle Tej, a respected family benefactor and patriarch who is revealed to have sexually molested Aditi’s cousin Ria, firmly place Monsoon Wedding as a feminist film realistically reworking traditional patriarchal values for the modern Indian family, instead of reaffirming them under the guise of modernity as in Bollywood films.
This film changed my own coming of age story. I left for college that year with a renewed sense of cultural pride that melded my Pakistani roots to American branches. Monsoon Wedding showed my culture off to an American audience. Monsoon Wedding made me simultaneously special in my heritage and universal in my humanity. Monsoon Wedding made me real.
Get your ticket to Monsoon Wedding here.