Written by Sabrina Dhawan, this film became the highest grossing feature to come out of India and won the Golden Lion award at Venice in 2001. With her sixth feature film, Mira Nair delivers a touching, gently humorous, beautifully rendered study of love in many forms. Set in Delhi, it is the story of the Verma family and the long days running up to their only daughters wedding.
Aditi, the bride, has been having an affair with a married man. When she finally comes to the realisation that he will not leave his wife, she agrees to let her family arrange a marriage for her. In white western circles, the idea of arranged marriage can be somewhat hard to swallow. We tend to hear a lot about young people (women mostly) forced into unhappy arranged marriages simply to fulfil familial honour and we like to feel indignant about it all. While I am sure many arranged marriages are deeply unhappy affairs, in this film Nair attempts to show us that it’s not always as black and white as we might think. After all this is 21st century Delhi, where tradition and innovation tussle with each other continually. Far from being malleable young pawns compliant to the family will, Aditi and her intended husband Hemant take control of their situation by being painfully frank with each other before the wedding takes place. This may not be the most romantic start to their relationship, but by putting all their cards on the table they come to find a great respect for one other. Which, I’ve been led to believe, is a pretty solid foundation for a successful marriage.
I do find Aditi to be a slightly annoying character. She’s a bit pouty and doe eyed. By far the most interesting character is Ria, her older cousin. An anomaly in the family, Ria is eligible yet unmarried. Instead she harbours hopes of studying in American and becoming a writer. When a family figurehead arrives for the wedding celebrations and Ria becomes agitated, it becomes clear that the two have some history. She keeps a close eye on him throughout the days leading up to the wedding and when it at last becomes clear he has made sinister advances on her young cousin, Aliya, she refuses to let things continue as they have. Ria explodes in rage, confessing to her Uncle, Lalit Verma, that she was abused by this man as a child. For a while it seems Lalit might just want to sweep the whole episode under the carpet, as we would perhaps expect his generation to do. But I did an actual, real life fist pump when he summoned the courage to eject this figure of family authority from his home and from the celebrations.
India doesn’t have the greatest track record on equality and Nair allows a few potent reminders that in wider society women receive much less respect than men. But within the family there is greater equality in terms of power and influence for men and women. This is especially evident in the relationship between Pimmi and Lalit Verma, the mother and father of the bride. They have some extremely tender scenes and some strained scenes. Combined, they make for a faithful portrait of a mature marriage. Nair especially explores the female relationships with nuance and authenticity. The best scene of the film takes place the night before the wedding when all the women of the family sit in the grounds of the house decorating the brides hands with mehndi, talking of their own marriages and singing Hindi songs of love, union, lust and desire.
But it’s not all sincerity and seriousness. It’s funny too. The wedding planner plays the fool until he becomes entranced by the maid and there are some great farcical moments between him and Lalit. There are some stylistic choices that are definite Bollywood influences but really, this film is pure Hollywood. In fact, when Derek Malcom reviewed this film for the Guardian in 2001, he said ‘We’ve probably seen it all before but not from India’. Even 15 years later, I’m inclined to say this still stands. There’s nothing particularly different about it, it’s basically a Richard Curtis film but with Indian actors. But that’s not to say it’s not enjoyable. It is a celebratory film and you will feel genuinely uplifted by the end. Nair captures all the colour and vitality of Delhi to the point where you can almost smell the marigolds and feel the heat.
However, this being a film where most conversation revolves around heterosexual marriage, I don’t think it passes the Bechdel test.