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The crossover success of Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001), whose characters speak English, Hindi, and Punjabi, lies in the skill with which the film acquaints a Western audience with the sights and sounds of the new global India. Set in a burgeoning New Delhi suburb, the film uses a lavish Punjabi wedding as an occasion for staging the reunion of family members who are scattered across the globe. But the idea of a global India does not simply refer to the large numbers of Indians (known as Non-Resident Indians or NRIs) living in the diaspora. (1) The term also signifies the social and cultural transformation India has undergone since 1991, when a new economic policy eliminated the bureaucratic red tape restricting imports and foreign investment. For the first time, the marketplace became flooded with consumer goods that had previously been available only on the black market, and designer labels became commonplace. Indian television went from the two channels of the state TV to the more than sixty channels available on cable and satellite in some urban areas. Whereas the state-controlled television programming promoted agricultural shows aimed at farmers, the new satellite TV channels broadcast sexually explicit music videos and Hollywood soap operas such as Santa Barbara and Baywatch that engendered indian imitations. Sexual topics that were previously unmentionable were now being openly discussed, and television brought these discussions into the inner sanctum of the home.
Monsoon Wedding presents the contradictions of everyday life that an opening of India to globalization has introduced. The film destroys any lingering image of a nation mired in some premodern space as a traditional land with ancient customs and beliefs. Rather, it reveals a postmodern world in which cell phones and e-mail coexist with age-old rituals and occupations. (2) The audience witnesses Delhi street scenes of pushcarts and bicycle rickshaws weaving in and out of cars driving by a monolithic statue of Shiva. (3) Golfers ride in golf carts across an immaculately landscaped golf course, while a row of women carrying sand in baskets on their heads (presumably for the sand pits) passes behind them. The camera often zooms in on television screens and monitors to emphasize the power of the new media, and it presents a TV talk show on film censorship, where guests debate the erosion of Indian morality and Hindu tradition. The heroine, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), represents a new generation of Indian women who live double lives in order to reconcile their desires with the wishes of their parents. Aditi secretly meets the man she loves the night before she is to marry the Houston NRI her parents have arranged for her to marry.
In foregrounding the clash of modernity and tradition, Nair makes explicit the anxieties about a national identity underlying the commercially successful films of Indian cinema, commonly known as Bollywood in reference to Bombay as the Hollywood of the Indian film industry. (4) A hybrid form from its inception, Bombay cinema reworked the melodrama, musical, slapstick comedy, and gangster genres of the classic Hollywood era, by infusing them with Hindu epic plots, Orientalist exoticism, and the visual and aural overload of Indian culture to create a new aesthetic style. Once derided for its melodrama and derivative plots, Bollywood has more recently begun to infiltrate a Euro-American consciousness through what can be identified as a new transnational cultural literacy. Indian films have always enjoyed an international audience, being popular among Arabs, Africans, Mexicans, and Southeast Asians. Indian film stars such as Raj Kapoor had an enormous following in third world countries as well as the former Soviet Union, where loyal fans equally consumed the visual spectacle of his movies as his depiction of the angst of the common man. What is different today is that a Bollywood audience has expanded to include Western populations, while its cinematic style has been mainstreamed into British and American theater, film, and television. (5)
Bollywood's crossover success can be attributed to the increased availability of Indian films on DVD, cable TV, and in theaters catering to South Asians living in the diaspora. But it is also an indication of how Indian films are becoming more global in appearance.
Glossy, high budget films shot on location in Europe and the United States and influenced by the slick cinematography of commercials are far removed from the feudal village drama of the 1950s and 1960s belonging to the golden age of Indian cinema. The story, of the strength and courage of a peasant woman to overcome debt bondage in a classic postindependence film such as Mehboob's Mother India (1957) served as an allegory for the heroic effort of the Indian nation to achieve self-sufficiency through modernization. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a shift to action films featuring the angry young man who embodied the triumph of India's underclasses over social injustice and political corruption. (6) The commercially successful films made since the mid-1990s, in contrast, emphasize wealth, fast cars, youth culture, and cosmopolitan lifestyles. Moreover, the folk-inspired song-and-dance sequences that were standard Bollywood fare have been replaced with a hip-hop style, Michael Jackson-inspired choreography, accompanied by the rapid editing and unconventional camera angles of MTV music videos--all appropriately "Indianized." The rural exists in the post-1990s films not as a geographical location so much as a signifier for a simpler way of life prior to globalization. As a member of the new generation of directors declares: "The village has been pushed to the farthest periphery of our imagination. Any reference to a rural background today is only a synthetic nod to the roots. The insistence is on gloss" (cited in Chopra 1997). Instead of the folkloric scenes belonging to earlier generations of films, the rural is emptied of the culture of everyday life.
The most successful genre to deploy the new cinematic style is the family melodrama, which was the most popular genre of the 1990s. (7) Instead of featuring India's underclasses as did earlier generations of films, the 1990s melodrama centers on wealthy Indian families with traditional values. These big-budget films, often shot on location in Europe and the United States, present "endless rounds of parties, beach dances, wedding celebrations, festive occasions, and an all-round feeling of well-being" (Kripalani 2001, 45). Films such as Hum Aapke Hain Koun ...! (What am I to you! 1994); Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The brave-hearted will take the bride, 1995); Pardes (Foreign land, 1997); and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is happening, 1998) allow their audiences to share in the extravagant lifestyles of the elite classes and cross the threshold of their luxurious homes, whether Western-style mansions or traditional havelis. Instead of the class conflict that dominated the angry young man films of the prior two decades, the conflict staged in these films is between modernity and tradition. (8) The 1990s family melodrama endorses traditional values through its staging of elaborate northern Indian marriage ceremonies and by making the joint family into the locus of the nation at a moment in time when the nuclear family was replacing the extended family among india's middle class (Uberoi 2001). The indebtedness of Monsoon Wedding to this genre of Bollywood film is unmistakable in its integration of song-and-dance sequences into the storyline, its indulgence in the rich culture of Punjabi weddings, and its tribute to the extended family. (9) In addition, through the shared knowledge its characters have of songs from popular Hindi films, Nair's film dramatizes how a commercialized, hybridized, and low cultural form such as Bombay cinema operates as the site of a collective Indian identity throughout the diaspora. (10)
But even as Nair integrates a Bollywood aesthetic into her film, she is critical of the rosy picture presented in its family dramas. Made under the aegis of her New York--based company, Mirabai Films, Monsoon Wedding moves fluidly from happy family reunion scenes to sexually intimate ones, and it weaves into its wedding motif the disturbing topic of sexual molestation--a subject too controversial for popular Indian cinema. Inasmuch as Nair eschews the glossy patina of blockbuster Bollywood films in favor of a documentary cinematic style by shooting with a handheld Super 16 camera, she merges the realism of American independent filmmaking with Bollywood's narrative style. Still, Monsoon Wedding was not only successful in Britain and the United States but in India as well, at least among its urban middle class. Its celebration of the Indian family aligns it more closely with the 1990s Bollywood blockbusters than its maverick approach to questions of female sexuality might lead one to suspect.
Nair reinvents even as she reproduces the lavish Punjabi wedding film that Yash Chopra popularized and that experienced a comeback with the success of Hum Aapke Hain Koun ...! and Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra's Dilwale …