Monsoon Feast: The Making Of Monsoon Wedding
The author was a production coordinator, while her husband, Rahul…
The author was a production coordinator, while her husband, Rahul Vohra, acted in the film. At one point there was talk about casting her dog as well.
She’s personable, vivacious, charismatic, bright, witty, hearty, driven and has the capacity of the Northern Grid without the breakdowns and power cuts. She can be infinitely exhausting to work with. Keeping up with that powerhouse of energy can drain most mortal resources, but admittedly most weary and foolish individuals come out of the experience realising that they had unplumbed sources within or without themselves to draw upon.
So while Mira Nair’s vision, eye and excellence as a film-maker has been lauded at the Venice Film Festival with no less than the Golden Lion, large numbers of family, friends and well-wishers take their hats off to her and also thump themselves on the back for having had the adrenalin to keep up with the dervish dance of a shoot that was Monsoon Wedding.
When line producers Shernaz Italia and Freny Khodaiji were first contacted for the film, they were told that it would be very small—a 17-member cast and crew project shot in limited locations, a Dogme film shot on Digital Camera commissioned by the French Channel Arte. If they had worked with Mira before, they would have known that nothing is ‘small’ with Mira except in the telling—the initial telling. In giant leaps and bounds, it became a (relatively) larger budget shoot as investors either saw greater potential or more likely, got swept up in the typical Mira enthusiasm. When the dust settled (again, relatively) it was a 16mm shoot with ten times as many the number initially planned, encompassing local and foreign crew, cast from Delhi and Bombay, several locations, and a script that underwent endless revisions as it grew grander, bigger and we gather, better.
No one in close proximity to a film is a good judge of the eventual outcome. No matter how good or bad they may believe bits and parts of it to be, they are still blind men describing the different parts of a large elephant. This particular elephant was far from being a white one as it took the Golden Lion with the temerity of a bull elephant in a china shop. Most reacted to the prize with emotions ranging from delight to mild surprise to shock or, in the case of some critics, indignation. Mira herself had returned after the screening to the US where her next film was releasing (between August 2000 and the prize this year, she completed two films, the second being an HBO Uma Thurman starrer) and had to be recalled on the assurance that she would receive ‘a’ prize. Since the honour of honours is the last one announced, did thoughts of erroneous communication or bad jokes flit through any minds? It hardly matters. As little as the reactions of indignant critics.
Those who’d seen the film, including the long line of prospective distributors jostling for the contract, agreed that this happy, colourful, family drama was a delightful and ‘popular’ film. Now, popularity is rarely rewarded with top prizes at exclusive (okay, snooty) film festivals. It went against all expectations that it would be an Indian, a woman to boot, with a film on a Punjabi wedding with local actors speaking in Hinglish, that would carry the day (forty years after Satyajit Ray).
Does this prize have value add-ons? For instance, does it confer the gift of oblivion on all the pitfalls that befell the shoot—will all be forgotten? Perhaps not—but all will be forgiven, I suspect.
Mira Nair, arguably India’s most famous contemporary filmmaker on the international scene, is no stranger to controversy, criticism or spite—she’ll weather it as before, handling well-wishers and critics alike with elan as she continues to make films that will earn her a devoted audience. And after all, Monsoon Wedding can’t be accused of being tacked together with gloss, fluff and masala. It has more than spirit—it has Mira Nair’s unerring eye, Declan Quinn’s unfailing camera work, a catchy script, some stunning performances, colour, verve and vigour.
If there is such a thing as the perfect film shoot: one that’s shot within budget, stays within schedule, where the script isn’t revised, where weather, cast, crew and transport don’t play truant, where accidents don’t happen, where the unexpected doesn’t take place at least once daily and the impossible is not asked for at least as often—this wasn’t it. This shoot managed the first two—admittedly the most important—on this list. Barring a re-shoot in January to compensate for damaged rushes, it stayed surprisingly on course, despite the fact that Murphy’s Law ruled where the rest of the list was concerned. Which made the ‘within budget’ a virtual miracle, and the ‘within schedule’ a pure miracle. By the third week of the 30-day shoot in August 2000, as the warm days got longer and the crowd scenes got heavier, Mira’s mother remarked on the spanking pace and the adrenalin levels that were now fuelling it. Mira pointed out that she was doing what should have been a 45-day shoot in 30 days. “Why not just do it in 45?” asked her bemused mother. She spoke ironically, for Mrs. Praveen Nair is an old and capable hand at unflappably and laughingly holding together a stormy fort—while charity begins in some homes, movies begin in hers.
With something resembling masochism, a crew/cast can relive the experience of “the making of…” ad infinitum and, for the outsider, ad nauseam. Ask them to go on record about the specifics of what went wrong, and they’ll clam up with a collective shudder. Everyone has a personal ‘shudder moment’ and prefers that it remains in the family. And family it is—like them, love them, hate them, you can’t get away from them. The intimacy of this large group, working almost 24 hour-days side by side can bind and gag like few other ties. You party together, drink together, eat together, laugh together, and yes, some sleep together and the others giggle or goggle conspiratorially together. And then, there’s the build-up to the tension where tears and tempers are just a whiff away—but that too, blows over. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting, for on a Mira Nair shoot it’s impossible to stay entirely dispassionate, calm and distant. Nothing and nobody seems as important as the work on hand. All are convinced of their indispensability, each one walks around with the weight of the world on their shoulders. And when hugs, kisses and teary goodbyes have been exchanged there is the ultimate nirvana that awaits—sleep, glorious sleep.
Does this prize have value add-ons? For instance, does it confer the gift of oblivion on all the pitfalls that befell the shoot—will all be forgotten? Perhaps not—but all will be forgiven, I suspect. Not that forgiveness hadn’t already been meted out at the end of the shoot but I expect it will be distributed in more lavish and generous quantities now. What made one cringe then might raise a laugh now.
Now one could dare to ask Naseeruddin Shah if he likes the colour of his hair—he had an understandably thunderous day before the shoot when a distraught hair department found that an experimental ‘temporary’ hair dye had turned his hair a most undesirable, and apparently permanent, colour. His hair had to eventually be dyed again, back to its original salt and pepper! Ask Shefali Chhaya about the casting swayamwaram to find the elusive man with whom she would finally exchange a coy glance for a second. Ask production co-ordinator Anureeta, who’s extended responsibilities included surveillance of the catering department, whether she still counts plates to go to sleep. Ask location manager Varsha whether after a while she could tell whether she was to be preparing for a day or night shoot… or whether it was day or night. Ask costume designer Arjun, who was simultaneously juggling work on this film with work in Bombay on Dil Chahta Hai, whether he knew if he was coming or going. Ask production designer Stephanie her opinion of prancing horses, ask sound recordist Henri whether he would like to hear ‘Chunari, chunari’ just one more time, ask line producer Shernaz about the politics of keeping everybody happy, within a price, and line producer Freny about mysterious copyright issues, ask the camera department about the inventory of raw stock, ask accountant Murthi about balancing cost reports, ask Niku or Manav which department they worked for, ask Ayesha S.Ayesha P. and Sahira whether valuable paintings and sentimental vases give them shudder moments.
World events that followed on the heels of the announcement of the Venetian prize have, with good reason, stolen the thunder that the news of this prize would normally have engendered. A subdued Toronto Film Festival followed—the screening of Monsoon Wedding that was scheduled for the opening day was cancelled. When it was shown, it was shorn of the tamasha that had been planned—there’d been talk of the team present going together as a baraat with actor Parveen Dabbas on a white horse.
But life goes on and so will the show. Eventually, everyone will want a slice of the success pie and what’s more, Mira will probably share it out. She has never been one to deny the force of a team effort; over the years, she’s built up a personal rapport with people across the continents that fully encompasses and draws in an extended ‘family’, besides the very real, large and supportive family bound by blood or matrimony.
Did the ‘family feeling’ permeate the ‘family’ film right unto the screen? All the actors insist that they had fun on the shoot despite the long and taxing hours. Despite having to come in a week or ten days prior to the shoot to rehearse and ‘get to know each other’. Despite having to juggle various commitments to accommodate the invariable changes in schedule. Additionally, the subject matter is close to home—Mira Nair is obviously no stranger to family weddings and all the attendant tamasha, and neither were her actors. Under her direction, there were some stellar performances from newcomers and sound, dependable ones from old-timers. They will earn credit where credit is due. The crew that worked on adrenalin and ingenuity will claim their just share. And the fringe element that can claim some long-winded strand of connection to the film will no doubt cash in too. As everyone climbs on the bandwagon, the film continues to travel, as does Mira.
Already, between the shoot in August and the award in Venice, to my knowledge, Mira had returned to New York for the edit, come back to India for the re-shoot and studio dubbing, gone back to edit Monsoon Wedding and start prep on the HBO movie Hysterical, shot and edited that movie too, screened Monsoon Wedding in Cannes, and taken a brief and no doubt much-deserved break in her other home in Uganda. And I don’t know the whole of it.
Under her direction, there were some stellar performances from newcomers and sound, dependable ones from old-timers. They will earn credit where credit is due.
As for the film itself, hitherto shown to select audiences in Cannes, Venice and Toronto, it is due to show at the International Film Festival in Bangalore on the 20th of October. That’s when the Indian public can hand in its verdict, both for the Hinglish version that was screened abroad and an exclusively Hindi version made for India, the ‘India’ Mira thanked in her acceptance speech, that is celebrated on our crew T-shirts— “We are like that only. 30 days 30 locations. Exactly and approximately.”
And to Mira, who delights in the quirks of Indianisms in English and uses them lavishly, I toss this one back to her. “Too good yaar Mira. I can’t tell you only…”
This story was first published in the October 2001 issue