The Look of Love #1: Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Shefali Shetty as Ria Verma in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001).

For a decade, ever since her parents died, Ria Verma (Shefali Shetty) has lived in the household of her beloved uncle and aunt’s family, but she’s seen too much of their tumultuous but reasonably stable marriage in close-up to believe in fairytale visions of romance. She’s seen their daughter, Ria’s cousin/best friend, cheat on her betrothed with a married TV news anchor, and question openly whether she’s even fit to be married. Throughout the movie, we’ll listen in as family members comment cattily, almost mournfully, on Ria’s figure (zaftig), dreams (she wants to be a writer, and she’s the movie’s resident intellectual), and skin tone (dark). “She’ll never get married,” they say either in gesture or right to her face. To add injury to insult—and, yes, I meant the inversion—the only man she’s ever attracted was entirely unwanted: an old family friend molested her, several times, when she was a child.

So, she’s understandably wary of love, and advises strongly and forcefully against rushing headlong into it, or even crawling to it at a turtle’s pace.

It’s a shame, because director Mira Nair knows Ria is a catch. She’s extremely smart (and smart-mouthed), quick-witted, and can get a laugh just from the roll of her eyes. (Shetty has one of the more expressive faces in cinema.) She’s also so voluptuous and sexy, womanly as opposed to girly like most of the actresses her age that surround her, that she singes the screen.

So, when she’s thunderclapped by love at the movie’s end, we cheer and laugh. Lord knows she deserves it.

Throughout the movie, a semi-obnoxious family friend brags relentlessly about her son Umang, his success in the States, his aspirations, his devotion to his righteous mother, and so on. He’s insufferable, and we haven’t even met him yet. When he finally makes it to the wedding, it’s just as the ceremony is getting out of hand—dancing, marigolds, a torrential downpour, general carousing—and we want to curse him for being late.

But Umang (Jas Arora) surprises us—he looks like a decent, albeit extraordinarily handsome, man as he cuts through a sheet of rain. At the right edge of the frame, we see the black outline of Ria; we’re seeing Umang as she sees him.

At first, she only sees him out of the corner of an eye, as she’s attending to the bride’s wardrobe. She brushes back her hair and, in doing so, finally gets a good glimpse at the man. She smiles, once, as if to say, “Hi fella, go make yourself useful.”

But as she’s turning away, she reconsiders. These screen captures, by the way, aren’t doing justice to Shetty’s snappy timing.

The double-take conveys her changed—and charged—level of attention, even though the camera only holds her look for an instant…

…before cutting to Umang…

…who’s just as smitten. He’ll hold this expression, while the rain splatters and the camera shakes, for a full three seconds.

Just like that, Ria’s done with the single life.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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