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Professor-Student Duo Portray Coexistence of Tradition and Modernity in India in 'Monsoon Wedding'

By Kristin Sterling

The bride and groom enjoy a rare moment alone in "Monsoon Wedding."

In a scene from the Golden Globe-nominated film "Monsoon Wedding," the father of a bride asks the incessant cell-phone-using wedding coordinator if the wedding tent he is constructing is waterproof. The coordinator replies with an ancient saying -- if the peacocks have stopped dancing, it will not rain. He then proceeds to use his wrist-watch/calculator to determine the additional cost for waterproofing

"Monsoon Wedding," written by Sabrina Dhawan (SoA, '02) and directed by Mira Nair, adjunct assistant film professor, offers a glimpse into 21st-century India, where tradition and modernity coexist. Last fall the film won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, before opening to positive reviews in India and the United Kingdom, where it was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best Foreign Film.

As a student in Columbia's film division, Dhawan befriended Nair and worked with her as a teaching assistant. The two share a common bond -- both grew up in Delhi, India. Both were interested in making a film featuring Punjabi families, which Dhawan describes as "interesting, loud and boisterous," characteristics that she likens to large, Italian-American families.

Nair was interested in depicting a Punjabi wedding, a large, grand celebration that lasts for an entire week, but Dhawan had a dramatically different idea. She was interested in writing a story about the delicate topic of sexual abuse in an upper-middle class family in Delhi. The concept may not seem surprising to U.S. audiences, as it is discussed openly in films and television talk shows, but such a story has never been done before in India. People often think that in India abuse is perpetuated by servants, not "respectable" middle and upper class family members, says Dhawan, but, as in America, it does.

The notion of a lavish wedding versus the serious issue of sexual abuse are so diverse it may not seem like they could be incorporated into the same film, but the talented Dhawan managed to combine these ideas through an elaborate ensemble of five stories.

While the film is centered around preparations for the arranged marriage of Aditi Verma to a young Indian man who lives in Texas, one of the storylines involves a cousin who notices a male family member taking an interest in a young girl. This prompts her to come forward and reveal that the man abused her as a child.

Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times writes, "... The crisis of incest provides the father of the bridei... with a painful choice. In the end, that choice gives 'Monsoon Wedding' its ballast and moral center."

"I wanted to show the other side of India," says Dhawan, "the side that many Westerners are not familiar with." In 21st-century India, East truly does meet West; tradition and modernity coexist. In India, like America, people use cell phones and watch soap operas, yet there are still arranged marriages.

The tradition/modernity paradigm is demonstrated by the female family members. As they sit around a room preparing for the arranged marriage, they include older women wearing saris and speaking Hindi and Punjabi and a younger English-speaking relative who wears mini-skirts and has a tattoo.

Throughout the film Western influences on modern India are demonstrated: the bride's mother occasionally sneaks into the bathroom to smoke a cigarette; her father is an avid golfer, and her younger brother watches television programs on the Indian Food Network.

Since opening in the United Kingdom on Jan. 4, Dhawan says the film has opened in additional theaters and was the fourth top-grossing film in the country. "Monsoon Wedding" opened in New York on Feb. 22 and in eleven North American cities in March.

The bride and her relatives participate in traditional pre-wedding festivities.

"It [the film's success] is such a pleasant surprise, we are very pleased," says Dhawan.

An up-and-coming young screenwriter, Dhawan has already received great accolades. Her short film, "Saanjh As Night Falls," was nominated for a Student Academy Award. The film received an award from New Line Cinema for Most Original Film at the Polo Ralph Lauren New Works Festival in 2000 and was cited as Best of the Festival at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

"Sabrina Dhawan is a young filmmaker of enormous range and ability," says Dan Kleinman, chair of the film division. "At Columbia she made a stunning short dramatic film, 'Saanjh.' She followed that with the screenplay for the sparkling comedy 'Monsoon Wedding' which won the Golden Lion at Venice. It's exciting to contemplate the delights she may bring us in the future. Sabrina has the talent to have a long and productive career."

Dhawan was born in England and raised in Delhi. After graduating from college in India, she went to England to earn her master's degree in communications research. Dhawan subsequently returned to India where she worked as a journalist for three years. During that time she decided that she wanted to come to the United States to study film.

By coming to New York Dhawan says she has had the opportunity to learn different kinds of lessons, and was pleased to realize that people in New York care about the "quality of art."

Not only has the Columbia film program taught her the basics as well as the intricacies of filmmaking, but Dhawan is also pleased that she had the opportunity to work with so many talented people, both students and faculty. "I believe that screenwriting is a craft, and I learned that craft here," says Dhawan.

Having graduated from the School of the Arts on Feb. 13, Dhawan plans to remain in New York and hopes to expand her craft beyond Indian-centered stories. She is currently working on a film for PBS and is adapting the book, "Death of Vishnu," for a film. She is also interested in working with Bollywood, Bombay cinema, to write a cross-over film, similar to the cross-over of the Academy Award winning film "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," which was produced and co-written by Columbia associate film professor James Schamus. Dhawan is working on a script now, and hopes to complete it in the coming months.

As is the case with so many in America, the events of September 11 have affected Dhawan's thoughts on the future and sparked a surprising personal revelation. "I have always thought of Delhi as 'home,' " says Dhawan, but in light of these events, "I have realized that I am home. There are things I love about New York and things I love about Delhi, but they do different things to me. New York is so much my home now."

Published: Feb 25, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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