Interview Hindi

20 years of Monsoon Wedding: How Lillete Dubey persuaded Mira Nair to cast her

The actress speaks about her role as mother of the bride in the award-winning film which was premiered at Venice on 30 August 2001.

Sonal Pandya

Mira Nair’s fifth feature Monsoon Wedding (2001) was a gamechanger in many ways. It became the second Indian film to win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival after Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (1956).

The Delhi-set film, written by Sabrina Dhawan when she was at Columbia University, boasted of a large ensemble cast of 68 characters that included Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Roshan Seth, Soni Razdan, Vasundhara Das and Parvin Dabas. It was also the breakthrough film for many other artistes like Vijay Raaz, Tillotama Shome and Randeep Hooda.

The arranged marriage of Aditi (Das) to the NRI Hemant (Dabas) brings together family members near and far, to celebratory as well as disastrous results. The story also explores the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of the wealthy Verma family and their maid Alice (Shome) and her sweet romance with the wedding organizer PK Dube (Raaz).

Monsoon Wedding deftly captured the madness and magic of Indian weddings while keeping the essence of contemporary India real. The happy festivities masked a dark family secret: Aditi’s cousin Ria (Shefali Shah) had been abused by an elder uncle (Rajat Kapoor) when she was young.

The timeless film managed to balance the weighty dramatic moments (Aditi is also juggling a married ex-boyfriend) with lighter moments of humour about life in India, accompanied by apt musical pieces.

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In a television interview with Charlie Rose, Nair said the film was like “spending two hours at my family’s dinning table”. Monsoon Wedding is indeed dedicated to Nair’s family and features a few members in cameos, but the film is considered the closest to the filmmaker.

Lillete Dubey, who played Pimmi, mother of the bride, spoke to on the telephone about her experiences on the film, why Nair is an actor’s director, and how she missed attending the Venice premiere.

The actress, known for her work in theatre with plays like Dance Like A Man and Salaam Noni Appa, shared the humorous way in which she landed the role. Nair had contacted her to get in touch with her elder daughter, Neha Dubey, whom she was considering for a part. She had known Nair for ages, from the time they were all part of Delhi’s Theatre Action Group (of which even Shah Rukh Khan was a part).

Lillete was already coming to Delhi for a play and met the filmmaker over coffee. She recalled, “We met her at the India Habitat Centre for a coffee and she started talking to us about this movie and it sounded very, very interesting, and she said I want Neha to play this role [of Ayesha]. Actually, Neha was acting with me in theatre, but she had never thought about films ever. She was at Xavier’s doing her psychology honours.”

As Lillete heard more of the story, she asked Nair about the part of Pimmi Verma. “She said, I haven’t cast it. I said, but I’m sitting right here in front of you and you are not asking me!” she laughed and said.

“Mira is an actor’s director. She is a warm, affectionate person and we have known each other for some time. She had seen me on stage a lot, of course, by then. I hadn’t done too many films,” she continued, explaining the filmmaker’s reluctance to cast her at the time.

Nair also felt Lillete looked too slim and sexy for “a Punjabi mumma” and the actress began to persuade her that she could take on the challenge for the role. “So I said look, I’ll put on a little weight also, and I can pad myself and look heavier. Her mind was on a different sort of image of Pimmi, but I convinced her to seriously think about it,” she said.

Nair went back to New York to think about her options with her foreign producers and called back within a few days to say that Lillete had the part. Both she and Neha would be in the film. The actress, who put on a little weight before filming began, also cut her hair short and had a bit of padding underneath her costumes to look fuller as the Punjabi mother of the bride.

The film’s end credits famously state that the film was shot in “40 locations, 30 days, exactly and approximately”. Lillete remembered that they had completed it in 29 days, but due to a technical issue where one reel was spoilt when it was sent back to New York, the schedule got extended by another day to reshoot.

Monsoon Wedding was co-produced by Nair and Caroline Baron. Lillete felt that was also due to the fact that Nair “identified so much with the people, the story, Delhi, [and] the whole ethos”.

“I feel it’s the movie closest from her experience and heart and she put everything into it,” she said. “I used to always tell her that my biggest compliment when I do a film [that] I can pay a director or a producer is [that] it was like doing a play for me. It had some of those elements because we had to be there for at least 10 days before. There was yoga in the morning and then we did intense rehearsals through the day, workshops and all that. Like we would prepare for a play.”

The actress also revealed that Neha had to turn down a part in Shah Rukh Khan’s Asoka (2001) because the entire cast was required to be there before shooting began, no matter what.

She recalled, “[The makers of Asoka] were very keen on her and we asked Mira and that’s how disciplined and strict she was. If she is committed to this, she has to be here. [Neha] didn’t do the film. Maybe she would have done it, her life would have been different.”

Neha made her acting debut with Monsoon Wedding, but only acted in a handful of films thereafter. The 10 days that the cast had together, they attended workshops held by Naseeruddin Shah, rehearsed the script, and also did rehearsals with cinematographer Declan Quinn on how he was going to shoot the film, as much of the feature is seen through a handheld camera.

“When you do workshops with a script, you spend days doing improvisation, you actually crack a script in a very different way,” Lillete explained. “For 30 days, you live together literally. Otherwise every day we used to come and everyone was on set. It wasn’t necessary that I had a scene; even if I didn’t have a scene, I was on set.

“I’m a great believer that if you can get that kind of vibe, energy and connection between people off the screen, it translates on to screen as well,” she said of the cast’s natural bond. “You feel like these people are very comfortable and familiar with each other.” Capturing their performances naturally as they were happening was another factor in getting it right, she added. That was the year synch sound came to India with Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai and, of course, this film.

“I’m such a big fan of synch sound because when you do synch and handheld, you get this kind of immediacy and spontaneity," Lillete said. "People overlap, like we are talking, it’s not going to be clean. In real life, it’s not like that. I don’t know why we do dubbings, because it just doesn’t sound the same.”

She continued, “Synch sound makes a huge difference and, of course, the way it is shot. Partly [it was because] we didn’t have the money to take a 60- or 70-day kind of shoot, but also because that was the style of the film. The camera was a character in the film.”

In addition to the Venice honours, Monsoon Wedding was nominated for the BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The team had no idea the film would go on to be so beloved.

“[When] you don’t have any other agenda, you have no idea what its rewards or awards or whatever are going to be, it’s often so of the best things you do, because you do them with such purity of intention and I think Monsoon Wedding was one of those," she said. "Nobody had any idea, we just loved the film. We wanted to be part of it and make it.”

Back when the film was being premiered at Venice, Lillete couldn’t attend the festival as she had a scheduling conflict. Her younger daughter Ira, who is also an actress, had been accepted to Yale on a scholarship.

“It was exactly at the same time that she had to join college as the days of the Venice festival and I was dying to go to Venice because Shyam babu [filmmaker Shyam Benegal] and a lot of people told me, this is a very rare thing, you should go. But my daughter was 17, and it was her orientation and she was very young,” she said of her dilemma.

Other cast members from Naseeruddin Shah to Tillotama Shome and Parvin Dabas attended the premiere, but Lillete Dubey was among the few who were back in India when news of the big win broke.

Lillete is also amazed at the impact the film has had, dubbed as it was in different languages all over the world. She remembered being stopped for the film by an American couple in Europe. “Two international films of mine have been hugely loved, one is this and one is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012). People just seem to love it a lot. I think they are very appealing human stories,” she said.