Monsoon Wedding
Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Parveen Dabaas, Vijay Raaz

Mira Nair

Writing credits: Sabrina Dhawan
Distributor: USA Films * 114 minutes
Rated: Not Rated
  (USA 2002)

The other night I left the house to catch MONSOON WEDDING with the incomparable Frank DeCaro's comment from THE DAILY SHOW about MOULIN ROUGE! still echoing in my ears: "This film looks like someone set Liberace on fire and turned him loose in an Indian Restaurant."

Hey, that sounds like MONSOON WEDDING, too.

Mira Nair's vivid, joyous MONSOON WEDDING is so infectious, so colorful, so exhilarating, that you almost forget that at its core, it's merely a curry-inflected remake of FATHER OF THE BRIDE, with snippets of other films thrown in. The main plot involves the arranged marriage of Aditi (Vasundhara Das), to Houston engineer Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas). Aditi, who is less virginal than she looks, is consenting to this marriage merely because she is tired of waiting for her unctuous TV show lover to leave his wife. As the families begin to gather for the wedding, subplots emerge. Aditi's cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) seems merely to be jealous, but in fact has a darker secret, one which threatens to explode again as history appears to be repeating itself during the pre-wedding festivities. Aditi's parents Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) and his wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), while dealing with the frenzy of an upper-middle-class wedding, are also grappling with the unconventional nature of their only son, who enjoys dancing and wants to be a chef. Another cousin, Ayesha (the spectacularly beautiful Neha Dubey), seems interested in Rahul (the equally spectacularly beautiful Randeep Hooda), yet another cousin just back from school in Australia. And in the midst of all the pre-wedding hysteria is the film's comic relief in the person of wedding planner P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz), a Hindi Charlie Chaplin who is besotted with the Lalit's family maid Alice (Tilotama Shome).

If this is all starting to sound like a Robert Altman film, it's no accident. Like Altman's THE WEDDING, Nair's film uses the interweaving of relationships, rather than any kind of plot trajectory, to tell her story. There is really no suspense here; the family's Deep Dark Secret is absurdly obvious to the viewer (in a jarringly distasteful note amidst the colorful proceedings) and the film's joyful verve indicates that there will be a happy ending, even when it seems otherwise. Unlike Altman's films, however, these characters become distinctive very early on, and it's easy to tell who's whom (without the "who's who" distraction of a star-studded ensemble like GOSFORD PARK, a film to which this will inevitably be compared). Indeed, MONSOON WEDDING owes a debt to every film about wedding preparations ever made, from THE WEDDING BANQUET even unto SIXTEEN CANDLES. There are Shakespearean plot elements of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, the latter most evident in a stunning engagement party sequence, shot by Declan Quinn (Aidan's brother) as fraught with starry-eyed romantic magic.

Nair clearly loves her homeland, and this film does for India what WITNESS did for the Amish. The close family relationships and the sensuality of the wedding preparations show Western culture as cold, remote, and hopelessly tightassed by comparision. Let's not forget that this is the culture which brought us Tantra, thus elevating sexual fulfillment into an important component of spirituality. Nair's India is a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of colors and scents and textures and motion. The bright oranges, reds and golds of the wedding attire, the metallic threads in smooth saris laid out in a local storefront, the bustle of the marketplace, Ayesha's flirtatiously erotic party dance, wonderful wedding rituals such as the decoration of the bride's hands with henna, are so vividly rendered that the film often seems rendered in "smell-o-vision" (papadum nachos, anyone?). The much-parodied Bollywood "burst-into-song-for-no-particular-reason" genre is on ample display here, but here it seems that the traditional music of India, which often sounds like mere screeching to Western ears, has been infused with Western scales, the result being catchy, happy songs with a dancy, technopop feel. If you leave this film without wanting to run out and buy the soundtrack CD immediately, you'd better check your own pulse.

The cast of actors, unknown to most of us in the West, are consistently fine, even if Vijay Raaz' Dubey occasionally goes a bit over-the-top into Roberto Benigni territory. What I love about this cast is how utterly real the women are. Pimmi's middle-aged tummy rolls are proudly displayed, one hugely overweight family member (who looks like an inflated Ann Miller) joins the younger women in a playfully suggestive dance at a women's party for the bride. This wonderful scene celebrates four generations of women's shared experiences, and is one of the film's most powerful moments. Even Aditi, whose olive eyes suggest a mixed ethnic heritage, is plump by Western standards for a leading lady. Tilotama Shome as Alice has one of those fascinating faces that goes from plain to beautiful from one shot to the next. The men, however, are painted a bit more broadly. Vijay Raaz is no one's idea of a romantic dream, but arranged marriage seems a pretty darned attractive proposition when the groom is presented in the person of the tall, dark and handsome Parvin Dabas. Switch these two roles around, and you'd have a much different film.

Yet despite the film's lush exoticism, the film also conveys just how universal its themes are; the ambivalence of parents marrying off their oldest child; an aging mother weaving a tapestry of guilt wondering aloud when her son is going to find a bride; the conflicts of cultural tradition vs. modernity. When Dubey's mother is nagging him about finding a bride and giving her a little happiness before she dies, the multi-ethnic audience in the theatre nodded and laughed in unison.

MONSOON WEDDING is in Hindi, Punjabi and English, with lightning-quick shifts between languages, seemingly in mid-sentence. As a result, it's possible to miss some of the dialogue, especially in the early scenes, before we become accustomed to the language. Additional subtitles would have been helpful.

The word "charming" has been overused in film commentary these days, most recently in the context of the cloyingly adorable AMELIE, an arch, contrived film constantly aware of its own preciousness. MONSOON WEDDING is utterly without artifice; a film that invites the viewer to become part of its big, noisy, boisterous, dysfunctional, but loving family.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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