In the press kit for her latest film, Monsoon Wedding, director Mira Nair writes that she wanted the film to be like a Bollywood movie (Bollywood is slang for the prolific commercial filmmaking industry in Bombay) but done on her own terms. I can't really judge the accuracy of that claim, since my own experience with Bollywood has been limited to the opening credits of Ghost World and glancing at the television while eating at India Palace. But when Nair continues to write that "if the film captures the masti -- the intoxicating zest for life -- of my people then I will have done my work," I feel that she surely must have succeeded, because Monsoon Wedding is that rarest of beasts in contemporary movies: an accessible crowd-pleaser that doesn't pander to the audience and has no unpleasant aftertaste.
Set in present-day Delhi, Monsoon Wedding is sort of a modern, Indian remake of Vincente Minnelli's Father of the Bride. The film covers a four-day wedding gathering at the home of the upper-middle-class Verma family, whose daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) has agreed to an arranged marriage to Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a computer programmer from Houston. This familiar and conventional plot is established from the outset. The first image we see is that of father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah, in the Spencer Tracy role) consumed with worry and arguing with the wedding planner on his cell phone, while wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey) and other female relatives are busy preparing the house for the arrival of the groom and his family.
But Monsoon Wedding takes this outline and does wonderful things with it. With its engaging mix of genre elements (comedy, romance, melodrama, musical), affectionately realistic view of family life, and naturalistic use of musical scenes, it probably has more in common with a different -- and far better -- Minnelli film, Meet Me in St. Louis. Like that great American musical, Monsoon Wedding's music -- a spontaneous, post-engagement-party family sing-along; a joyous, female-bonding ceremonial song as henna is applied to the bride's hands and arms; a wedding-party lipsync and dance performance to modern Indian disco -- emerges naturally from the action. (The wedding party itself --in the middle of the monsoon --is like a giddy version of a Kurosawa battle scene, family members with umbrellas plunging into the rain in flanks.)
Monsoon Wedding also reveals, rather quickly, that its truest concern isn't necessarily for the wedding at the film's core (though Aditi and Hemant get their due in a wary yet hopeful examination of arranged marriage) or Lalit's stress at putting on such an extravaganza but for the gathering itself, for the frenzied influx of relatives and friends who fill the frame and whose stories and personalities emerge so clearly. In this way, the film also evokes Robert Altman for its use of a large ensemble cast. Indeed, many of the film's most memorable subplots concern characters outside the film's narrative epicenter -- the subtle, tortured courtship of family maid Alice (Tilotama Shome) and wedding planner Dube (Vijay Raaz); the horny, frustrated courtship of cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey) and the home-from-Australia Rahul (Randeep Hooda); the precariously evolving story of "spinster" cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty).
And the film's visual style is in perfect sync with its emotional and narrative concerns. Shot, as the closing credits attest, on the quick -- 40 locations in 30 days --and using a handheld camera, the film is so intimate and rushed (in the best possible way) that it pulls you in from the opening moments and pulls you along breathlessly. Nair's constantly moving camera dives into the middle of these gatherings, darting around, eavesdropping. As in similar Altman films, the camera will also pull back during these parties to present a frame full of activity and a soundtrack full of overlapping dialogue, giving the audience an exhausting freedom of what to see and what to listen to. (The dialogue, incidentally, is a mix, apparently common to the middle class in India, of Hindi, Punjabi, and English, often spoken within the same sentence. The conversation in this film is as flavorful as the visuals.) The way the film plunges the viewer into the vortex of this clan without a map, leaving the viewer (much like many of the characters on-screen, probably) to figure out who's who and how people relate, is a dizzying rush. (I've seen the film twice and I'm still a little uncertain about some relationships, but that hasn't detracted from my enjoyment at all -- I liked it even more on the second viewing.)
But if any one story strand emerges from this swirl of activity, it's probably the courtship of Dube and Alice. Dube is the film's most compelling character. With his bony frame, jutting Adam's apple, and jittery duplicity, he at first seems like garish comic relief -- an Indian cross between Chris Rock and Jimmie Walker, with maybe a little bit of Gilligan thrown in -- but our view of him deepens enormously over the course of the film. And the film saves its most rapturous moments, its most emotional grace notes, for his budding relationship with the shy, beautiful Alice. There's our first, radiant glimpse of Alice: Synced to the introduction of a vintage Indian pop song (which has the visceral pull of the greatest American soul records), the camera slows down and seems to accidentally catch her cleaning up glasses on the patio as she picks up a marigold and puts it in her hair, passing by an oblivious Dube as other marigold petals from the wedding fixture above fall down on him. There's the deep sadness of Dube's twilight trip home, our only lengthy glance at how the other half in Delhi lives, as he is confronted by a nagging mother, splashes dirty water on his face, and sits on his balcony, consumed with loneliness. And there's the final, delicate admission of love between the two.
Best known for the award-winning Salaam Bombay! (which makes a great companion to Monsoon Wedding) and the American Mississippi Masala (with Denzel Washington), Nair has really outdone herself here. From the ecstatic opening credits (a brilliant burst of color and music) to the final, if perhaps unlikely, wedding-party shot of Lalit and Alice embracing and dancing, Monsoon Wedding is a joy to watch.