Cell phones and silk saris, dot-coms and arranged marriages -- Monsoon Wedding, the latest film from Indian-born director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala), captures the heady mix of old and new, rich and poor, traditional and modern that defines contemporary India. A sort of Father of the Bride set in New Delhi, Monsoon Wedding covers the four days leading up to the marriage of Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das), the pampered, twentysomething daughter of Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), an upper-middle-class businessman who is every bit as harried, vexed, and sentimental as Spencer Tracy or Steve Martin.
As friends and relatives descend upon the Verma household, Lalit attempts to control the uncontrollable: his wife's smoking, his son's disinterest in school, the escalating cost of the wedding, the intense heat, threatening rains, and wilting marigolds (the Indian wedding flower) that are part and parcel of the humid monsoon season. The slow pace and servile manner of the catering manager, Dubey (Vijay Raaz), prove to be more thorns in his side.
Fortunately Lalit is blissfully ignorant of his soon-to-be-married daughter's dilemma. Attractive, educated, and seemingly modern, Aditi has, like all dutiful Hindu daughters, agreed to marry a man her parents have chosen for her. Part of the reason is time-honored tradition -- Lalit and Aditi's mother, Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), were so betrothed -- but there's another motive: Aditi realizes her love affair with a married TV talk-show host has no future. Her sole confidant is her cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), who has some weighty secrets of her own.
An ensemble comedy awarded the top prize at last September's Venice Film Festival, Monsoon Wedding pulsates with music, dance, vibrant colors, and laughter. But it also glows with quiet moments of drama. The most moving of these involves a character so broadly drawn and so egregiously overplayed during the film's first half that he nearly derails the entire picture: Dubey, the catering manager. He is introduced as a disingenuous and obsequious figure of comic relief; he's so stereotypically written it's offensive. What seems like a terrible misstep on Nair's part finally makes sense when the character undergoes a totally unexpected transformation. Raaz brings an almost heartbreaking guilelessness to these later scenes, which gives the film its one true grace note. Tilotama Shome does a lovely job in her screen debut as the Vermas' maid, Alice, the catalyst for Dubey's about-face.
The presence of Dubey and Alice in caste-conscious India adds a dimension to the story that Nair nicely exploits to both comic and dramatic effect. The social, economic, and religious divisions that separate people on the Asian subcontinent are more than accepted; they are practically ordained. The upside to this is that although Monsoon Wedding is set in a highly specific location and within a uniquely defined culture, the story, characters, and emotions could not be more universal, rendering the film accessible to just about everybody. (Western audiences may have more trouble understanding the emphasis placed on the Verma family's Punjabi roots; suffice it to say that labeling someone a Punjabi connotes a prosperous socioeconomic position.)
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While Nair may never again realize the brilliance and power of her 1988 debut film, Salaam Bombay!, an almost neorealist study of Bombay street children, her aims in Monsoon Wedding are quite different. She wants solely to highlight a family much like the one in which she grew up and, through that, to celebrate the humor and drama, love and conflict that defines family life everywhere. In that, she has succeeded.