"Monsoon Wedding"

This eye-popping Indian wedding comedy is a guaranteed art-house hit. Too bad it misses all the good jokes.

By Charles Taylor
Published February 22, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

"Monsoon Wedding" opens with a blast of music that sounds like what might happen if a marching band tackled Indian Top 40. The credits appear behind shifting blocks of pop-your-eyes-out color so bright it almost hurts to look at the screen. It's somewhere between a psychedelic experience and the credit sequences of those mid-'60s studio movies so desperate to prove themselves "with it."

And the color continues in the movie itself: Declan Quinn's photography shows us lawns carpeted with a bed of fallen marigolds, intricate formal saris, a bejeweled bride done up like a storybook illustration. The director, Mira Nair, calls it "a Bollywood movie, made on my own terms." And while the characters sing and dance from time to time, it's always in a naturalistic setting, and they do it without resorting to four or five costume changes in the course of one number.

"Monsoon Wedding" is an ensemble family comedy about the not-entirely-happy chaos in the days leading up to the wedding of the only daughter of an upper-middle-class Delhi family. Anybody who's ever been involved in a wedding can spot all the potential disasters: a house jammed full of visiting relatives, decorators who are lagging behind schedule, cold feet on the part of at least one member of the happy couple, a general air of combined excitement and irritation and the conviction that nothing will be ready on time. It all comes out all right in the end, of course, just as it did in "Father of the Bride."

What is new in "Monsoon Wedding" is the element of culture clash. Nair, working from a script by Sabrina Dhawan, is trying to achieve something like what Hanif Kureishi did in his novel "The Buddha of Suburbia" and what Zadie Smith did in her "White Teeth," to see the comedy rather than the tragedy of clashing cultures. But both those books were set in England, and their conflict -- the comedy of two different cultures that find themselves in close proximity to each other -- was perhaps more concrete. "Monsoon Wedding," on the other hand, is about the conflict that exists in one culture when modernity rudely bumps up against tradition.

Aditi (Vasundhara Das), the young bride-to-be, has agreed to an arranged marriage with Hemant (Parvin Dabas) because the TV host she's been having an affair with shows no signs of leaving his wife. Meanwhile, her father (Naseeruddin Shah) is trying to keep the wedding from emptying the family coffers, and sparring with P.K. (Vijay Raaz), the contractor he's hired to coordinate the ceremony. P.K., a schnook who thinks of himself as a big-time operator, becomes smitten with Alice (Tilotama Shome), the family's maid.

The battle between traditional ideas and modern ones can be a fruitful source of comedy. And I imagine that for Indian audiences, used to lavish Bollywood productions, "Monsoon Wedding" might seem like a revelation: a so-called art movie with enough familiar conventions to lure them in and still show them something like recognizable life on-screen.

The trouble is that "Monsoon Wedding" is about as broad and conventional as a movie can be. It's a crowd-pleaser in the most familiar sense. I wasn't kidding with the comparison to "Father of the Bride." (I'm talking about the 1950 Vincente Minnelli version with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, not the Disney remake with Steve Martin.) There's something in "Monsoon Wedding" of the forced, cheery conventionality of MGM in the '50s, the idea that the deepest contentment can be found in the blandest of suburbia, and its optimism rings false for many of the same reasons.

It's not wrong or inherently conventional for a movie to celebrate family life and to show us how that life manages to go right despite all the everyday dramas families contend with. (That's the pleasure of Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" of novels, for instance.) "Monsoon Wedding," though, despite a few sops to "relevance," steadfastly remains at a remove from the muck and mess and harmonious discord of families.

A further problem is that the characters are all types: the "rebellious" little brother who may or may not be gay (the movie is too coy to lean one way or the other); the big, jolly, quarrelsome aunt (who looks alarmingly like an Indian Ethel Merman); the pompous glad-hander of an uncle; the attractive older niece who doesn't want to get married; the nephew who represents the slick, shallow young (in a '50s MGM movie, he'd be wearing white bucks, driving a convertible and listening to Kay Starr records).

Worst of all is P.K., the contractor. His function here is meant to be something like a Shakespearean clown, but Vijay Raaz plays him so broadly -- when he shows his teeth in a big, false smile he looks about to bray, and Nair holds him in close-up after close-up -- that there's something inescapably condescending about the presentation. He's one of the lower orders, put on-screen for our amusement, instead of what he might be: a relief from all the middle-class propriety surrounding him. Nair doesn't tone down any of the actors, and she doesn't bring them the vitality that would allow them to transcend their stereotypical roles, to make them into rich comic creations. (If you've ever felt guilty for giggling at Peter Sellers as a Hindu actor who quietly turns a Hollywood soiree into bedlam in Blake Edwards' "The Party," this movie should cure you of that.)

In a director's statement that accompanies the film's press notes, Nair says, "Today, Delhi is a strange 'globalized' world where tradition butts heads with modernity at every turn. Gucci and Prada exist side by side with power cuts and traffic jams, and the spoken language is colorful and inventive, crisscrossing easily between English, Hindi, and Punjabi."

"Monsoon Wedding" could have used more of that strangeness, the sense of life as a slightly giddy, off-center carnival, with consumer goodies and squalor rubbing up against one another. That sense of topsy-turviness is present in Paul Mazursky's "Moscow on the Hudson" when Robin Williams, as a Russian imigri to New York, writes home to his parents, "Today I bought my first pair of American shoes. They were made in Italy."

Nair, though, treats these disparate elements as a given, without pointing up the comedy of their close contact with each other. There's a joke somewhere in a preoccupation with tradition that coexists with a world of cellphones and hip-hop, but Nair doesn't find it. It's understandable that she doesn't want to razz Indian traditions, that she wants to present her characters with respect. But you can still respect characters, still love them, while poking fun at their hang-ups. And if not with humor, how is an audience in 2002 meant to watch a young woman who enters into an arranged marriage because she feels it will be her last chance to get a man? Or a groom-to-be disgusted with his fiancée because she confesses she's not a virgin? The movie suggests the ugly side of the culture when Aditi and her lover are accosted by police while they're parking and she's treated like a whore. But Nair shies away from making the connection between that attitude and a young groom expecting his bride to be pure.

In the end, "Monsoon Wedding" does show us one character putting his love for his family over tradition. Nair knows how difficult this is for the man. That she can point out the shortsightedness of patriarchal tradition and not demonize a character who isn't entirely free of it signifies an impressive humanism. But the melodramatic revelation that prompts this gesture is used to explain Aditi's unmarried female cousin in a way that feels psychologically pat.

The confusion evident in "Monsoon Wedding" shows in the way it was made. Nair plunges us right into the big family reunion scenes without introductions, leaving us to sort out who's who and how they're related to each other, the way we might have to at a big party in real life. But those kind of free-form scenes, the kind Robert Altman has made his own, take enormous discipline. A filmmaker who works this way needs to assure us that we will have the information we need, but "Monsoon Wedding" leaves us trying to tell the players without a program. (I never did figure out whether the visiting American who plays a major role in the end of the film was a distant relation or a business partner.) This is Nair's fifth feature, and she hasn't developed the control she needs to pull off the loose but solid structure she's attempting here. And while Quinn's photography is often bright and vivid, it's also highly variable, with hand-held sections (where the color looks grainy and washed-out) alternating with more composed shots.

"Monsoon Wedding" is going to be a big art-house hit because it's one of those movies that reassures audiences that people in other countries are just like us. Not in the way that the great humanist directors have, erasing the boundaries that separate us from the characters on-screen, but in the homogenizing way of mass entertainment. It's not so much one world that's on-screen as a one-world back lot.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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