You are invited to a wedding that sweeps up all around it
Mira Nair's 'Monsoon Wedding' begins with a delicate sprinkle of marigolds. Ah, beautiful, you think. And as you're thinking it, you see it's the result of a carefully designed floral wedding arrangement coming apart.
Ah, well, it's beautiful anyway. The golden-orange blossoms are everywhere. The wedding planner snacks on them like candy. They can drift down on anyone's head at any time as things fall apart and people come together.
Too funny to be called a drama, too serious to be a comedy, this is a movie of marriages Ñ marriages of families, of generations, of styles, of cultures. It's set in a modern India, where new and old ways can collide jarringly or blend surprisingly.
The Vermas are a prosperous middle-class Punjabi family living in Delhi, frantically occupied with the last-minute details of the arranged marriage of daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). While harried father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) snaps out orders, his wife, Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), attempts to keep his head from exploding. The groom, Hemant (Parvin Dabas), arrives from Houston while his bride-to-be is still engaged in an affair with a married TV talk-show host.
Other in-laws arrive from Australia. The Vermas' teen-age son, Varun (Ishaan Nair, director Nair's nephew), pouts when he isn't dancing or gabbing with the women, furthering his father's fears that he may grow up to be an 'entertainer.' Geeky wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz), seemingly wed to his cellphone and just as seemingly doomed to screw everything up, has become smitten with the Vermas' sweet maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome). The poor guy is so upset he has stopped eating the marigolds.
This swirling, enthusiastic, big-hearted film is director Nair's celebration of family and the city of Delhi, itself a chaotic and fascinating marriage of centuries-old tradition and 21st century technofrenzy. In addition to some well-known Indian actors, her family and friends appear in the film. The language can shift from English to Hindi to Punjabi within the same scene Ñ sometimes the same conversation.
Nair, whose films include 'Salaam Bombay!,' 'Mississippi Masala' and 'Kama Sutra,' often cuts away from the Verma household to the teeming Delhi streets. But these interludes Ñ a pounding summer rain, a balmy evening or a humid, hazy night Ñ are more than just scenic digressions or punctuation. They expand the themes, reflect and enhance a mood or offer up a telling detail (such as a brief, poignant glimpse of P.K.'s home), becoming lyrical contributions to the film's texture.
Back at home, cinematographer Declan Quinn's camera becomes part of the restless activity, essentially making the viewer another guest. It's tough to sort everyone out, but who hasn't had that feeling at family functions of their own.
And part of the pleasure here is discovering more about who the people are. The scrawny, almost grotesque P.K. becomes more than simple comic relief. We see beyond the father's frantic, harassing manner to the depth of feeling responsible for it.
We learn the disturbing reason why the bride's attractive cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) remains unattached and embittered. And we come to suspect the arranged marriage might truly have a future, as both parties benefit from a mature sense of honesty.
'Monsoon Wedding' gradually makes us part of its extended family Ñ inviting us in, making us feel at home and embracing us. It's a neatly arranged marriage indeed. You'll leave wishing the snack bar sold marigolds.