The worried, weather-watching father of the bride in Monsoon Wedding, from Indian director Mira Nair, must not be a regular moviegoer, otherwise he'd know that love—familial, romantic and what-have-you—provides protection from all storms. Here, however, as in real life, love is demanding a hefty down payment, one that the Verma family of New Delhi may not be prepared to pay. Feeling old and unequal to the epic nature of the backyard extravaganza set to occur four days hence, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) fusses over the tiniest details, determined to make this wedding a testament to his family's success. He hasn't noticed—or chooses not to see—the restlessness and sadness in almost everyone around him, from the less-than-enthusiastic bride-to-be to the wife and son he takes for granted, to the hired help, all of them hiding behind false smiles.
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Meanwhile, in the back yard, Alice (Tilotama Shome), the family's silent if exquisitely beautiful young housekeeper, bumps into Dube (Vijay Raaz), the burned-out wedding planner, leaving in her wake a single marigold, the favored flower of Indian weddings and a sign to the seasoned viewer that by picture's end, Dube's heart will open. His won't be the only one. The bride, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), barely knows Hemant (Parvin Dabas), the dashing fianc arranged for her by her father, although she probably could adjust to him—if, that is, she weren't already involved with a married man. Risking everything, she confesses her affair to the groom, an unburdening that should lead to a dismantling of the wedding tents. Instead, in the happy-ending-or-die-trying tradition of India's Bollywood, it is actually a fresh beginning.
A happy ending in a film about a wedding shouldn't come as a surprise—or feel like a critic giving too much away—particularly when the director is Nair, who, in this film as in so many others, aims for the beating heart of the predictable movie moment. Beginning with Salaam Bombay!(1988), her Oscar-nominated debut feature, and continuing on into Mississippi Masala (1992), the Cuban-American family saga The Perez Family (1995) and, most recently, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), it's as if Nair had set herself on a careerlong mission to strip from every storytelling element all the years of manipulation and bad acting that have turned them into clichs, until all that's left is simple emotion, fully experienced. Hemant, for example, after stewing a bit over his fiance's startling revelation, chases after her as all heroes should. He runs forward, grabs Aditi's arm, looks into her eyes and makes his pitch that despite the difficulties, they marry right away. He uses all the right words, all the expectedwords, yet he speaks them with enough directness and purity of feeling to melt even the toughest viewer. Nair, it would seem, is also whittling away at her audience's defenses, restoring them to a place less cynically knowing, where it's okay to feel something, and to believe again—without necessarily being a sap about it—that love will out.
There are many other loves to be discovered in Lalit's wonderfully spacious house, including one that's twisted and disturbing. All are smoothly laid out in Sabrina Dhawan's debut screenplay. But despite the romantic complications swirling around them, the Vermas aren't living in a middle-class suburban vacuum. Theirs is the India of the old and the new, dusty, crowded, complicated, where hungry boys push tea carts down city streets packed with smog-spewing autos and where women wrapped in brilliantly colored saris clutch cell phones to their breasts as they dance to traditional wedding songs. Tradition change, clich invention, secrecy revelation—the ease with which Nair navigates these extremes must seem to her the most natural thing in the world. Despite the occasional side trip to America (the HBO production Hysterical Blindness, with Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis as a couple of working-class New Jersey girls, premieres later this year), she remains a citizen of India, whose people move forward and back, forward and back, all day long.
Monsoon Wedding was directed by Mira Nair; written by Sabrina Dhawan; produced by Caroline Baron and Nair; and stars Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dabas, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome and Naseeruddin Shah. Now playing at the Mann Regent, Los Angeles.