starring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz
screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan
directed by Mira Nair
by Walter Chaw Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding plays like an unedited wedding video, capturing peccadillo along with celebration and ugliness along with beauty. Slyly, a little in the manner of an Ousmane Sembene film, it weaves the troubling elements of its culture into the rituals of joy. (In the case of Monsoon Wedding, Nair explores India's caste system, American cultural diffusion, the question of expatriated sons, and the inevitable death of tradition.) Yet Monsoon Wedding is also an exuberant Bollywood-lite soap opera with flat characterizations and badly-telegraphed plot points punctuated periodically by bombastic sitar sing-alongs. What most separates Nair's piece from Sembene's masterpieces, however, is that ineffable sense of naturalism which better defines a culture than an abuse of its mad cinema's mad archetypes.
The bride-to-be in an arranged marriage, doll-eyed Aditi (Vasundhara Das) is entangled in an affair with her married ex-boyfriend--endangering her budding relationship with Houston-hailing native son Hemant (Parvin Dabas), who's returned to Delhi to fulfill his part in the tradition-bound nuptials. Her indiscretion flies in the face of her father's (Naseeruddin Shah) fiscally devastating efforts to throw a gala wedding party while serving as one of two old vs. new tensions in Monsoon Wedding. I shan't tell you the second one but to say that although it provides the film's sole moment of devastating honesty, it's psychologically pat and more contrived than cathartic. Serving as a low-caste parallel story, wedding planner Dubey (Vijay Raaz, doing his best Roberto Benigni cum Jerry Lewis) pops marigolds as he courts Cinderella-like char-girl Tilotama Shome.
Monsoon Wedding has an improvisational, Wayne Wang feeling to it on occasion, its street scenes not only recalling director Nair's haunting Salaam Bombay! but also Wang's fitfully stunning Chinese Box. Coming as they do in a dedicatedly upbeat film, these moments of surprising humanism (note, too, an ugly pedophilia subplot and a short-sold homosexual tease) point to the central problem plaguing Monsoon Wedding: As a director, Nair just doesn't have the necessary self-control to guide a loose, poorly structured film through the pitfalls of incoherence and redundancy and simultaneously present the kind of social commentary to which she so obviously aspires. What results is the sort of arthouse-pleasing falderal that elicits a damning paternalistic comfort in traveling to an alien place that, save a few lush saris and a handful of gorgeous tableaux taken in the monsoon rain (a natural disaster trope used in the same spirit as in Bronwen Hughes's Forces of Nature), looks exactly like 1950s middle-America. Originally published: March 8, 2002.