Dir: Mira Nair. India. 2001. 115mins.
Since the late 1980s, Mira Nair has acted as the official face of Indian cinema in the West. Most high-frequency cinemagoers in Europe and the US will have seen at least one of Nair's trio of exportable Indian features: Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991) and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). Although Bollywood itself is beginning to make a pitch for the non-Asian market with films such as Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan, Nair remains the point of reference for a brand of middlebrow Indian cinema that goes down well abroad. Sold to most of the major territories (with USA Films in the US), Monsoon Wedding should also do well in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Russia, strangely, one of Nair's strongest overseas markets. Though this is not Nair's best film, its feelgood factor could well mean it outperforms the others.
Monsoon Wedding marks the director's return to shooting in India after a two-film absence and can be considered her most personal movie, as it is set in Nair's own social milieu - the Punjabi upper-middle classes of New Delhi. Some have described it as the Indian response to Robert Altman's A Wedding, but this is pretty wide of the mark - the satire bites less deep, there is plenty of romance and the potential disasters are finally resolved in a celebratory, song-and-dance finale.
The title is a two-word pitch: Monsoon Wedding centres on an arranged marriage that takes place during the rainy season. We watch the increasingly frenetic preparations as the family of the bride rush to greet relatives arriving from Australia, America and the Gulf States, shop for saris and whisky, deal with recalcitrant workmen and generally bear the huge expense that a traditional Punjabi wedding entails. The film juggles five different plotlines without dropping any of them, and the twelve main characters are sketched in so confidently that we never have to remind ourselves of their agenda. This is the script's main strength; its main weakness is the dialogue, which is too often hammy and soaped-up. Not all of this can be put down to the rather old-fashioned lexis and phraseology of Indian English (as representatives of Delhi's haute bourgeoisie, the Verma family speak English among themselves, intermingled with Hindi and Punjabi - often in the course of the same sentence).
Among the cast, Naseeruddin Shah - one of India's leading actors - is excellent as father of the bride, an ordinary man who is forced to play social pressures off against doing the right thing when it is revealed that his elder, and richer, brother has an unhealthy interest in little girls. But of all the sub-plots, the most heartwarming is the one dealing with PK Dubey, the contractor who is organising the wedding and Alice, a family servant. Introduced as a lean, hungry, mobile-phone toting wide boy, Dubey is transformed into a lovelorn suitor; and he carries the audience with him all the way.
The visual feel of Monsoon Wedding is intended to reproduce the colourful, organised anarchy of contemporary India; but Declan Quinn's handheld camerawork can be frustratingly grainy when we're looking for more resolution, and over-smooth when we could do with a jolt. There are moments, though, when the low-lit approach really gels: a highlight being the graceful scene in which Alice tries on the bride's jewels in front of a dented mirror.
In the best Indian tradition, music is a constant accompaniment, and is used to comment on the brash, upbeat cross-culturality of the Punjabi upper-middle classes - as when the wedding band cuts suddenly from a lilting traditional ballad into a pounding disco number.
Prod co: IFC Productions presents a Mirabai Films production.
Int'l sales: Orfeo Films
Prod: Caroline Bacon.
Scr: Sabrina Dhawan.
Cinematography: Declan Quinn.
Prod des: Stephanie Carroll.
Ed: Allyson C. Johnson.
Music: Mychael Danna.
Main cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Vijay Raaz, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Tilotama Shone, Vasundhara Das.