Published Sep 01, 2001
It is not surprising that weddings are a popular subject matter for filmmakers. Perhaps the seventh art is the best equipped for capturing the frenzy of characters, events, and emotions that converge on these celebrations. For the screenwriter, wedding movies afford the opportunity to work with a large cast of characters; for a cinematographer, they provide justification for numerous camera and lighting styles in the same film from day to night, from handheld to dolly track, and so on; for an editor, they offer both a pre-determined chronology that is familiar to the audience, and an array of scenes that can get even the weakest of editors out of a jam; while for a director, wedding movies are like stock options of audience acceptance because, for the audience, wedding movies are expected to be good-natured affairs that afford a chance to celebrate and skewer our own cultural traditions, within a context that promises romance, music, and (because they're movies) a whole ensemble of good-looking people.
For the Gala programmers, with their well-earned a reputation for taking only the safest bets, Nair's film "Monsoon Wedding" was probably not much of a gamble, as it is the both conventional and entertaining. But to dismiss this film on the basis of a programmer's lack of nerve would be unfair. While the film proudly embraces both Holly- and Bollywood traditions, it relies on these as a way of warming the audience to its good-natured, though pointed observations about contemporary and traditional values. Set in Nair's home, Delhi, India, "Monsoon Wedding" focuses on a relatively wealthy, bourgeois man, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), and his efforts to organise his daughter's wedding. Lalit has a great deal of love for his family, but limited patience for many of the modern tastes that seem to have infected those around him, and less for "idiots" such as his unfortunate nephew, a college student who has recently returned from Australia.
This is not to say that Lalit is any sort of luddite. As early as the first scene, we see him talking to his wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz), on a cordless phone, negotiating with ease in a mix of Hindi, Punjabi, and English. Though this is Delhi, not Delaware, audiences will notice that things seem comfortably familiar this is still a wedding movie, after all. Helping to elevate the film are the finely-tuned performances by the multi-generational cast. Veteran Naseeruddin Shah, at the centre of things as Lalit, is supported in his world-weariness (or is that wariness?) by Vasundhara Das as his daughter Aditi, and by Shefali Shetty as his niece, Ria. As the film's female leads, Das and Shetty bring an awareness of both external and internal pressures overwhelming their characters. Also of note is Vijay Raaz, as wedding co-ordinator P.K. Dube. As I watched Raaz's performance, I couldn't help but think about the notes I might give to Chris Tucker ("Rush Hour"). Introduced initially as a lazy braggart, P.K. Dube appears to be the film's most blatant comic relief. Of course, as anyone who has seen a Chris Tucker movie can tell you, a one note comic performance quickly becomes, well, merely annoying. Fortunately, Sabrina Dhawan's script gives Raaz a chance to show Dube in the stages of love-struck transformation. Where Tucker might give us his romance shtick for a scene or two to show a "softer side," Raaz and Dhawan develop an genuinely warm subplot that shows Dube clumsily courting the Verma family's maid, Alice (the enchantingly subtle, Tilotama Shome).
"Monsoon Wedding" is groundbreaking in neither content nor style. As a wedding movie, it delivers on our expectations of competence and content. But "Monsoon Wedding" is also undeniably charming. As a response to the conflicts facing her characters, Nair chooses sincerity over sentiment. As Aditi faces the dilemma of an arranged marriage and its conflict with her contemporary experience and relationships, she turns to her modern sensibilities of honesty and openness to forge a better marriage. For Lalit, who is must come to terms with his niece's shocking revelation in the midst of the social conventions of a wedding, it is the trust engendered by family that guides his decision. And finally, at the heart of P.K. Dube's transformation is his caring for Alice. It is through Nair's commitment to her characters, and through their caring for each other, that "Monsoon Wedding" manages to be a wedding movie that delivers the warmest laughter.