When New Orleans boomers were in their teens, a rite of passage included nights of parking on Lakeshore Drive where much smooching and even naughtier activities took place. And if you practiced this rite often enough, you'd inevitably get harassed by a police officer shining a giant spotlight through your car window, both scaring you and embarrassing you to death. If you happened to think such events were restricted to New Orleans, the South or even America, director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala) is prepared to set you straight in Monsoon Wedding, where she stages a scene of Delhi young people trying for some automobile closeness only to be interrupted by that inevitably inquiring policeman with a flashlight the size of a helipad. My own parking experiences were a good bit heavenly and just a bit horrid. So is Monsoon Wedding.
Written by Sabrina Dhawan, Monsoon Wedding is, at its best, a great big celebration of the security of family and the surprise of romance. The twentysomething daughter of Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) and his wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey) is finally getting married. Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) is a thoroughly modern Indian woman. (With her full figure and big, gorgeous eyes, she'll remind viewers of the young Donna Pescow trying to get a dance with John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.) She's a devotee of Western style, she's educated, and she has a good job as television producer on a talk show obviously aimed at the affluent.
Aditi is so modern, she's even having an affair with the raffish star of her show, but since he's married and keeps breaking promises about the timing of his divorce, Aditi is fed up with him without being quite over him. And so we have marriage on the rebound, Indian style: in this case traditional Indian style, an arranged marriage in which bride and groom aren't even to meet until two days before the ceremony joining them for life. The groom, Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas) has been educated in America and now works as a computer programmer in Houston where he plans to take Aditi after their marriage. He's a handsome, intelligent and seemingly sensible young man, and the picture doesn't begin to make us understand why he'd agree to an arranged marriage. Aditi has a bad motivation; Hemant hasn't any motivation at all.
Still, Dhawan and Nair are obviously out to suggest that in a modern world where divorce rates continue to skyrocket, perhaps arranged marriages will succeed as often as those arising solely from romantic attraction. Aditi is gaga for the TV star, and he's an obvious heel. Though the contrast between the wedding tradition and the principals at its center is the picture's central concern, the filmmakers are everywhere fascinated by the uneasy juxtapositions in modern India. People speak English as often as Hindi or Punjabi. The women dress in jeans and T-shirts as often as they do in saris. Shots of frightfully crowded street scenes in Delhi remind us of the abiding poverty, even as glimpses into shops suggest the wealth of material indulgence available at least to the privileged few.
Indeed, Aditi's family lives in what seems like an estate with its huge rooms and gorgeous, manicured grounds. And the two families who gather for the nuptials arrive in late-model luxury cars and are as addicted to their cell phones as their American and European counterparts. Yet, as the wedding approaches, the women crush out their cigarettes, don traditional dress, decorate the bride's hands with paint, and sing festive native songs. The lust for life in these scenes, the spirit of good will, is absolutely infectious.
Still, the part of this movie that works best evolves from low-brow comedy into something quite touching. To handle all the complicated arrangements of the ceremony, the Vermas hire a foolishly self-important wedding planner named P.K. Dubey (Vijay Razz) who arrives as a sniveling suck-up to his employers and a petty tyrant to his employees and departs as a better man. That's because he falls head over heels in love with the Vermas' maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome), and ends up at a wedding of his own. Upstairs the tradition mysteriously abides, downstairs it thankfully doesn't.
What doesn't work nearly so well and almost derails Monsoon Wedding entirely is a subplot about a history of incest and pedophilia in the family. Early on we take notice of Aditi's cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty) whose unhappiness we initially think perhaps the product of envy. But subsequently we discover that Ria was molested as a child by her uncle Tej (Rajat Kapoor) who has been invited to the wedding. To make matters worse, Tej is up to his ancient nastiness as he preys on Aditi's 8-year-old sister, Aliya (Kemaya Kidwai). I haven't a clue why Dhawan and Nair opted to include such somber developments in an otherwise successfully light entertainment. But I do know that those developments don't remotely fit.
- Aditi Verma (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas) are modern loves contemplating an arranged marriage in India in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding.