Family of the bride

Aditi (Vasundhara Das) anticipates her future surrounded by a razzle-dazzle of characters in the film <i>Monsoon Wedding</i>.

Aditi (Vasundhara Das) anticipates her future surrounded by a razzle-dazzle of characters in the film Monsoon Wedding.

Rated 5.0

Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding isn’t the first movie to take us through the days leading up to a wedding, with all their major and minor crises, undercurrents of family conflict, frayed nerves and flaring tempers. Remember Betsy’s Wedding, Robert Altman’s A Wedding, the Spencer Tracy and Steve Martin versions of Father of the Bride? Nair is farming fertile and familiar ground. But the familiarity ends with that one-sentence thumbnail synopsis. Nair’s movie, set in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Delhi, has an exotic exuberance, a riotous colorfulness that makes it look and feel like something completely new.

Nair plops us down so unceremoniously in the midst of the Verma family’s wedding preparations, then dashes off so quickly on her story (written by Sabrina Dhawan) that at first we have trouble keeping the characters straight. It’s as if she had brought us to this really great party, then didn’t bother to introduce us to anyone. At first we feel confused and abandoned, but the people around us are so interesting and outgoing, wearing their dazzling, ornate personalities like parade costumes, that before long we feel right at home. We suddenly realize that we’re having a really great time, and we don’t know exactly when it started.

The bride is Aditi (Vasundhara Das), her groom Hemant (Parvin Dabas), and we actually meet them before they meet each other. This, you see, is one of those traditional arranged Indian marriages; Aditi has never left India, while her husband-to-be has been living in Houston for several years.

Adding to the bride’s last-minute jitters is the fact that she can’t stop sneaking away for phone calls and trysts with her married lover, the host of a boisterous TV talk show. In fact, we meet the lover before the groom, and we first begin to suspect that Mira Nair dances to her own tune when she suddenly jumps from the wedding set-up to the talk show. Without warning, we go from watching the wedding planner munching marigolds in the Vermas’ back yard to the TV studio, where a slightly frumpy, bored-looking actress demonstrates the art of dubbing breathy dirty talk onto a porno film. We laugh not only because the scene is funny, but because it’s so off-the-wall. What’s going on here?

Finally, as the big day approaches and Aditi and Hemant begin gingerly to get to know one another, other personalities emerge from Nair’s spicy razzle-dazzle. There’s Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), the harried, short-tempered yet good-hearted father of the bride, grasping at his composure (like Spencer and Steve before him) as costs go through the roof; Aditi’s earthy cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), whose slightly bawdy surface masks an uneasy loneliness; Tej, the uncle from America, smiling, benign, yet slightly sinister. Sweetest of all is the gangly, horse-faced wedding planner (Vijay Raaz), who becomes smitten with the Vermas’ shy, timorous housemaid Alice (Tilotama Shome).

Monsoon Wedding is technically a foreign-language film, I suppose, but the dialogue is divided so evenly among Hindi, Punjabi and English that, I suspect, even without the subtitles a person who spoke only one of those languages could still follow the story. The characters leapfrog from tongue to tongue so quickly—sometimes, it seems, in the middle of a sentence—that we never go long without understanding what they say. This may, in fact, be the world’s most un-selfconsiously trilingual movie. The ease with which the characters switch languages bespeaks an extraordinary nimbleness of mind—it’s as if they’re thinking, “I must speak Hindi to express this thought! This one, however, requires English!”—and the linguistic nimbleness deftly translates into a nimbleness in the movie as a whole.

Nair’s people laugh, sing, dance, weep, shout—all at full throttle and with the heedless abandon of people too busy living to worry about silly decorum or appearances. The movie is a whirlwind, chock-full of life.