There’s a lovely image at the start of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding—a marital gate, poised in the air like a hammock, made entirely out of marigolds, which flutter to the ground like orange snowflakes. The traditional, delicate flower canopy is falling apart before our eyes, but in a strange way, it is no less beautiful for it. In Monsoon Wedding, we meet the Vermas, a very proper, upper-middle-class Punjabi family in Delhi, as they gather their extended relatives around them for a celebration. Aditi (Vasundhara Das), the family’s strikingly in-style daughter, is about to be married off to a man she will meet for the first time only two days before the wedding. Their union, before it is anything else, is a ceremony—a ritual that links the family to the past, to the world that preceded them and that will follow them.
The world that Mira Nair shows us, however, could hardly be more madly, exuberantly disconnected from itself. In Monsoon Wedding, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), the addled patriarch, is a good man who is working hard to do the right thing for his daughter, yet from the way he keeps snapping at everyone, barking frantic orders into his cell phone, it’s clear that he doesn’t have a clue. His teenage son, Varun (Ishaan Nair), flops around the house like the most sullenly indulged American adolescent, watching what sounds like MTV India, and Aditi, on the verge of her wedding, keeps slipping off to meet her married ex-lover, the host of a boisterous television talk show where the guests include a woman who demonstrates, live in the studio, the dubbing of orgasmic passion for porno films. I think it’s fair to say that the cinema has rarely offered up a glimpse of a tradition-bound society that is this saturated in the techno-happy, media-wired trappings of the contemporary age. Often, it’s been a cheap gag in films when the residents of a non-Western country drop American brand names, but Nair, the director of Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, wants to immerse us in the ways that the spirit of the world has changed.
Monsoon Wedding kicks off on a note of frenetic high bustle that takes a bit of getting used to (you have to concentrate, early on, to sort out the cousins from the in-laws from the wedding planner), but the mood of upbeat chattery chaos is infectious. The film teems with life, in every corner of the frame. Americanization has left the Vermas a little unhinged, but it’s also something they embrace. The characters keep whipping back and forth, right in the middle of conversations, between Punjabi and English, and this is more than a matter of multilingualism. The current of technology has jumbled everyone up, speeding forward the pulse of their lives.
The groom-to-be, Hemant (Parvin Dabas), is a handsome engineer who has been living in Houston. As he and Aditi spend a morning or two getting to know each other, it’s hard not to recoil, at first, from the fact that they’re headed for an arranged marriage; to view them as a couple cuts against all of our freedom-of-choice romantic instincts. Yet we also can’t help but notice that they look awfully good together. As the two begin to come clean about their own doubts, their bold sincerity links them more than the marital arrangement ever did.
It turns out that they’re far from the only people pairing off. Nair, at times, gets a little carried away with her own cinematic matchmaking. The shy, nearly wordless flirtation between P.K., the lonely tent-and-catering contractor played by the captivatingly goofy Vijay Raaz, and the Vermas’ adorable maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome), is very sweet, but it’s a bit too programmed. On the other hand, the film’s dramatic strands, as well as its themes, come together with surprising force in the character of the prosperous, deceptively benign Tej (Rajat Kapoor), whose dark secret has been swept under the rug by the puritan power of India’s patriarchal traditionalism. As the secret is revealed, what’s at stake becomes nothing less than the tension between the ancient, established order and the freedom of the 21st century. Can this family right the balance, realigning those forces within its own house? The old-world-meets-new mesh is incarnated in the movie’s soundtrack, a joyful effusion of disco Bollywood that, by the end of Monsoon Wedding, sent my spirit soaring out of the theater. A-