Splashy, noisy and downright fun, “Monsoon Wedding” is an unrepentantly cross-cultural audience-pleaser from Indian director Mira Nair, whose films from “Salaam Bombay!” to “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” have forged a distinctive path on the popular, gaudy edges of art cinema exotica. Here Nair weds the colorful, musical, dramatic style of India’s Bollywood filmmaking with a skillful Altman-like interweaving of five love stories during the preparations for a big Punjab marriage in New Delhi. A high-class hybrid like this runs the risk of not reaching the altar in its native India, where auds prefer movies with all the stops out. On the other hand, it may well be snubbed as too entertaining to cop a Venice award. But on international shores, where pic already has Italian, German and French co-production coin and American distrib USA Films, it looks poised for fine returns indeed.
Sabrina Dhawan’s sprightly script continually winks at global dot-com culture where English is king, followed by sex and shopping. A farcical TV talkshow introduces contemporary New Delhi and sets the film’s bright, TV-ish tone. Next we meet the middle-class Verma family, headed by Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah, protag of Gautam Ghose’s “Paar”), the golf-playing, cash flow-challenged father of the bride. In agreement with his attractive wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), he plans to spare no expense for the arranged marriage of their only daughter Aditi (played by wide-eyed pop star Vasundhara Das) to a young Indian engineer from Houston (Parvin Dabas).
As the relatives and in-laws begin to pour in, speaking English, Hindi and Punjabi, a chaotic, rather fascinating comedy of manners unfolds.
Overseeing the lavish celebration is P.K. Dubei (Vijay Raaz), an upwardly mobile tent and catering contractor and the film’s most original comic character. His bachelor existence collapses when he falls head over heels for the family’s innocent young maid Alice.
Surprisingly for Western auds, this traditional family is permeated by a thoroughly modern morality. Aditi has a last fling with her married lover, a TV host. Meanwhile, her sexy cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey) comes on blatantly to good-looking Rahul (Randeep Hooda), just in from Australia; and Lalit fears that his teenage son, who likes to dance and cook, is gay.
The last “couple” is the family’s protector Tej (a vampirish Rajat Kapoor) and cousin Ria Verma (Shefali Shetty), derided as an old maid at 28. At the height of the wedding party, she reveals that the great man is a pedophile who raped her as a child. This precipitates a terrible struggle of conscience for Lalit.
In the large ensemble cast, many coming from national theater, Shah and Shetty stand out with a depth of character that fleshes out the theme of family bonds in contemporary Indian society.
At the height of festivities, as the festooned groom arrives on horseback under the pouring monsoon rain (of course) to meet his sumptuously dressed bride, Nair intercuts an over-the-top lyrical scene of P.K. Dubei declaring his love to the maid on a fairy tale bridge, amid a rain of margolds. This exhilarating double climax is the best illustration of the film’s gleeful use of Bollywood kitsch to gussy up familiar Western comedy.
Cinematographer Declan Quinn’s even lighting and highly mobile hand-held camera enter wholeheartedly into film’s frothy spirit, while the musical score by Mychael Danna, who has worked extensively with Atom Egoyan and Ang Lee, imitates Bollywood’s song and dance mania with traditional love songs, Indian pop, jazz and folk music. Wedding costumes by Arjun Bhasin are a delight.