It's spirited but unmemorable

Review: A sense of India floats through `Monsoon,' but its story gets lost in the breeze.

March 22, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The beauty, vibrancy and complexity of Indian culture is on addictive display in Monsoon Wedding. If only there were more to the film.

Director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala), working from a screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan, displays an obvious love for her native land. Filmgoers will find the energy she puts onscreen irresistible. But when it's all over, here's betting the film's spirit is all you'll remember. The story, the people, the narrative: Little of that seems to matter.

Perhaps the problem lies in the various story threads winding through the film: None offers much that is new, all get resolved pretty predictably, and no one incident, person or place stands out.

Essentially, this is the story of a wedding, about the people it affects - obviously and subtly - and the emotions it helps bring to the surface. It's also a love poem to modern India, a land where cultures mesh without a thought (all the continuing unpleasantness with Pakistan notwithstanding, one supposes) and where the old is giving way to the new steadily, if sometimes reluctantly.

Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) is a middle-class Punjabi businessman preparing for the marriage of his daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das). He's not ready to go through all this, either financially - he's so strapped for cash he has to ask his affluent brother-in-law for a loan - or emotionally. He's nervous about losing his little girl, and wonders whether this arranged marriage (the bride and groom barely know each other) is really the best thing for her.

Aditi shares her father's doubts, especially since she's having an affair with a married TV talk-show host.

But these aren't the only emotions swirling around this wedding. Lalit's niece, Ria (Shefali Shetty), whom he has raised like a daughter, is clearly bothered by something. And then there's this irritating little jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur Lalit has hired to stage and cater the wedding. P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) thinks he's too busy struggling to make his mark in the world to notice anything other than the bottom line. Then he sets eyes on the family's shy young maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome) and becomes hopelessly besotted.

A few other subplots pop up on occasion, including one involving another one of Lalit's nieces, a flirtatious young thing who develops a hankering for a young neighbor recently returned from college in Australia.

Concentrate on all these details, and you'll find Monsoon Wedding frustrating. Focus, instead, on the spirit of it all: the music, which right from the opening credits will make you want to jump into the aisles and dance; the hustle of Delhi, as Nair takes her camera out on the streets for forays that have nothing to do with understanding the events of the movie, but everything to do with appreciating the culture that spawned it; and the people, who effortlessly straddle so many cultural fences - switching from one language to another in mid-sentence, for example, or making out in the backseat of a car with hands painted in preparation for the traditional Indian wedding ceremony - it's a wonder they know who they are themselves.

The end result is quite intoxicating, a tribute to the crazy quilt of Indian society. If your interest is piqued, by all means search out some other examples of Indian cinema; Bollywood, as Bombay's movie industry is popularly known, produces a thriving film culture, and exuberance is never in short supply. Monsoon Wedding may not be a great movie, but it makes for a wondrous experience.

Monsoon Wedding

Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Vasundhara Das, Vijay Raaz

Directed by Mira Nair

Rated R (language, including some sex-related dialogue)

Released by USA Films

Running time 113 minutes (In English, Hindi and Punjabi, with English subtitles)

Sun Score: ***

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