If youíre feeling somewhat lost by this point, then good: Monsoon Wedding wants to confuse you. Shot in the style of a home movie, with faces moving in and out of focus at random, and voices overlapping to form a thick, straggly carpet of chatter, the movie asks that you pay close attention lest you miss a crucial snippet wherein an identity is revealed or a relationship is established. The guests, who have all arrived for Aditiís engagement ceremony and who will stay on for the wedding two days later, move from one mini-celebration to another, drinking and eating, or dancing and singing, or sometimes all four at the same time.
Monsoon Wedding does little more than document these three days of non-stop revelry. In this respect, it is a modest movie, one intent on evoking a specific place and a specific set of characters. There is no formal story, aside from a few romantic subplots, and the movie ends exactly where you expect it to, at the wedding. Filmed in thirty days using a hand-held camera and real locations, the movie retains many of its rough edges. The street scenes were filmed in New Delhiís crowded marketplaces, and on a few occasions you can see pedestrians stare directly into the camera. The interior scenes are equally spontaneous, with the camera floating freely among the guests, coasting on the wave of conversation.
In so reducing their film to its simplest ingredients, Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan mask a much more complex outlook on modern Indian society. As they see it, India is anything but simple. Itís a society thatís in constant flux, pulled in one direction by tradition and in the other by Western culture. In assembling her diverse wedding party, Nair has created a melting pot into which she has thrown everything she can get her hands on: age, gender, social class, even nationality. Those critics who have accused Nair of transforming Indian culture into a tourist attraction, filled with exoticism and forbidden sexuality, will appreciate the lengths to which she goes to create an India so influenced by other cultures that, to foreign eyes at least, itís barely recognizable. Here, people speak three languages, Hindi, Punjabi, and English, often in the same sentence. Nair has even thrown in an Australian-born Indian in the form of Lalitís strapping but useless nephew who knows nothing about Indian culture and who, in typical Western fashion, hits on the first attractive woman he lays eyes on.
The youth contingent of the wedding party is unquestionably the most progressive, indulging in sports clubs, video games, and pre-marital sex, but even they ultimately bow to tradition. Aditiís marriage is an arranged one, after all. She has little to say over who her husband will be, a concept to which she has resigned herself, though we suspect that she finds it a wee bit romantic. Her need to rebel manifests itself in an illicit affair with her ex-boyfriend, a local TV personality who happens to be married. At night, she meets him in his Jeep, and they drive to a remote location where they make out in the back seat. Itís abundantly clear, though, that Aditiís heart is not into it. Her lower lip trembles and her large, uncertain eyes register uncertainty. Before very long, she is confessing her indiscretions to Hemant, her groom.
At its heart, Monsoon Wedding is shamelessly pro-family. It believes that unhappiness, rivalry, and dark secrets will fix themselves if we only persevere and stick together. The darkest secret belongs to Ria (Shefali Sheti), Aditiís cousin, who suffered an unspecified sexual abuse at the hand of her uncle Tej. Now in her early twenties, Ria is frigid and closed-off. She keeps her eye on Tej who, it just so happens, is the shining star of the family, a self-made millionaire and family-man who has volunteered to finance Riaís studies in the U.S. But when he starts showing too much affection towards one of his young nieces, it sends Ria over the edge in a wild outburst of revelations and accusations. Stunned into silence, the family must decide whether to collectively overlook Tejís crime or to banish him altogether. The whole thing makes for some impressive theatrics, but the final choice, which Lalit makes after much heartache, comes off as a cause for celebration Ė a triumph of family values over evil Ė when it should have been played as a somber moment when this proud family noticed the first chip in its pristine veneer.
However disingenuous Nairís vision of family life may seem, sheís never sloppy. Her dramatic choices feel too calculated, too bold, to be the work of a lazy sentimentalist. When Hemant forgives Aditiís infidelity, there is indeed a swelling of music and a burst of sunshine. Itís a conscious decision informed by a Shakespearean sense of comedic justice in which the bad are punished, the good are rewarded, and everyone is paired off in the end. Even Dubey (Vijay Raaz), the annoying wedding planner manages to fall in love with and to successfully woo the demure housekeeper, Alice (Tilomata Shome). Their courtship is an all too cutesy duet of misunderstanding and redemption, but true to form, Nair adds an unexpected edge: when Dubey gives Alice his business card she asks, quite innocently, if he has an e-mail address.
Their eventual wedding (was it ever in doubt?) takes place in the family garden only a stoneís throw away from Hemant and Aditiís boisterous ceremony. Set amid swirling saris and candles galore, the ceremony is the movieís gorgeous, scruffy set piece, an almost spontaneous outpouring of movement and sound. Whatís most notable about it, however, is that just when we expect Nair to finally give her eagle eye a rest and to indulge in the pure spectacle of it all, she only sharpens her scrutiny. In its final moments, Monsoon Wedding becomes a study of glances stolen and exchanged. Some of this is out of necessity: the wedding music (a riotous mixture of traditional Indian folk and Euro/techno pop) grows so loud as to make conversation impossible. The guests simply break out into dance, undeterred by the rain bearing down on them. If you look closely, youíll see Ria, her hair let down, snatching a glance at a handsome late arrival. A naughty smile dawns on her face. But then, as if awaking from a daydream, Ria disengages and just like that the stolen glimpse is gone forever.