Born in New Delhi and educated at Harvard, filmmaker Mira Nair has brought the world her personal rendition of a Bollywood movie. In a thirty-day shoot, with a budget just under $1.5 million dollars, Nair crams five plots lines, sixty-eight actors, three languages, cartloads of marigolds, love, laughter, incest, sorrow, potentially gay sons and constantly ringing cell phones into one sprawling film. Much like Robert Altman's class-conscious Gosford Park, Nair's ensemble drama takes an upstairs/downstairs look at a contemporary Indian, upper middle class household. In addition to the wedding party's frantic efforts, Monsoon Wedding tells the comic story of the budding romance among the servants who weather proof the tents, serve the food, and arrange the flowers. Rarely have I seen a film work so hard on the telling, and as much as I wanted to love it, the end result is likable television drama.
Monsoon Wedding centers around the arranged marriage of middle-class daughter Aditi Vermas (Vaaundhara Das) to a Houston Engineer (Parvin Dabas) during the romantic monsoon season in New Delhi. It's an interesting concept--an arranged marriage in the twenty-first century--and more interesting still when you find out that well-educated, seemingly independent Aditi had already chosen her own, inappropriate lover: her married boss at a television station. This alone seems like an compelling story, but Aditi's troubled engagement fast becomes submerged in the numerous plots that overload the film.
Who are the players? There are Aditi's loving parents who fall into debt to pay for the big wedding. There is her cousin, the smart and independent Ria (Shefali Shetty) who wants to major in creative writing in the United States. She has a burning secret that clearly needs to be revealed before the films end. There is another cousin, curvaceous Ayesha (Neha Dubey) who parades through the house in teensy-weensy outfits and flirts shamelessly with yet another Indian cousin, fresh from Australia for the big event. Add the bride's chunky younger brother who enjoys cooking shows and dancing. (What's the deal with him, you wonder?) For comic relief, there is skinny, fast talking P.K. Dube, the upwardly-mobile tent-and-catering contractor who falls hard and fast for the innocent young household maid Alice (Tilotama Shome).
When a film is ambitious enough to juggle so many plot lines, the filmmaker takes the risk of keeping each story equally fresh and compelling. The audience seemed to enjoy the comedic love affair of the wedding planner and the maid but I found myself inwardly groaning. I longed for more of the conflicted bride, Aditi , with her her pretty face, short hair, and her inscrutable choice for an arranged marriage. What a let down it is, however, when Aditi is finally allowed her big moment and you find out that she simply can't act. (Vaaundhara Das is a popular Bollywood recording star, and this was her first feature film). Equally painful is watching esteemed actor Naseeruddin Shah deliver such shabby lines as: "I'm falling. Hold me." Oh, the melodrama. Fortunately, Shefali Shetty is a fine actress. When her moment comes to reveal her secret (which any attentive person will see coming a million miles away), it works.