Think of Monsoon Wedding as a Punjabi adaptation of The Osbournes. Or the most unabashedly joyous, everyone-talks-at-once movie that Robert Altman (Gosford Park) never made. Or perhaps a pretty straightforward Indian remake of Father of the Bride, with a flower-eating wedding planner named P.K. taking the Martin Short role.
Think anything you like. Just don't pass on this boisterous comedy from Mira Nair, the Indian director of Mississippi Masala. She has made one of those universally adored films - not unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life is Beautiful, or Y Tu Mama Tambien - where the geography and accent might be unique to an audience but the sense of humor will be familiar. It's as much of India as it is of Hollywood.
The film is a whirl of motion and color, overflowing with life. It's Nair's tribute to Bollywood, but done her way. Bollywood is the nickname of Bombay's movie industry, the world's largest. Bollywood's specialty is colorful soap operas where characters burst into song and a few story lines are endlessly recycled. Monsoon Wedding is like this, but the songs and dancing are handled realistically, appearing as they might in life.
The film is about a family preparing in the days before a mammoth wedding. Characters and subplots drop in and out so quickly, we fight to keep up.
In no particular order, the film hits us with: torrential rains, Day-Glo colors, cooking shows, dancing, golf, hearts made of marigolds, maids, family traumas, electronica, feasts, marching bands, people speaking three languages at once, discussion of hot Indian-American novelists, and, naturally, frazzled fathers.
But Nair's hand is so sure (like Altman's, in a way), we soon understand who's who and what's what. First we meet the bride-to-be, Aditi (Vasundhara Das). Losing patience with the married man she is having an affair with, she agrees to an arranged marriage.
Then she is not sure she wants to be married. Her father, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), is worried about the cost of the wedding. He's screaming at P.K. (Vijay Raaz), who is screaming back that if Lalit wants more material for the wedding tent, then more money is needed. In the bathroom, Lalit's wife, Pimmi (Lillette Dubey), is sneaking a smoke, waving her arms to fan the fumes. And guests are arriving hourly, from Australia, and the bridegroom, Hemant (Parvin Dabas), is due any minute from Houston.
You get dizzy and lose yourself in their lives. The plot, more or less, is watching the wedding come together and fall apart and come together. Happy and chaotic, Nair's film seems to be everywhere at once, showing you everything at the same time.
There's intrigue about whether the arranged couple will like each other, and another story line about a family friend who molested one of the older cousins. But these feel forced in to give the story gravity, and Nair is more interested in the lighter dramas: Will P.K. win the heart of the family's maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome)? Will Aditi's cousin (Neha Dubey) hook up with Rahul (Randeep Hooda), the club-hopper in sunglasses? And how much will everything cost? Lalit keeps asking P.K. for a price. P.K. names it, then follows up with his favorite phrase: “Exactly and approximately.”
Everyone speaks English, but the lines dip in and out of Punjabi and Hindi and various dialects with a rushing cadence that's charming, not confusing. When Lalit addresses his nephew as “No. 1 stupid duffer,” it's jumbled but dead-on.
So an Osbournes comparison isn't far off. Like that MTV hit, Monsoon Wedding handles both universal truths and stays rooted to a specific place. Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and their brood are Brits uprooted to Los Angeles. They are fully indoctrinated into the shopping culture, but never forget their birthright to curse like Cockney sailors. And beneath the cheery surface of Nair's film are similar issues, how tradition and progress mingle today, and how the world gets smaller every moment.
What could be more universal than P.K., the wedding planner, falling to his knees and praying one minute, then climbing scaffolding the next, looking for a sweet spot in New Delhi's cell phone reception?