The Big Bash Theory

Mira Nair's new comic melodrama Monsoon Wedding opens with a shot of a frowning man trying to prop up a traditional Indian marigold bower, then flits straight to his agitated cordless-phone conversation with a clownish "event manager." As we soon learn, the frowning man is Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a well-to-do New Delhi suburbanite, and the event is the arranged marriage of his only daughter to an engineer who lives in Houston. Within seconds, the underlying theme of this likable if somehow scatterbrained movie -- the fusion and occasional confusion of ancient and modern, local and global, solemn and silly -- has already been established.

The director and her screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan are, if anything, too up-front about their mix-and-match motif. They render it blunter than it need be, as they push just a little too hard to make the bourgeois Verma family absolutely typical of their class and culture. The film teeters on the edge of upbeat sociology. "Just because India has gone global," wonders a guest on a TV talk show in an early scene, "should we embrace everything?"

Luckily, though, Monsoon Wedding has a heart as big as its concept is high -- and Nair's own answer to that 64,000-rupee question is neither dogmatic nor especially neat. An Indian-born, Harvard-educated, Hollywood-and-European-film-festival-embraced Punjabi, Nair calls cross-fertilized Delhi home, and her movie comprises nothing short of an ode to its particular brand of freewheeling hybridization. Her characters wear saris today, blue jeans tomorrow, careening with casual cheer and no apparent neurosis in and out of languages. (In the course of a single sentence, they might switch from English to Hindi and back again, and even a line uttered entirely in the native tongue will be punctuated with a lone colonial remnant like "fridge" or "old-fashioned.") So, too, they look unfazed as they move from singing century-old ghazals at a customary prenuptial henna ceremony to flipping through the latest issue of Cosmopolitan.

This peculiar coexistence of pre- and postmodern isn't just a matter of musical tastes and reading material. Aditi (Vasundhara Das), the pretty, green-eyed bride-to-be, has resigned herself to an arranged marriage after the failure of a prolonged affair with a married man. And her cousin, Ria (Shefali Shetty), is pestered at every turn by worried relatives who want to know why she isn't married yet. (She doesn't want to be.) The women, it's no great shock to learn, are often the ones left stranded at the crossroads between old and new.

Most of the younger Vermas have left or are planning to fly the Indian coop for the United States, Australia, and points beyond, yet Nair soft-pedals the more ominous implications of this common upper-crust Indian self-exile, which she herself has experienced firsthand. And though she admits to the yawning economic split that divides her native country -- she cuts every now and then to a teeming, dusty street scene that implies a whole universe beyond the posh, air-conditioned bubble in which the Verma family lives -- she also makes light of this gap. The movie features a vaudevillian subplot concerning a couple of working-class lovers. And at one especially improbable juncture, all the characters, servants and bosses alike, dance together in the rain.

But maybe such utopian boogying is as it should be. Severe subjects like exile and poverty have been central to Nair's earlier work. Her 1982 documentary So Far from India examined the problems faced by members of the Indian diaspora; and her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, offered a grimly lyrical portrait of a few of that city's impoverished street children and prostitutes. This time around she's more interested in celebrating the paradoxes of her own vibrantly scrambled social milieu than in analyzing them. (The script's single turn down a darker alleyway -- the almost perfunctory revelation of one character's sexual abuse as a child -- is in fact its one major misstep.)

Nair is working here according to what might be called the Big Bash Theory. According to the press notes that accompany the film, she made Monsoon Wedding as she might have thrown a tremendous party. For 30 days, she brought together a gifted cast of, as she puts it, "legendary actors, complete unknowns and members of my own family." Friends and relatives loaned furniture, costumes, and props, her mother cooked meals for the cast and crew, everyone did an hour of yoga together in the morning, lengthy improvisatory sessions took place, and -- when Nair felt that the revelers were ready to shoot -- cinematographer Declan Quinn wandered around with a light 16-millimeter camera and filmed the proceedings in nearly vérité style. The results have something of the bumpy, happy, unrehearsed frisson of actual wedding footage.

Nair calls Monsoon Wedding "a Bollywood movie, made on my own terms," and the picture -- which arrives on American screens flashing its Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and Golden Globe for best foreign film -- does offer a few deliberate nods at the tacky visual effects and bathetic narrative gestures that permeate commercial Indian productions. (See, for instance, the slo-mo, musically florid first encounter between the virginal serving girl and her hapless suitor-to-be.) For what it's worth, the movie also suggests several other, less homegrown sources of inspiration. In terms of its unpolished photographic texture, its naturalistic use of real locations, its limited time frame, and the specific skeletons that come tumbling from the Verma family closet in the course of the movie, Monsoon Wedding hews much closer to the shape and feel of one of the Danish Dogma movies than to any three-hour musical extravaganza shot on a Bombay soundstage.

Robert Altman's influence registers as well -- not just because of the film's obvious topical similarity to A Wedding (1978), but because Altman remains to this day the greatest of cinematic party-throwers: His casts take shape like terrific guest lists and even an essentially forgettable movie like Prêt-à-Porter or Cookie's Fortune is buoyed along by its air of carnival. Who, one always wonders while watching an Altman film, will enter next through the film's front door and subtly alter the dramatic air pressure? Nair's film bristles with a similar sense of impending excitement. It also wouldn't be a great stretch to see in Monsoon Wedding the traces of Italian family comedies of the 1970s, to say nothing of the sitcoms and soap operas from which Dhawan lifts her interwoven plot twists and from which the actors appear to have borrowed their occasionally ham-handed performing style.

But the hybridization of Nair's formal approach seems the logical extension of her perennial fascination with the jumbled identities of her characters, people she has described as being "on the edge, or outside, learning the language of being in between; dealing with the question of 'What, and where is home?'" In her early, independent work, this fascination led her to chronicle the stories of the marginal or downtrodden -- those sorry street urchins and prostitutes, as well as strippers, drug dealers, and women driven to abort their female fetuses because Indian society prefers male children. Later, as she began to make Hollywood movies, her tone brightened and her interest in the liminal took the form of several crowded, hot-weather comedies about complicated cultural intersections.

With the slight but winning Mississippi Masala, for instance, Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala plunk us deep down inside the deepest American South -- Greenwood, Mississippi -- where they set in motion a steamy affair between Demetrius, a laconic local carpet-cleaner played by Denzel Washington, and Mina (Sarita Choudhury), a strong-willed Indian woman, born in Uganda and raised in England, whose parents, Indian-African exiles, now run a motel. And in The Perez Family, adapted from a novel by Christine Bell, Nair pulls a cartoonish but amiable screwball comedy from the roiling Miami melting pot: Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and Italian-Americans all come together to form an unlikely yet loving makeshift clan.

In both of these commercial, English-language movies, Nair envelops her characters and settings in a wry yet forgiving sort of affection, often shooting the grittiest backdrop -- Mina's family's rundown motel, say -- in welcoming crayon shades, and letting even the least likable characters come around in the end. And while neither picture pushes very far beyond its formulaic feel-good outlines, each is made with a documentarist's soft spot for the real, the messy, the mixed-up.

Though Nair's last film, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, is a bona fide dud (I was not alone, I think, in wondering if she'd lost it with this arty bodice-ripper), it too focuses on the kind of internal contradiction that propels her better movies. In this case, however, it's not the characters who are juggling different identities but the movie itself. Ostensibly based on Vatsyayana's third-century erotic treatise, Kama Sutra lifts its luscious color scheme from a Great Mogul miniature and its dialogue from an airport paperback. And while it might have been fun as a purplish piece of camp trash -- the film features Ed Wood-worthy lines like "My Lotus Woman! I found her! I lust her!" -- Nair and her co-writer Helena Kriel take themselves and their soft porn much too seriously: In trying to create a pertinent, feminist rereading of the ancient book of love, they manage only to render it ludicrous.

Monsoon Wedding is, then, not just a return to form, to New Delhi, to comedy, and to the Hindi language. It's really Nair's most relaxed and personal concoction so far -- not, perhaps, a great work of art, but a strongly felt, richly realized entertainment, a tipsy toast to her home and the world.