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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002

Go on, feast your eyes on this

Monsoon Wedding

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Mira Nair
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: English, Hindi and Punjabi
Opens Aug. 17 at Le Cinema in Shibuya

As anyone who has cooked Indian cuisine can tell you, the secret is in getting the spices right. Your masala, or blend of spices, has to be just so, and it's a subtle art, more a matter of instinct than precise measurements. Done well, your cardamom, cumin and cloves will fuse into a delicious whole; blow it, and one taste will overwhelm the others, and you'd better pray it's not the chili.

News photo
Vasundhara Das (second from left) in Miro Nair's "Monsoon Wedding"

I don't know whether or not Mira Nair can make a decent chana masala (though I suspect she can), but with "Monsoon Wedding" she's proved that she can rustle up one hell of a masala movie. Working on the fly -- the film was shot in just one month -- she threw in all the ingredients at hand: the extravagant gala of a Punjabi-style wedding, the joy and conflict of family bonds, and the tensions between traditional and modern India.

Eschewing any cinematic "recipe" (i.e. formula), she spiced her film liberally with laughter and tears, romance and song, and stuffed it with a cast big enough to fill every branch of a family tree. The result is the most delicious, satisfying film you'll partake of this summer.

"Monsoon Wedding" also marks a welcome return to form for India's most noted expat director. After floundering with "Kama Sutra" -- a gorgeous but hollow piece of period fluff -- Nair has returned to her realist roots, which is what she was first noted for with her moving verite look at Indian street kids, "Salaam Bombay!" which took the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1988. As such, "Monsoon Wedding" literally soars with the enthusiasm of a filmmaker who has cast off the weight of commercially tailored projects to do exactly what she wants and nothing else.

For Nair, the idea was to give a rough portrait of the India she knows, an India in flux, where social and sexual mores are shifting quickly, and tradition scrambles to accommodate; "cell phones and henna," as she puts it. But most of all, "Monsoon Wedding" is a love story and one that's damn near irresistible at that.

The film drops us into the mad preparations of a wedding in New Delhi. As relatives from far and wide descend on the Verma household, patriarch Lalit (veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah) is having fits trying to get everything finished -- and financed -- in time. His daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) is to be wed by arranged marriage to Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas), a computer engineer living in the United States.

Lalit is so busy venting on the somewhat lax wedding planner, P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz), that he fails to notice his daughter's anxiety; she has just broken off an affair with her married boss Vikram (Sameer Arya), a TV host, and she's having second thoughts about the whole thing.

Then there's Aditi's cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), a strong-willed young woman who seems unusually disturbed when her somewhat-too-suave Uncle Tej (Rajat Kapoor) arrives. Dubey, meanwhile, beneath his hard-nosed businessman veneer, is a softy who melts at the sight of the family maid, Alice (Tilotama Shome). From that point on, he's a smitten, lovesick suitor, a reversal played to great comic effect by Raaz, who has a face that rises and drops with his moods like a roller coaster.

Of course these are only a few of the many stories that fade in and out of the mix in this sprawling ensemble piece.

Nair weaves tales out of the chaos and many, many characters with a skill that rivals the best of Robert Altman (1978's "A Wedding" springs to mind), although her film feels more truly anarchic and less composed. Besides that, her view of human nature is a lot warmer than Altman's frosty cynicism.

Shot mostly on hand-held cameras -- not shaky, thanks to the steady hand of Declan Quinn -- "Monsoon Wedding" sucks you in with a delirious immediacy, placing you in the middle of ricocheting conversations, staged pseudo-Bollywood dance routines, raging arguments and quiet, meaningful glances. The acting is mostly transparent, the cast really comes off as a bickering, loving family, and Nair's themes are subtly insinuated. Scripted films rarely seem so impromptu.

Literally bursting with color -- all lustrous marigolds, vibrant saris and light-strung gardens -- "Monsoon Wedding" boasts a visual opulence that belies its low-budget origins.

But Nair's secret weapon is the soundtrack, featuring an unabashedly romantic original score by Mychael Danna ("The Ice Storm," "Exotica") and a choice selection of Indian tracks, from Bollywood classics like "Chunari Chunari" to modern dub-wise grooves from the Midival Pundits.

When this all comes together -- performance, camerawork, lighting and music -- like in a scene where Dubey proposes to Alice under a yellow marigold umbrella as the monsoon rains pour down, it's impossible not to be swept away.

Nair may differ from Bollywood filmmakers in that she's dealing with reality, not fantasy, but she understands that the emotional pull, as with all Indian art, is everything.

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