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Father of the bride

India's Monsoon Wedding explores something old, something new


If Satyajit Ray became India's spiritual grandfather by imbuing the country's cinema with profundity and artfulness, Mira Nair is the country's second-generation teenager, full of pop culture savvy and enthralled by rediscovering the country of her birth.

Educated at both Delhi University and Harvard, Nair speaks to that split East/West consciousness in all of her films: Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, and Kama Sutra. Like other Nair efforts, her most recent film Monsoon Wedding is fascinated by the paradoxes of modern India, surveying with joy and skepticism its steadfast tradition and also its TV and music-defined globalism.

Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), the flustered daddy at the center of the film, typifies that predicament as he prepares for his daughter's wedding in a flurry of emotional and financial tension. A film about family values in the best sense of the words, Monsoon Wedding takes place at the moment Verma's family is dispersing, as this bourgeois New Delhi father realizes the sanctity of kin.

In an India torn between the folk ways of chaste brides and arranged marriages and the neo-global community of porn and fast food, the Verma family is immersed in the nearly universal pressure cooker where the new and the ancient meet: a traditional wedding, staged in non-traditional times.

This collision of old and new is embodied in the family's wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz), a hyperactive beanpole with a Play-Doh mien that molds into a face-eating smile when he's not growling at his under-motivated workers. With his polka dot ascot and perpetually consulted cell phone, Dube exemplifies the grasping, anxious and pathos-laden faith in capitalism as a means of escaping poverty.

Verma supervises the preparations for a garden wedding at the height of monsoon season, keeping one eye on Dube and the other on his wallet as he engages in the perennial wedding predicament of escalating costs. You can almost hear the gastric acid bubbling in his guts as he sits on the edge of his bed in his underwear and nervously surveys his accounts.

Though Monsoon Wedding opens in a Robert Altman/James Brooks puree of slapstick wedding preparations, the film fortunately crafts something more thoughtful out of the mania. From beneath the animated surface rises Nair's larger message of family as the one tradition and ancient way worth preserving in a fast-paced new world.

The silliness and merry-making become complicated as the wedding day draws near. Dark secrets are revealed, allegiances shift, family solidarity is called into question and a sidebar romance develops between wedding planner Dube and the Vermas' shy housemaid Alice (Tilotama Shome), who sees promise beneath Dube's Don Knotts goofiness.

Far from a one-note doofus, Dube is shown leaving the relative splendor of the Vermas' and returning to the sad, miniscule apartment he shares with his bleating, complaining mother. Like a man gulping for fresh air, he escapes to his apartment rooftop where he gazes up at Delhi's nighttime sky and the hundreds of kites bobbing in the air. Thinking of Alice, his own dreams of happiness soar up in the sky with them. A puny, forgettable lost soul -- just one amidst the country's masses -- Dube provides Nair's venture into the country's class divisions (also seen in the documentary-like surveys of the city's chaotic streets), where cruel, abysmal poverty exists side by side with the Verma family's middle-class oasis.

But the Verma family has its own existential worries. With every emotional nerve ending exposed by the imminent wedding, Verma clings to hopes of his own. Watching his sleeping, grown-up daughter and niece -- one about to leave home for good -- he tells his wife, "Sometimes when I look at them I feel love which I cannot bear."

All anyone wants in Monsoon Wedding is the thin hope any wedding rests on: a slice of happiness. And when Nair delivers the film's hokey but cathartic and ecstatic final scene, there's a feeling of splendid release and gratitudeas she lets happiness rain down upon these people.

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