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[whitespace] 'Monsoon Wedding'
Secret Crush: Alice (Tilotama Shome, foreground), the family maid, wants to marry wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) in 'Monsoon Wedding.'

Arranged Chaos

Mira Nair's 'Monsoon Wedding' juggles subplot upon subplot in tale of Indian marriage

By Jim Aquino

I ALWAYS VOWED never to use that favorite cliché of critics when they praise films that juggle different genres or plots (for example, almost every Robert Altman movie): "The film is the cinematic equivalent of that guy who would spin plates on The Ed Sullivan Show." Unfortunately, I'm going to have to break my promise because that tired statement best describes Mira Nair's exuberant Monsoon Wedding.

Centering on a young woman's arranged wedding in a modernized Delhi, Monsoon Wedding juggles different stories involving the reluctant bride (Vashundhara Das) and her relatives--and does it with the craft and panache of an Altman or a Soderbergh. There's even an Altmanesque fixation on class conflict: the bride's middle-class father, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), is trying to throw a ceremony so lavish it's just bound to clean him out, while the Verma family's shy maid (Tilotama Shome) longs for a wedding she can't have because of her economic status.

However, class isn't as deeply explored as it is in Gosford Park. Nair is more interested in delving into assimilation, generational differences, and the patriarchy and misogyny in Indian society. Her exploration of these topics is what keeps the film from turning frothy (there's even a dramatic subplot about a pedophilic family friend, which Nair handles quite well).

In fact, some of the movie's various plots are already quite frothy. Aditi, the bride, is trying to conceal an affair with a slimy and very married Delhi talk-show host (Sameer Arya), but then she realizes maybe her groom (Parvin Dabas), who works as an engineer in Houston and wants an Indian bride, isn't too shabby. A completely Westernized younger relative (Randeep Hooda) learns to appreciate Indian culture more when he falls for one of Aditi's friends, the slinky dancer at the reception (sexy Neha Dubey). Alice the maid has a crush on P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz), the stern wedding planner, whose irritable veneer gradually slips as he gets to know Alice.

But Nair does wonders with these rather routine subplots, particularly the one involving P.K., an ascot-wearing, wiry taskmaster who is rarely seen without barking orders to some poor underling over a cell phone and takes his job way too seriously. Think Barney Fife as an Indian wedding coordinator (screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan even saddles him with an unhappy and lonely home life, complete with a nagging mother).

P.K. is so business-minded that when he first awkwardly makes small talk with Alice, he ends the conversation by giving her his business card as if she were a client. Raaz imbues P.K. with one strange and memorable quirk: a flower-eating fetish. His character's story, in which he finds himself becoming the unlikely center of his own fairy-tale romance, is actually more interesting than Aditi's.

Like much of Indian cinema, Monsoon Wedding is filled with musical numbers. Although cinematographer Declan Quinn shoots the movie like a documentary, he manages to make the musical sequences look clear and inviting, unlike what Lars von Trier did with Dancer in the Dark (100 digital cameras, and he put them all in the wrong places). The characters constantly break into group sing-alongs that are more like the "Say a Little Prayer" sequence in My Best Friend's Wedding than the elaborate numbers in traditional Bollywood musicals.

Reminiscent of the work of Indian breakbeat artists like Badmarsh + Shri, the stunning score is provided by Mychael Danna, who regularly collaborates with director Atom Egoyan. The film climaxes with an infectious sequence in which the wedding guests dance in the rain to a club tune that mixes traditional Indian instruments with electronica flourishes, in keeping with the film's theme of the juxtaposition of old and new traditions.

The cleverest moments are little throw-away gags that riff on that theme of modernization. During a scene at a Delhi golf course, a line of basket-carrying older women in traditional head wraps can be glimpsed walking in the background. We're even treated to a funny clip from Aditi's lover's talk show, an odd 21st-century Indian version of Nightline called Delhi.com, in which the guest is a porno-movie voice-over artist asked to demonstrate her dubbing technique. Monsoon Wedding is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and sometimes, as in those throw-away satirical moments, the brain.

Monsoon Wedding (R; 114 min.), directed by Mira Nair, written by Sabrina Dhawan, photographed by Declan Quinn and starring Vasundhara Das and Vijay Raaz, opens Friday at Camera One and Century 25 in San Jose and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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