Henna & Hip-Hop
India hits the 21st century in Mira
Nair's technicolor culture clash
By Sean Axmaker

MONSOON WEDDING. Directed by Mira Nair. Written by Sabrina Dhawan. Produced by Caroline Baron, Mira Nair. Executive producers, Caroline Kaplan, Jonathan Sehring. Cinematography, Declan Quinn. Production design, Stephanie Carroll. Editor, Allyson C. Johnson. Costumes, Arjun Bhasin. Music, Mychael Danna. Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome, Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dabas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kamini Khanna. USA Films/IFC Productions, 2001. Rated R. 114 minutes.

The wedding party in Monsoon Wedding is full of sparkle and,
India's Mira Nair headed for Hollywood after her social realist debut drama Salaam Bombay and turned out some interesting perspectives on the cultural soup simmering in the American melting pot. The bright, bubbly, ambitious culture clash comic drama Monsoon Wedding takes her back home to marry her Hollywood chops with the local movie traditions.    

Imagine Father of the Bride by way of Robert Altman's A Wedding transplanted to modern Delhi, a world where marriages are arranged by cell phone and young Indian women tenuously strike a balance between cultural expectations and professional careers with the help of advice from Cosmopolitan. Yet for all of its infectious energy and passionate splashes of glowing color, the busy spectacle, melodramatic subplots, and driving pace of Monsoon Wedding has more in common with Hollywood's Technicolor movie fantasies than the so-square-it's-hip Bollywood musical Nair claims to be taking into the 21st century.

Bride-to-be Aditi (pouty, dewy-eyed Vasundhara Das) has agreed to marry a nice Indian boy (Parvin Dabas). Torn between fears of the future (a husband she hasn't met who has made a home in Houston, Texas) and frustrations of the past, Adita impulsively tries to squeeze in one last clinch with her married, TV-producer lover, a selfish careerist who has no intention of leaving his wife.

Meanwhile father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah) is practically tearing out his hair as he juggles the flood of family and friends who converge on his opulent estate home and argues over spiraling costs with wedding contractor Dubey (Vijay Raaz), a double-talking shyster whose big-shot facade slips away when he falls in love at first sight with Lalit's dreamy, shrinking violet maid Alice (Tilotama Shome).

Nair weaves a bustling set of subplots through their stories. The most interesting involves Ria (Shefali Shetty), an older single cousin whose repressed emotional wound is torn open when she spies an old family friend getting uncomfortably friendly with a little niece. The undercurrent of abuse is muted (to keep it from overwhelming the lightweight framework around it, perhaps) but the issue builds to the film's most moving dramatic moment. Far less serious strands follow a westernized son from Australia whose hip-hop ways get a jolt from a gorgeous family friend who tries to teach some local moves, a tubby young son more interested in cooking shows and Bollywood dance numbers than sports and schoolwork, and more. Perhaps too much more; the sprawling extended family becomes a confusing tangle of relationships difficult to grasp.

Blushing bride Aditi and long-suffering dad Lalit get swamped by the livelier cast around them, in particular Vijay Raaz's Dubey. The hustling businessman who distractedly munches on the marigolds when he's not barking into his cell phone (in three languages, no less) reveals his hidden loneliness and disappointment in a delicate scene at his urban apartment home. He starts the film as the hyena-like comic relief and ends up its most romantic figure.

Spread thin across the two hours, Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan sacrifice depth of character for breadth of cast and substitute busyness for complexity. The weave jumps with color, but the designs are awfully familiar and the material threadbare. Yet Nair shines in her confident control of the colors: the smooth, super-saturated photography by American Declan Quinn, the jumping, high-energy music by Mychael Danna, the vibrant art direction and costumes (and the lovely henna web painted across the hand of the bride), the mix of technology and tradition. Even the dance numbers worked into the film create a portrait of another culture both foreign and familiar.

Perhaps it's not so far from the innocence of Bollywood's simple, sprawling melodramas after all. There's more plot crammed into this two hours than any three-hour Indian musical I've ever seen, but even in the age of the Internet, satellite TV, and the international export of American culture, the modern flair of Nair's characters is just their way of preserving their heritage in the bustle of 21st century.

Sean Axmaker writes about movies for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and DVDs for the Internet Movie Database.

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Films open the Friday following date of EW publication unless otherwise noted.

Changing Lanes: Starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson, this is a story about two men who meet in a minor car accident and set out to destroy each other's lives. Directed by Roger Mitchell and produced by Scott Rudin. R. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Collateral Damage: Andrew Davis's film about a firefighter who loses his wife and son in a L.A. terrorist attack stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elias Koteas, Francesca Neri, John Leguizamo and John Turturro. R. Movies 12. See review.

Crossroads: Britney Spears and two childhood friends hit the road together and learn a lot about life. PG 13. Movies 12.

Festival in Cannes: An insider's look at the Cannes festival, directed by Henry Jaglom, this fictional documentary-like show follows different character lines through the prestigious event. PG 13. Bijou.

Frailty: Matthew McConaughey stars as a man who suspects his brother is a serial killer. Bill Paxton plays their fanatical dad, who during their childhood believed God had sent him to destroy demons on Earth. Bill Paxton also directs. R. Cinemark.

Other Side of Heaven, The: Christopher Gorham stars as a young missionary sent to Tongan, and Anne Hathaway is the sweetheart he leaves behind. She writes him letters and helps keep his spirits up. Not actually created by the Church of Latter Day Saints, it's more of a story of missionaries in general. PG. Cinemark.

Sweetest Thing, The: Looking for love on the road, Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate star in this romantic comedy. Thomas Jane stars as Mr. Right, directed by Roger Kumble. R. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Beautiful Mind, A: Inspired by the true story of a mathematical genius whose great discovery came early in his career, Ron Howard's film stars Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly. Won Academy Awards for supporting actress, directing, best picture, and writing. Highly recommended. PG-13. Cinemark. See review.

Big Trouble: Barry Sonnenfield directs Tim Allen, Renee Russo and a host of other recognizable names in this Elmore Leonardesque comedy based on Dave Barry's first novel. PG 13. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Blade 2: Directed by Guillermo del Toro, who also directed Devil's Backbone. But there the resemblance ends. Wesley Snipes stars in this vampire horror flick. R. Cinemark.

Clockstoppers: Johnathan Frakes directs this teen movie about a boy who finds a way to stop time. Starring Jessie Bradford, French Stewart and Paula Garces. PG. Cinemark.Cinema World.

ET, The Extra-Terrestrial: 20th Anniversary: Beloved classic story of a boy and his alien friend, with subtly new footage and digitally remixed music. PG. Cinemark. See review.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Utterly faithful to J.K. Rowling's book. Stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane and more. Directed by Chris Columbus. PG. Movies 12. See review.

High Crimes: Ashley Judd plays a woman who finds out her husband is not who he claimed to be. She and Morgan Freedman must defend him from being framed by the military. PG 13. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Ice Age: Chris Wedge directs the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, and Goran Vizjnic in this digitally animated story of prehistoric creatures trying to save a human child. PG. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius: Animated tale of an inventive 10-year old boy and his robot dog who live in a world where wishes come true. Jimmy wishes his parents would disappear. When all the parents disappear, Jimmy and his pals have to bring them back. G. Movies 12.

John Q: Denzel Washington, father of a boy who needs an organ transplant, does desperate things. With Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise, Ray Liotta. PG-13. Movies 12.

Lantana: Anthony LaPaglia plays a cop with a midlife crisis in this Australian film about middle age and alienation. Also Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey and Kerry Armstrong. R. Bijou. See review.

Last Orders: Four old friend's story is retold during their journey to sprinkle the ashes of one into the sea. Set in England, starring Michael Cain, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings and Tom Courtenay. R. Bijou.

Lord of the Rings, The: The Fellowship of the Ring: The first book in J. R. R. Tolkien's literary trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson stars Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee. Academy Award winner for cinematography, makeup, and visual effects. Highest recommendations. PG-13. Cinemark. See review.

Monsoon Wedding: As a Punjabi family in Delhi gathers for a wedding celebration, traditional and contemporary culture mix. Created by Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), staring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey and others. R. Bijou. See review.

Monster's Ball: Marc Forster's highly acclaimed, powerful drama about a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who falls in love with the widow (Halle Berry, Academy Award winner for Best Actress) of a recently executed Death Row convict. Filmed on location at infamous Louisiana penitentiary in Angola, picture also stars Heath Ledger and Peter Boyle. R. Cinemark.

Mothman Prophecies: Richard Gere, Debra Messing, Laura Linney, Will Patton and Alan Bates star in this tale of the supernatural based on events chronicled in John A. Keel's book. PG-13. Movies 12.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder: In the classic tradition of Lampoon movies, Walt Becker directs this comedy about graduation. Staring Ryan Reynolds and Tara Reid. R. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Ocean's Eleven: Steven Soderbergh's remake stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Andy Garcia. This gang plans to hit several Las Vegas casinos on the same night. Soderbergh never disappoints. PG-13. Movies 12.

Orange Country: Colin Hanks and Jack Black star in Jake Kasdan's teen comedy about a transcript mix-up. PG-13. Movies 12.

Others, The: A haunted Victorian mansion, a rigid and icy mother (Nicole Kidman) and two special kids who see things makes this one of the scariest movies made, critics say. Directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar with style, it's very highly recommended. PG-13. Movies 12. See review.

Panic Room: David Fincher directs Jodie Foster, Forrest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam in this creepy thriller about a woman and her daughter stuck in a room in their own home. R. Cinemark. Cinema World

Rookie, The: Dennis Quaid stars as baseball coach who makes a deal with his team and ends up trying out for a minor league contract. Also with Rachel Griffiths. G. Cinemark. Cinema World.

Royal Tenenbaums, The: Wes Anderson directs this critically acclaimed film that looks at a family of geniuses who turn out to be simply neurotic. Stars Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover and Bill Murray. AFI Award: Hackman. Academy noms to Anderson and Wilson's screenplay. Much sweeter on second seeing. Highest recommendations. R. Movies 12. See review.

Snow Dogs: Brian Levant directs Cuba Gooding Jr. in this Disney tale of a man who goes to Alaska to claim his inheritance -- a team of sled dogs with their own minds. With James Coburn, M. Emmet Walsh and Graham Greene. PG. Movies 12.

Super Troopers: Five Vermont State Troopers with not enough to do create havoc on the highway. Written by and starring a five-man comedy troupe, Broken Lizard. R. Movies 12.

Vanilla Sky: Cameron Crowe directs this erotic thriller starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee and Timothy Spall. Highly recommended. R. Movies 12. See review.

Walk to Remember, A: Shane West and Mandy Moore star in this adaptation of a best-seller. Directed by Adam Shankman. PG. Movies 12.

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Man Who Wasn't There, The: Ethan and Joel Coen's latest film is a black-and-white beauty. Stars Billy Bob Thornton as a small town barber in an existential crisis who makes all the wrong decisions trying to change his life. Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Scarlett Johansson and Tony Shalhoub are also excellent. A slow-paced crime story that's a cut above other pulp wares, Thornton's mesmerizing performance resonates. R.

Black Knight: Martin Lawrence stars in Gil Junger's comedy about a theme park called Medieval World with a portal that opens into England of the 1300s. You know who crawls through and has to live by his wits. PG-13.

Domestic Disturbance: In Harold Becker's drama, John Travolta discovers that his ex-wife's new husband is a con man, and Travolta's 11-year old son has seen him murder someone. Also stars Vince Vaughn, Teri Polo and Matthew O'Leary. PG-13.

Deep End, The: Scott McGehee and David Siegel's excellent thriller stars the fabulous Tilda Swinton as a resourceful suburban housewife. Jonathan Tucker plays her gay son, whom she's trying to protect, and Goran Visnjic is a blackmailer who falls for her. Highest recommendations. R.

Paragraph 175: Opening film at UO Queer Film Festival, now is your chance to catch it on video. NR.

Next week: Behind Enemy Lines, Novocaine, Metropolis, My First Mister, and The Learning Curve.

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