March 30, 2020
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The Low-Brow High Art

The Low-Brow High Art
The Low-Brow High Art
Mira Nair's India in Monsoon Wedding turns out to be a Punjabi-posh "farmhouse", populated with a family caught up in the madness of wedding preparations. A pandal rises, relatives pour in from every quarter of the globe and sign of the zodiac, Dad (played by Naseeruddin Shah) has cash-flow problems: in other words, a straightforward Punjabi wedding is being enacted.

But, just a minute—there's also a stirring of darker matters under the orders for Black Label scotch and lethal nuptial fare. Also, virtually on the eve of the mehndi and sangeet, the bride hairs off into a rainstorm with nasty Other Guy. These are only two of no less than five separate stories that Nair and scriptwriter Sabrina Dhawan have woven together without ever confusing us with abundance of character, or diminishing our interest in any one strand. Here, in fact, is one of the most successful features of the film. It is a seamless tapestry, all the more fascinating because, like handicraft, it is authentic.

Authenticity is the prime characteristic of two other elements in the film, the casting and the performances. "Ensemble" is a word much bandied about in the context of filmic playing these days, but here is an example both good and true. Naseeruddin Shah gives a finely observed and moving portrayal of the familiar, mixed-up, hilarious Lalit Verma, archetype of all Punjabi fathers marrying off a well-loved daughter. Lillette Dubey is his entirely credible, sexy, bustling spouse. Tilotama Shome and Vijay Raaz play out a touching counterpoint of the film's main boy-girl tale. Vasundhara Das is the girl at the heart of the matter and Shefali Shetty is the unmarried cousin with a smothered, troubling memory.

With Monsoon, Nair brings to a quintessentially Indian subject an art that she has matured in exotic successes like Mississippi Masala and The Perez Family. She also comes home again—to revel in material she knows from the inside. Finally, she shows masterfully how such material can be fashioned into a crowd-pleaser that is also an artistic conquest. Welcome home, in the best sense, Mira Nair!
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