An arranged marriage convenes the members of two far-flung clans, who experience joy, sadness, and a dash of scandal: There’s just no way to summarize Monsoon Wedding without making it sound like Mira Nair’s corniest movie. (Well, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love was corny, too, but in a mythic sort of way.) Certainly this family dramedy has little of the bite of Nair’s feature debut, Salaam Bombay!, the tale of a young boy surviving alone on some of the world’s meanest streets. Still, the film is a pleasure if you let yourself be carried away by the music, color, and pageantry. That’s clearly what Nair did.
Monsoon Wedding is set in Delhi, the city where Nair attended college and where her parents and brothers now reside. These days, she lives in New York and teaches at Columbia, where she met the movie’s scripter, Sabrina Dhawan, a Delhi native studying at the university. Their twain-have-met circumstances are reflected in the plot: Houston-based computer engineer Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas) returns to his native India to marry the woman his family has selected, innocent-looking Aditi Verma (pop singer Vasundhara Das). It’s not just Hemant’s Texas address that’s untraditional, however. The not-quite-virginal Aditi has agreed to the union because she’s become convinced that her married lover, the host of sleazy TV talk show Delhi.com, will never leave his wife.
Most of the action transpires on the affluent side of the digital divide. When event planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) starts erecting the tent for the monsoon-season nuptials, he’s surrounded by almost as many pagers and cell phones as marigolds, the traditional flower for Indian weddings. Absently noshing on the blossoms, P.K. is the sort of weedy, working-class buffoon common in Indian comedies, although he’s been transformed by the times into a nouveau-not-quite-riche hustler. What happens to P.K. is typical of the film’s strategy: He starts as comic relief but then becomes a more complicated (if still two-dimensional) figure when he falls madly in love with Alice (Tilotama Shome), the Verma family’s shy maid.
Other people, other problems. Although he’s a member of the prosperous Punjabi community that also spawned Nair, Aditi’s father, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), can’t really afford the elaborate wedding. One of the bride’s uncles, Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor), is particularly generous, but Lalit can’t help but notice the distrust for Tej felt by his niece Ria (Shefali Shetty), an aspiring writer bound for America whom Lalit considers a surrogate daughter. Among the smaller of the many subplots include a teenager’s crush on a young man who’s returned from Australia for the wedding and Lalit’s alarm that Aditi’s younger brother would reject boarding school in favor of cooking and Bollywood song and dance.
Nair uses the latter interest as one excuse to interject music and dance into the film. Although she forgoes the capricious song cues of Bollywood musicals, the director includes more than a dozen songs, from traditional tunes sung by cast members to house- and dub-inflected tracks from Indo-Brit producer-mixer Bally Sagoo. The musical moments lead—after an inevitable if unconvincing family showdown—to the ceremony itself, an exuberant swirl of red and gold in the pouring rain complete with a marching band.
Monsoon Wedding was filmed by Leaving Las Vegas and Kama Sutra veteran Declan Quinn with a handheld Super 16 mm camera, which gives the action a loose feel and allowed Nair to shoot the movie “in 30 days without spending millions.” Although most of the scenes are set in an upscale Delhi home—with members of Nair’s family as extras—the film is most alive when it hits the streets, capturing a richer, more random urban tapestry. Nair has dedicated Monsoon Wedding to her family, but India itself upstages the movie’s filial melodrama every chance it gets.
Remember that nice British comedy about the gardener who’s sent to prison, where the horticulturally minded warden insists that the new inmate lead his fellow prisoners to garden-show glory? Mean Machine mucks up Greenfingers’ flowery premise by turning it into a tale of football—not U.S. football, of course, but rather the sport known over here as soccer.
Officially, director Barry Skolnick and scripters Charlie Fletcher, Chris Baker, and Andy Day bill this as a remake of The Longest Yard, but it’s not likely that the flick’s target audience—the young, mostly working-class macho men known in Britain as “lads”—recall that 1974 Burt Reynolds vehicle. They’re more likely to associate the movie with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, the Tarantino-goes-to-the-UK action-comedies directed by Mean Machine executive producer Guy Ritchie and featuring Mean Machine stars Vinnie Jones, a notorious British football player, and Jason Statham, an actor who specializes in what the British call “hard men.”
Jones’ Mean Machine character is nearly a self-portrait: Danny Meehan, a rebellious-without-a-cause footballer who gets banned from the sport for throwing a game and then sent to the pen for drunk driving. There he’s offered the chance to coach an inmates’ squad in a game against the guards, whose amateur team is the pride of head guard Burton (Ralph Brown) and the prison governor (David Hemmings), who’s in deep to a bookie. Danny is counseled by lifer Doc (David Kelly, who played the exact same role in Greenfingers); supported by Massive (Vas Blackwood), the token hip black Brit; and undermined by grass (that’s British for “fink”) Nitro (Stephen Walters). Danny’s star recruit is Monk (Statham), a psychopathic mass murderer who doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy once he’s released from solitary to play goalie.
Lads will be lads, so Mean Machine offers no surprises, from its self-satisfied brutality (mostly played for laughs) to its musical cues when the cons and guards practice (jazz for the former; classical for the latter). There’s lots of local color, including the Wiseguys, Robbie Williams, and Sigue Sigue Sputnik tunes on the soundtrack, but you could set this story just about anywhere and it would still seem tired. CP