The history of India is the history of colliding cultures--agrarian and industrial, male and female, national and imperial. Following its tenure as a subject of the British Empire, India's progress into modernity has been fraught with all manner of fascinating entanglements--beginning, of course, with its intractable caste system, but extending as far as its nuclear stalemate with Pakistan over Kashmir. It seems fair to say that the identity of this great and ancient nation is at least partially defined by conflicts between the identity it wants and the one history has thrust upon it.
It follows that the films of the extraordinarily talented Indian director Mira Nair are built upon bearing witness to Indian culture as it collides with its various antagonists. What distinguishes Nair's vision from other nationalistically-minded filmmakers is her understanding that no matter which culture represents the colliding "other," India's central conflict is internal.
In Mississippi Masala, Nair focuses on the collision of two marginal cultures: a community of expatriate Indian motel owners and working-class blacks in the American South. As it often does, the collision takes the form of a romance between a motel owner's daughter (Sarita Choudhury) and a local repairman played by Denzel Washington. The film's Romeo and Juliet trajectory seems obvious enough at first--outraged families on both sides trumped by the unvanquishable power of eros. But Nair has a remarkable knack for depicting the subtle erosion of human resolve under the weight of tradition and disapproval and the invisible ways that erosion sours the erotic impulse. In the end, love doesn't conquer in Mississippi Masala; its triumph requires capitulation on both sides.
Nair's cinematic adaptation of the Kama Sutra was similarly erotic-minded (duh) and similarly subversive in its portrayal of the inner conflict facing Indian cosmology. But the director's subtle strengths were somewhat lost within the opulent production design, flowing robes, and glowing skin--and to be fair, it's hard to imagine a film of the Kama Sutra being anything but lavish. It was clear that by treating such an ancient text, Nair was attempting to draw parallels with modern India (where ancient and modern are more closely linked than in any other culture in the world). It's a trick she pulls off far more gracefully in her latest film, which portrays an India so contemporary as to be virtually unrecognizable.
The collision at the heart of Monsoon Wedding is once again between India and modernity. The crucial difference is that in this smart and colorful film, modernity seems to be winning. The conflict lies in the reunion of a Punjabi family for the arranged marriage of Aditi (played by the simultaneously gorgeous and homely Vasundhara Das) and Hemant (the suave Parvin Dabas), who has returned to Delhi from America for the occasion, having never met his intended.
Naturally, a great deal of chaos surrounds the event, which is central to the configuration of Indian culture. In the center of this chaos stands the bride's father Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), who is, like all movie fathers of the bride, a seething mess of worry, expenditure, and pride. Unlike his cinematic antecedents, however, Lalit is a stand-in for more than the male wound. His paternal frustration is part of the continuum of India's passage into the modern age, which Nair underlines by surrounding the wedding's planning stages with discussions about dot-coms, cell phones, the stock market, and rap music. Of course, it doesn't help matters that Aditi is still having an affair with her married boyfriend; that her little brother seems to be a pansy; that her cousin was molested by the family's most benevolent uncle; and that the whole arrangement seems to be jeopardized by the shady huckster in charge of making everything happen. The interplay of all these crossed vectors does more than mobilize the plot--it also acts as a confounding agent for the outsider audience's expectations about India itself. We're not used to seeing India wrestle with the influences of technology and women's liberation--and we're certainly not used to seeing those influences prevail. They collide with the more familiar elements of Indian (movie) culture to create a charming hybrid of Bollywood and Robert Altman.
At first, it seems like Nair is just doing family drama. The film is stylish, brisk, witty, and beautifully filmed (marigolds are so vibrant they would leave bright orange dust on your fingers if you touched them). But within the patchwork of marriage melodrama, Monsoon Wedding presents a subversive argument about the insidiousness of progress and its fluid relationship with tradition. Of course, it all comes out right in the end, but in getting to its satisfying resolution, it passes through so many uncomfortable revelations and unthinkable confrontations that it almost feels like watching history unfold.