Mira Nair's new film is "Monsoon Wedding," a Robert Altman-like presentation of the many strands of life, love, wit and sorrow that twine together during the four days leading up to a big contemporary wedding in New Delhi. Nair, who now teaches film at Columbia, is best known here for the part-documentary "Salaam Bombay" and the American film "Mississippi Masala," which starred Denzel Washington.
Nair uses Altman-like overlappings and cross-cuttings to tell her stories; Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), father of the bride, has gone over his financial head in planning the extravaganza of this arranged marriage. Aditi (Vasundhara Das), his daughter and the bride-to-be, happens to be having an affair with a married TV talk-show host (the show is called Delhi-dot-com and in the episode we see his guest is a woman who demonstrates her phone sex technique). The groom, Hemant (Parvin Dabas) has come from Houston, which is where he expects to take Aditi after the wedding. He does not know about Aditi's affair. Meanwhile Aditi's cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), who has been raised with her, has secrets - sad secrets - of her own, which we will learn in the course of the film. While Lalit tries to borrow money from his rich friends to see him through the four days, the wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz), a sad man who is all façade over an empty life, a man who is addicted to eating the marigold blossoms that cascade over the entire wedding, falls in love with Alice, the maid of the house.
And so on. The film easily survives these clichés, some funny and some not so funny, because Nair knows when to pull back and allow unexpected wit, music, dance and romance (in its Mozartian sense) to take over the film. There are gorgeous songs, sung by the women of this extended family, and dances that make you want to run up into the screen and join the gang.
Though there are elements of Bollywood in the film (we even see on television a scene from a Bombay epic), Nair keeps an ironic distance from her people and her stories; we know that she is choreographing things, so we can relax and enjoy it all. Her actors walk the fine line between American understatement and Indian operatics, and for the most part succeed well. Naseeruddin Shah, as Lalit, is most affecting as he moves with us from father-of-the-bride burlesque to the sadness of fundamental moral decisions. And Vasundhara Das, Aditi the bride, is so enchantingly beautiful, with her pale skin, full lips and enormous blue eyes, that she could make anyone believe in arranged marriages.
Ultimately, though, "Monsoon Wedding" is just a bit too contrived and shallow to sustain the whirlwind of its story. It's a very pleasant visit to this most exotic of worlds - to a westerner - but it is not quite enough to be satisfying. The film is in English, Hindi and Punjabi.