Hooray for Bollywood!

Rainy Season: Tilotama Shome and Vijay Raaz in Monsoon Wedding.Photo: courtesy of USA Films

Monsoon Wedding is almost giddy with good feelings. Director Mira Nair grew up in India but has spent much of her creative life in America, and she promiscuously combines authentic observations of Punjabi mores with melodrama that’s pure Hollywood. The action centers on the preparations for a lavish arranged marriage in New Delhi, and the interweaving family subplots and madcap scenes featuring the flibbertigibbet caterer, or the exasperated dad, are meant to evoke not only whirligig Bombay movie-musical romances but also films like Father of the Bride. Sabrina Dhawan, who wrote the screenplay and was Nair’s teaching assistant in Columbia’s graduate film program, provides the rich pop textures that, along with Declan Quinn’s cinematography, give the movie its hallucinatory shimmer. The Indian culture being celebrated is a swirl of Western and Eastern, old and new, pre-and postcolonial, and so the film’s pastiche quality makes emotional sense; the friends and family, who speak a mixture of Hindi, Punjabi, and English, are often quite conscious that they’re living out an ancient soap opera that draws on both Hollywood and Bollywood. Kitsch knows no borders.

Aditi (Indian pop star Vasundhara Das) is the restless, moody daughter at the center of the swirl. Her upper-middle-class father, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), and mother, Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), are sparing no expense for the wedding, but unbeknownst to them, Aditi’s heart belongs not to her betrothed (Parvin Dabas), an intelligent, straitlaced engineer based in Houston, but to her ex-boss, a crumbum TV host twice her age. If this standard-issue plotline isn’t to your taste, rest assured another one – or three – is always in the offing. Cousins arrive toting deep, dark family secrets; the monsoon season threatens to wash out the wedding. The freshest subplot involves rail-thin catering contractor P. K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) and the shy family servant Alice (Tilotama Shome), who overturns his confirmed bachelorhood. These two have a moonstruck quality right out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: He’s so smitten by her maidenly reticence that he goes rubbery in the legs and chomps marigolds. (Raaz may be the gangliest physical comic since Jim Carrey.) When Dubey and Alice are together, the movie reaches beyond pop exuberance and becomes pop poetry.

Mira Nair began her career with a number of extraordinary documentaries, and her searing first feature, Salaam Bombay!, was highly successful in blending made-up drama with caught-in-the-streets realism. Her subsequent movies – Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, and Kama Sutra – have been rather lush and mushy. Nair has a greater affinity for Bollywood and its Busby Beserkeley musicals than perhaps she was ready to admit – until now. One reason Monsoon Wedding, which was shot cheaply and quickly in super-16-mm., is more successful than those earlier films is that this time around, she fully gives in to the nuttiness. Occasionally, Monsoon Wedding threatens to become one of those movies that look like they were more fun to make than they are to sit through, but mostly it’s an effective jamboree. Nair is a rarity: a trenchant documentarian who also has a gift for silliness. When a story line or character in Monsoon Wedding starts to sag, Nair simply sets the cast to dancing until something more interesting gusts along. And when there’s nothing much to look at – which, given the bright array of faces and saris and wedding outfits, isn’t often – the soundtrack is an exhilarating concoction of folk, jazz, and Indian pop. Monsoon Wedding is eminently disposable, but that’s its charm. It stays with you just long enough to make you smile.

The only reason to check out Big Bad Love is Debra Winger, last seen onscreen in 1995. Winger famously walked away from the movie business, and one can only hope she is currently contemplating walking back. But this movie, for those few who see it, won’t exactly have people clamoring for her next one. Directed by and starring Arliss Howard, Winger’s husband, as struggling Mississippi writer Leon Barlow, it’s a slow slog through the perfervid consciousness of a self-destructive artist – a southern-fried cross between Pollock and the Charles Bukowski booze-a-thon Barfly, although not nearly as strong as either. Larry Brown’s story collection Big Bad Love is the basis for a string of alcoholic jags intended to mimic the writer’s sordid life, but the only cosmic question that arises from watching this film is, why should we care about any of these people?

We should care about Winger, though. As Leon’s estranged wife, she brings the movie its only whiff of genuine emotion. It’s a small role, and we hang on to everything she does because who knows when we’ll get another chance? Winger remains one of the most intensely naturalistic actresses ever to grace the screen; her presence is a guarantor of dramatic truth. And her smoky voice, which can be both edgy and easeful, is one of the great acting instruments.

Plenty of big stars should go into premature retirement, but Winger’s voluntary separation from movies, whatever personal reasons may have been behind it, never made any sense artistically. After all, despite her public drubbing of the state of movies, she had three of her best roles – in Everybody Wins and Shadowlands and A Dangerous Woman – not long before she quit. It’s true that the movies of the past decade haven’t, for the most part, been equal to her. But some were. And surely there are directors and writers and producers who would have gloried in the opportunity to create roles especially for her. (Imagine what, say, Kenneth Lonergan could cook up.)

Winger’s reappearance comes at a time when most actresses her age are relegated to motherly supporting parts. If ever there was a woman who could break this mold, it’s her. I would guess that even the new crop of whippersnapper directors who were being burped in high chairs when she made An Officer and a Gentleman or Terms of Endearment or Mike’s Murder would be delirious to have her as their muse. Winger’s disappearing act was itself a moment of high drama. It’s time to put that drama back on the screen.

Monsoon Wedding
Directed by Mira Nair; starring Vasundhara Das and Parvin Dabas.
Big Bad Love
Directed by Arliss Howard; starring Arliss Howard and Debra Winger.

Hooray for Bollywood!