Mira Nair has clear gifts as a director, and her most appealing are her generosity and sense of texture. Many directors drive, drive, drive on, with the next bit of plot business or effect clearly on their minds above all else, while Nair hangs back, letting you gather for yourself the environments and her characters’ nourishing, confusing, conflicting feelings toward them. Nair, a Punjabi who went to college in America in her late teens, is frequently occupied with the clash between the young and old of her country, as the young gravitate toward a less Indian, more global (read: American), more permissive, perhaps less sentimental, more self-indulgent society of unquestioned gratification; while the old cling to values more closely rooted in traditions of religion, extended family, and perhaps unquestioned sacrifice with a dash of regret and envy.
The scripts that Nair normally chooses to film are frequently obvious, with banalities that less earnest directors would rightfully toss, but those directors might also deprive of us of images such as the one of the interracial lovers in bed together in her earlier Mississippi Masala: black and brown legs intertwined, with goose bumps of nervousness and pleasure and excitement that tell us everything the dialogue oversells. The best moments in Nair’s pictures have a wonderfully contradictory push-pull quality; they’re erotic, foolish, forbidden, and mysterious. Little bits and pieces are allowed to count. They are Nair’s movies.
And that fascination for the little moment serves Nair in Monsoon Wedding. Like The Rules of the Game or A Wedding, the film is a big, galloping party movie in which the party in question is a clear metaphor for the world (though it should be said that Altman’s head is, spiritually, in an entirely different place). Like the Renoir or Altman pictures, Monsoon Wedding is a tonal patchwork quilt that’s meant to take on the jarring and occasionally exhilarating mood changes of everyday lives, our inexplicable daily ride from laughter to despair to ecstasy to that mildly bored neutral mood that dominates most middle-class Americans most of the time. The film is a passionate rebuke to that American idea of unquestionable consumption and tuning out; it’s an explosion of music and color and broad comedy and broader heartache and romance.
The Delhi family is composed of oft-used universal types: the fiscally burdened father of a bride (Naseeruddin Shah) who turns out, touchingly, to be a closet idealist; the more openly nurturing mother (Lillete Dubey) continually cast as buffer and translator between her husband and their seemingly indecipherable children; the traditionally hesitant, prearranged bride (Vasundhara Das), deciding between rebellion and going with the flow (she doesn’t, until the end, seem to give a damn either way). There are also the sorts of wounded dreamers, romantics, laborers, and people of more destructive sorts, who play out stories of desires of varying importance, on a canvas of startlingly confident size and linguistic density (more than a few, including essayist Pico Iyer, have made a point of certain lines that contain, in just a few words, English, Hindi, and Punjabi).
Nair is shakier with structure and conventional storytelling though, and that can leave the moments that connect stranded. Her pictures lack friction: Nair is an unfailing optimist who sands her characters’ darker edges down, leaving her nothing to really build toward. Nair’s movies don’t give you much contrast. We understand the differences in ideals between younger and older, their cultural role shifts and inferiority complexes and historical tragedies and hurts, but we miss a certain disreputable juice: We need a bit of the prankster spirit that Renoir brought to his every-bit-as-good-as-its-made-out-to-be Rules of the Game.
With Nair, one is left wanting a sense of story for its own sake; we need moments that aren’t meant to teach us something of the functions of the world or of the primal, unifying characteristics of our lives. Something needs to work out in a way that isn’t just right, but in the right way. And Monsoon Wedding, which is the best Nair picture I’ve seen (the nature of its story allows for more characters and more of those little moments) doesn’t quite manage that spontaneity. There’s a limitation to many idealists working in an art: There’s no torment in their point of view, no doubt in their message, and that can be a tad dull.