Wedding drama, humor - and rain

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Some filmmakers are bicoastal, but a few are bicontinental. One is Mira Nair, who easily moves between the United States and her native India. She describes her new film, "Monsoon Wedding," as a love song to New Delhi, where she grew up. It was planned in New York, though, and the characters have backgrounds in places such as Texas and Australia, as well as in India itself.

What brings these people together is a Punjabi wedding celebration, uniting an Indian American groom with a Delhi bride who's not sure she's ready for matrimony. One reason for her ambivalence is that it's an arranged marriage, not a romantic match. Another is that she's still carrying a torch for the married man she recently had an affair with.

Other complications abound as the event draws closer. The wedding contractor becomes infatuated with a maid working in the house. More serious, the bride's cousin stumbles onto a potential scandal involving an older man and a young girl, stirring recollections of abuse she suffered long ago. And, meanwhile, the rainy season closes in, promising an end to summer heat and a drenching for the immaculately planned ceremony.

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Fans of Robert Altman's hit "Gosford Park" will find similar pleasures here: colorful characters, multiple story lines, and clever blends of comedy and drama.

This is very much a Nair film, though, continuing the multicultural interests of movies like "Mississippi Masala" and "The Perez Family." Nair made documentaries before she launched her feature- directing career with "Salaam Bombay!" more than a dozen years ago. She hasn't lost her eye for revealing details of personality, behavior, and environment.

The lifelike atmosphere is enhanced by her decision to have cinematographer Declan Quinn shoot the movie with unobtrusive Super-16mm cameras, allowing an intimacy that standard Hollywood gear might not have captured. The cast is also noteworthy, ranging from stars of Indian cinema (Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to newcomers.

Despite its traditional trappings, "Monsoon Wedding" is a very modern story, touching on issues of sexuality and child abuse that films from both of Nair's home bases - Hollywood and Bollywood - avoided until recent years. At once celebratory and serious-minded, it stands with her most engaging work.

• Rated R; contains sexual material.

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