See, if you’re going to adapt a Victorian English novel and throw in some Bollywood song and dance, you’ve just got to go for it.
Last year’s Vanity Fair from Mira Nair, director of the superior Monsoon Wedding, tossed one colorful, exotic musical number reminiscent of the gonzo style of Bombay (or Bollywood) cinema into what was otherwise a fairly straightforward if off-the-mark adaptation of Thackeray’s novel. It didn’t work.
Now Nair’s compatriot Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) takes a much more thoroughgoing approach to Pride and Prejudice, going so far as to tweak the title to telegraph that this is Jane Austen gone Bollywood with a capital B — i.e., Bride and Prejudice.
This time, the giddy showstopping production numbers aren’t odd intrusions, but the point. And it works, for the most part. Silk swirls and colors flow, characters burst into exuberant song, crowds of bystanders spontaneously join in, and if a crowd of bystanders doesn’t exist it may be necessary to invent them. Other staples of the genre — a beautiful, chaste heroine, a melodramatic romantic-triangle plot, a manipulative mother or two, a duplicitous villain, and an obligatory wedding — contribute to the Indian flavor while also loosely adhering to the outline of Austen’s comedy of manners.
Not that Bride and Prejudice, an English-language film produced by the UK’s Pathé Pictures and filmed partly in the UK and USA as well as in India, is really a Bollywood film. It’s more a Bollywood-flavored movie packaged for Western tastes, like the Mexican food at American chains like On The Border or Chevy’s.
In India, Bollywood films are called masala movies, masala being a mixture of spices suggestive of the pungent combination of elements that make up the typical Mumbai cinema. Bride and Prejudice tones down the spices for foreign audiences, but for a cuisine with which few Americans have had any exposure at all, it’s authentic enough to give us our first taste of the real thing.
Monsoon Wedding had the trappings of a Bollywood film — the color, the dancing, the wedding — but its narrative realism distinguished it from the stylized escapism of the stereotypical Bollywood film, rather as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was distinguished by its romantic humanism and psychological realism from the traditional Asian martial-arts film.
As Monsoon Wedding was to Crouching Tiger, Bride and Prejudice is in a measure to, say, Rumble in the Bronx or Jackie Chan’s First Strike — that is, it’s not a picture that transcends the genre, but one that makes its conventions accessible to newcomers. Another Bollywood-Hong Kong connection is made by Roger Ebert, who says that in both genres the plot is a clothesline on which to hang set pieces that are the real point — action scenes for Hong Kong, musical numbers for Bollywood.
Roughly halfway through Bride and Prejudice, the story leaves India, travelling first to London and then to LA. The musical numbers don’t quite come to a stop, but they’re much more sparingly used. (One of the best scenes in the non-India sequences is one that posits an American cultural equivalent to a Bollywood musical number. It’s set on a beach, and I thought the lack of twirling beach umbrellas was a major missed opportunity.)
The second half of the film is thus more focused on plot and characters, and here its defects become harder to ignore. First, there’s the plot, which relies too much on contrived misunderstandings and failures to communicate.
Then there’s the lack of a satisfactory male love interest for the film’s star, reigning Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai, a stunning beauty who was Miss World 1994 and, in her first English-speaking role, shows herself a capable actress and a world-class star. Rai’s character, Lalita Bakshi, attracts the attentions of two visiting Americans, diffident, wealthy Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) and charming bad-boy Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies) (oh yeah, this movie has something to do with Jane Austen, doesn’t it?).
Even if you don’t know the source material, it’s immediately obvious that Darcy, despite quarreling early and often with Lalita, is supposed to be the real love interest. Yet he’s blandly played by Henderson (Torque), who, to be fair, is stuck in an underwritten part. On the other hand, that’s what separates movie stars from run-of-the-mill actors: their ability to hold our attention by sheer charisma and star power, if necessary in spite of the script. Henderson isn’t entirely the problem, but he’s nothing like the needed solution either.
Thematically, Bride and Prejudice is a curious contradiction of message and medium. Substituting East-West tension for class conflict, the film is down on Indian Americanization and American America-centrism. Thus Lalita (Rai) scolds Darcy, a hotel heir, for wanting to acquire a hotel in Amritsar, which she says will become an outpost of American culture for rich Americans wanting to travel to India without experiencing the real thing, without leaving behind the security of the American experience. Yet that’s precisely what Bride and Prejudice itself does — offers an India-light experience catering to Western sensibilities.
Similarly, Lalita high-mindedly professes to be unconcerned with money, and is certainly against marrying for wealth, yet her whirlwhind American romance with Darcy is the epitome of glamour and extravagance. I guess there’s nothing wrong with having money to burn, as long as that’s not what you really care about.
One interesting consequence of the cultural and religious nexus in which Bollywood films flourish is that the romances are always chaste — even onscreen kisses are traditionally taboo — but sexy attire and sensuous dance are permitted. Bride and Prejudice opens with a typically hip-swiveling dance number at a wedding; by contrast, a half-naked cameo by hip-hop star Ashanti in a music-video style stage number seems overly provocative and out of place. On the other hand, Rai keeps her clothes on, and at the end of the film Henderson is rewarded with a demure hug.
Though it’s hardly a perfect picture, Bride and Prejudice is still worth catching for the experience of Bollywood flavor, as yet a rare and exotic treat for English-speaking audiences. Which shouldn’t be construed to mean it’s something you should see because it’s supposed to be Good For You, rather than something that’s supposed to be fun. This is light entertainment, not high art. Think of it as a chaste You’ve Got Mail or Maid in Manhattan, with accents, bright colors, and singing and dancing.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.