Gurinder Chadha's latest offering Bride and Prejudice is nearly ready for release. Few other 'cross-over' films have had a build up as this Aishwariya Rai-Martin Henderson starrer. Hundreds of people, clutching the bright passes thronged Odeon cinema in London's Leicester square for the media screening. The theatre was packed, every last seat taken. And the anticipation was palpable. After a short speech by Chadha in which she asked the audience to forget about Bend it like Beckham, the audience is transported to the busy streets of Amritsar. Shot in an almost documentary style, the introductory scenes show the city from a foreigner's perspective. Rai's first scene - she is simply dressed in jeans and face devoid of filmi style make-up, sitting on a tractor. Loosely based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the plot line is not all that different from the hundreds of love storied churned out by Bollywood. Boy meets girl, sparks fly,misunderstandings abound, they get cleared up in time for a happily ever after.
'Any single guy with big bucks must be shopping for a bride' is Chadha's take on Austen's immortal opening. Elizabeth becomes Lalita Bakshi(Rai) is one of four sisters. Her harassed father is played to the hilt by Anupam Kher. He has the character down pat; it's a pity that the role is rather limited. Nadira Babbar is a superb Mrs Bennet. Loud, overbearing and pushy to the extreme, she is everyman's nightmare version of the match-making mamma from hell. Her performances are high in the cringe factor - just what the doctor and Ms Austen ordered.
We are introduced to Mr Bingley a.k.a Mr Balraj (Naveen Andrews), an NRI barrister from London, whose arrival at the wedding of his best friend causes many a flutter in the hearts of mothers with marriageable daughters. His best friend is Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) a Yankee with a hotel empire, a huge bank balance and a rather low opinion of India. Balraj falls for Lalita's sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar). Despite is best efforts, Darcy is seduced by Lalita's beauty but succeeds in To further the romance, avisit to the sunny climes of Goa is called for (Amritsar is a bit to conservative perhaps) so Balraj manages to convince Mr Bakshi to send Lalita and Jaya on holiday there. A rather convenient plot device, for one wonders how many conservative fathers would do the same.
There Lalita meets Mr Wickham (Daniel Gillies) a rather slick charmer who professes a tendre for India and is the opposite of the rich, comfort loving Darcy. A tentative romance ensues, much to Darcy's anger. In typical Bollywood fashion, Ashanti performs an item number at a rave surrounded by a bevy of bare male torsos. Her mouthing Hindi lyrics is interesting in a strange sort of way but the rest of the cast lapsing into song at the drop of the hat, throughout the film, is simply bizarre, especially as they are singing English numbers, musical style, one lyric describes mehendi as 'paint on hands and feet.colour shows heat in the blood'!! Clearly playing to the western audience, i t might be Chadha's take on the songs that punctuate Hindi films, but it doesn't work. The first half of the film is a vociferous defence of India by the opinionated Lalita. She berates Darcy for wanting to come to India without having to deal with the natives and for wanting to convert India into an American theme park.
The holiday is over and the movie shifts back to Amritsar. Wickham pays a visit, ostensibly to see the Golden temple. But he ends up seducing Lalita's younger sister Lucky (Peeya Rai Choudhary) who gives a feisty performance. We are introduced to Mr Kohli(Nitin Ganatra), Chadha's answer to Mr Collins in the original. He is a wonderful caricature who stereotypes the obnoxious US returned, green card holder, who liberally smatters his heavily accented English with 'Amrican' slang, flings his dollars about and considers all things from the US of A to be bigger and better than their Indian counter. He is on the lookout for a wife and falls in the clutches of Mrs Bakshi who serves him Lalita on a platter. She rejects his proposal. This is followed by a dream sequence 'No life without wife' It is rather charming with the four sisters dancing about in their white night clothes. The next morning, Balraj unexpectedly dumps Jaya in reaction to a weird snake dance, a la Sridevi by the youngest Bakshi sister Meghana Kothari and Mrs Bakshi's obvious match-making attempts. Kohli proposes to Lalita's best friend, who accepts. The wedding is in LA and the Bakshi sisters are invited.
The rest of the film follows the predictable course Darcy and Lalita fall in love, dance to a wet sari number, the rain is replaced by sprinklers and the sari is exchanged for a dress. The Kohlis get married and Lalita finds out that Darcy was behind Balraj's decision to leave Jaya. She is outraged and rejects Dracy's wedding proposal. The scene is not as good as Austen's but in it Rai gives her best performance. In most of the film her acting is over done and over gesticulated. She has none of Elizabeth Bennet's charm as a result she comes across as a cross between type A personality on course for a heart attack and a Jane goody two shoes. It is claimed that she put on 20 pounds for the film, to avoid coming across as a model type figure. The bulges around the midriff are noticeable as are signs of an impending double chin, her attempts to constantly cover up and hide the offensive bits put a question mark to her artistic motives in piling on the pounds. Frankly it was not needed for the role, a svelte Rai would have looked much better for despite Santosh Sivan's best efforts, we do not see jaw dropping paeans to Rai's beauty. It is also rumoured that she refused to read Pride and Prejudice as she did not want Elizabeth to influence her character. One wishes she had.
To conclude the film, Wickham convinces Lucky to run away with him and Darcy comes charging in to save the day after a fight sequence with the pre-requsite dishum-dishum. Balraj and Jaya reconcile and all ends well with a double wedding in Amritsar and two elephants bearing the signs of 'just married'
While Rai might have been disappointing, Henderson gives a good performance and oozes charm as he plays the role of the millionaire lover to Lalita. He is your typical Mills and Boon hero, tall, dark haired and handsome. The last sequence, in which he attempts to play the dhol is sweet and endearing.
Anu Malik's music provides a great backdrop for the film and Santosh Sivan is as good as ever. The script is peppy with good doses of humour in the first half, the second half slows down in pace. Chadha excels at portraying the British-Asian sensibility in a manner that rings true. But her attempts to use the Bollywood 'formula' fall short. It is almost as if she uses a checklist. Dream sequence. Done. Rain Dance Done.
The final verdict? It's romantic comedy that works on several levels. The Austen connection will help draw the western cine-goers. Bombay Dreams has already prepped their sensibility for a lavish musical spectacle. In Bride and Prejudice, Chadha showcases her version of India and challenges the stereotype and she has fun doing so. It is also her attempt to marry western and eastern filmmaking styles and draw in a global audience. It may not be as polished as Monsoon Wedding or Bend it like Beckham but it comes a close third.
-- Priyanka Gill
GC's mistake was that she titled the movie B&P and says in the credits that it was inspired by the Jane Austen classic. But IMO the story of poor proud girl and rich boy love is as old as the hills -- Cinderella to Eliza Doolittle to the 1970s Love Story. So here too is the prince charming -- make that two prince charmings -- rescuing the not-so-rich but beautiful sisters from spinsterhod and poverty. An apt title would have been "Amritsar to LA, Balle Balle all the way."
If you are expecting high brow Jane Austen fare you will be disappointed. But if you -- like me -- have B'wood masala in your veins (hey I grew up on it) -- then you will love it. There are songs with English lyrics but Indian sentiments sung to Indian tunes and also all the naach-gana that we desis love so much. It is lavish (no low budget Bend it or pretentious Monsoon Wedding here), shot in three countries (which is mandatory in B'wood these days), is funny, sweet, and scrubbed-clean antiseptic family fare. No heads getting blown off violence or nude bedroom sex so you can watch it with your grandma and/or fourteen-year old. And certainly better than Hollywood musicals like "Chicago" (Ugh!) and "Moulin Rouge" (Ugh, Ugh!)
Getting back to B&P, admittedly there are some over the top and in-your-face moments -- like the sister's snake dance and the attempted rape scene from the 1970's "Purab aur Paschim" in the backgound while the real rapist is being beaten up by the hero -- but my feeling is that GC intended these. The humor was genuine and better than most inane B'wood jokes. Who doesn't know someone like toady NRI Kohli showing off his 5 BR 3.5 bath house in Beverly Hills -- "it's a bomb". And IMO the song "No life without wife" should become a classic like "get me to the church on time." B&P plainly is a B'wood chick flick and better than the "Wedding" chick flicks of Hollywood -- w. planner, big fat greek w., my best friend's w., w. date to name a few.
I was puzzled however why Ash Rai was required to put on 20 pounds since she is not playing a boxer. I was equally puzzled why the Bakshis had four daughters when three would have sufficed for the plot. Bad family planning role model for India I thought.
Interesting aside: to see Indira Varma and Naveen Andrews as siblings after playing lovers in "Kamasutra."
Bottom line: if you like watching pretty girls and handsome boys, dance, color, music, and a fairy tale ending, buy a large tub of popcorn, take your auntie/mousi/chitti, nani/dadi and kids in tow, and have a blast of desi fun.
-- Shipra Mandal
In "Bride and Prejudice," Lalitha's problem is that she's not a real "Amritsar di kudi" -- a (traditional) girl from Amritsar. If she was, she'd jump at her mother's plans for her to marry a rich goof ball who lives in LA and will rescue her from her mansion in India. Lalitha meets Darcy, a visiting American hotelier, at that must-see event for all tourists -- an Indian wedding. He is scornful of the custom of arranged marriages and Lalitha defends the practice, even as she tries to find her own solution. Later they travel to Goa with only Lalitha's unmarried elder sister as chaperon. There Lalitha does a little more verbal sparring with Darcy and has a gotcha moment when she finds out Darcy's mother in New York is arranging his marriage too. CBC panned /Bride and Prejudice/, citing its post-colonial rhetoric, but without the East-West conflict to be overcome by love, the conflict would have been parental opposition, not personal and a lot less interesting.
Kudos to Chadha for risking the sound track, pairing English words with Punjabi folk music. Fusion music has rarely ventured into that combination, preferring western music paired with songs in Indian languages. David says he now has empirical evidence that a few notes of /Heer /have the same effect on a second-generation diasporic Indian as /Danny Boy/ on a fifth generation Irish-American.
Other symbols and images were more subtle: Lalitha lives on Udham Singh Rd. (named for the martyr who shot the British governor responsible for the 1919 massacre of Indian civilians at Jallianwala Bagh). She's also shown playing the guitar and cricket -- so she's very much a part of India's mixed up chutney culture. And Lalitha kept correcting people - "Lalitha, not Lolita." Lalitha, played by former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, is shown reading a book -- very non-Bollywood of Gurinder Chadha to show a beautiful woman can be a reader.
Darcy was quite devoid of passion or expression. And Austen gets mauled along the way, but it makes us review the Cliff Notes on "/Pride and Prejudice/." Lalitha lives in a mansion but thinks of herself as a poor Indian in contrast to the inheritor of a hotel chain - maybe it's all relative. Suspend your disbelief and just enjoy this satire of the Bollywood film.
"Bride and Prejudice" pokes fun at Indian fears of repeating history and losing our selves again in these times of neo-colonialism. That fear that sits like a squat blinking toad at the beginning of every East/West personal relationship within India and in the diaspora. Chadha laughs at that toad with us, never at us.
Diasporic artists from the subcontinent are re-presenting/re-writing the classics of the English canon - Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" have been reinterpreted in film. And we're telling our version of history -- from "Midnight's children" to my own "What the Body Remembers," and Shree Ghatge's "Brahma's Dream" there are now some counter-histories to the Mountbatten-inspired "Freedom at Midnight" version of the Indian independence narrative. Like Canadians and Australians before us, we've begun imploding official US-UK-centric histories of WWII -- Michael Ondaatje's "English Patient" showed Indians participated in WWII; my novel "The Tiger Claw", challenges the heroic view of Churchill and compares the German Occupation of France in WWII with the British Occupation of India; and Vikram Seth's memoir of his uncle and aunt who met in wartime Germany is coming in 2005. What's next in line for reverse colonization?
The basic structure of the original Jane Austen classic remains unchanged: a family with several daughters and a mother determined to capture rich grooms for them; a wealthy visitor to town with his snobbish sister and iceberg friend; love develops but class differences come in the way. Instead of Victorian England, this one is set in Amritsar, London and LA. It might have all worked better if the settings had been restricted to just one of these places, but it's hard to see that class issues are quite so powerful among today's American businessmen, or that unwed women are quite so trapped and powerless when they are capable of running a farm and travelling the world with aplomb. How conservative is the society if the Bakshis can happily send two nubile daughters off to a Goa resort with two single men? Without these implicit tensions, only the skeleton of Austen's story survives.
From the Bollywood angle, the opening scenes are satisfyingly lively, vivacious and colorful. Unfortunately, the film flags once the plot moves out of Amritsar. This is partly because of the music, which in the latter phase consists of heartrending and immensely corny love songs in English, but also because the main characters fail to generate any serious audience interest in their fates.
Mathew Henderson attempts to recreate Colin Firth's brooding, arrogance in the 1994 BBC production, but merely looks bored and dim. Aishwarya Rai does a reasonable job as Lalita, but the supporting characters are altogether more entertaining than either of them. Anupam Kher as Mr. Bakshi has all the best lines and delivers them note-perfect. Nadira Babbar as Mrs. Bakshi is more appealing in her energetic vulgarity than Austen's Mrs. Bennet. Namrata Shirodkar and Peeya Rai Choudhuri do a fine job as the Bakshi sisters. Nitin Ganatra has a hilarious if stereotypical role as Mr Kohli (or Kholi? the film never seems to make up its mind), and his braying laugh is worth the price of admission.
In this film, the tension between Lalita and Darcy is caused by their supposedly different social views. Lalita is a woman with strong political and social opinions. Even when the hapless Darcy barely opens his mouth, she produces snappy retorts about American hegemony, ignorance and arrogance. Some of her come-backs are unintentionally ridiculous, such as her comment that Goa resorts are not "the real India". Coming from a character who lives in a mansion near a movie-picturesque Amritsar, and occasionally rides across her dustless fields on a quaintly charming bullock cart, this is a little hard to take.
As a musical, only two of the songs stand out: the enthusiastic wedding dance in the opening scene, and a lively amusing 'No life without wife' that the four sisters sing together. As a lighthearted film, it's reasonably good fun, but neither great Bollywood nor great Austen.
-- Susan Chacko
Film description: A Bollywood update of Jane Austen's classic tale, where Mrs. Bennet is eager to find suitable husbands for her five unmarried daughters.