By Andrea Thompson
Last week I delved into one of the darker, more bloody species of film to include a romantic storyline, in part so I could fully explore an adaptation of one of the most well-known, romantic, love stories ever: the 2004 musical “Bride & Prejudice,” based, of course, on Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice.”
The movie itself is a joy, an example of the universal appeal of love stories across cultures and borders. Granted, the family has four daughters rather than five since it eliminates Kitty, but thanks to director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha, “Bride & Prejudice” mostly comes across as intended, which is as much a tribute Bollywood musicals as it is to Austen. Adaptations of Austen's work that take place in modern times can be a tough sell, mostly because the social forces that played such a huge part in the lives of her characters are either entirely absent or just not as resonant.
Chadha solves much of that problem by setting the film in a modern, yet still somewhat rural India, where there's still apparently a great deal of community involvement in marriage, and which is also still considered a necessary part of a person's life. There's even a song that partially explains why, mostly in how local businesses greatly profit from any big (expensive) wedding that comes to town. In such an environment, it's pretty feasible and believable for weddings to be substituted for balls, which allows “Bride and Prejudice” to more smoothly incorporate much of the novel's events while giving us some truly catchy, energetic songs.
While many (including her fans) often see Austen's writing as little more than harmless romantic fluff, Chadha doesn't forget just how much of Austen's novels were satires, with a whole lot of commentary on the class system of her day. Chadha smartly, if more blatantly, incorporates much of this spirit into the movie by having our two would-be lovers William Darcy (Martin Henderson) and Lalita (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) butt heads on Darcy's condescending American view of India. When he calls arranged marriages backward, she points out that its modern incarnation is more like a global dating service. When Darcy talks about building a 5-star hotel, Lalita speaks of the phenomenon of people who want to come to India without having to deal with the people who live there, and calls him an imperialist. When Darcy protests that's he's American, Lalita responds, “Exactly.”
Lalita may be literally half a world away from the rural England of the beloved Lizzie Bennet, but she's very recognizable. The same can't be said for Martin Henderson's Darcy. Henderson is just one of those leading men the film industry tries to make happen every now and then when it forgets that you need a charismatic presence far more than good looks in films that depend on the appeal and chemistry of its leads. Compare that to Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), who in this version is a seemingly laid back, open-minded world traveler. Also abtastic. Who wouldn't swoon over this guy? I mean...
Identity is also a big thing in “Bride & Prejudice,” which acknowledges the Indian diaspora, especially of those who leave and forget where they came from, with the Indian-British barrister Balraj (Naveen Andrews), aka Bingley, telling his very Westernized sister Kiran (Indira Varma, who played Ellaria Sand on “Game of Thrones”), not to be “such a coconut.” Not that the movie dislikes modernism of course. Part of the reason Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), its version of Mr. Collins, is so unsuitable isn't just because his success in America has made him lose touch with his roots. He's also a misogynist who shakes his head over the outspoken, career-oriented women in America, some whom are...lesbians! Ganatra manages to make this guy hilariously unappealing though, rather than just unappealing. Plus, he provokes Lalita's most impressive zinger when he talks about how India is too corrupt when she fires back, “What do you think your U.S. was like after 60 years of independence? They were all killing each other over slavery and blindly searching for gold.”
That said, this cosmopolitan emphasis is where the film deflates somewhat once the sisters leave India for London and LA. Appropriately enough, it's in LA where Lalita and Darcy start to connect and fall in love, albeit in a more rushed way, although we do get the song “Take Me To Love,” sung by everything a gospel choir, a mariachi band, and lifeguards. Trust me, it works. Even if you don't know the story, you know there's a fallout coming, in this case when Lalita finds out that Darcy is behind Balraj's sudden, abrupt departure from her sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and rejects him. Also, (Alexis Bledel's appearance as Darcy's sister Georgie is far too brief!) But the two make up pretty quickly in London, when Lakhi runs off with Wickham. Sure, it's rather hurried, but we also get to watch a dramatic confrontation in a theater where a similarly dramatic Bollywood movie is playing. After that, the movie quickly arrives at its happy ending back in India, which sees a double wedding between Balraj and Jaya, and naturally, Lalita and Darcy in a traditional Indian wedding. It's certainly ends up being a very chaste on-screen romance, since Lalita and Darcy never even kiss, even when they marry.
Nevermind. The musical numbers are fun, the whole cast seems like they're having a blast, and Lalita is always a heroine worth rooting for, even during the few times the movie doesn't do her justice. The fact that Chadha managed to incorporate so many issues about the continuing evolution of the modern India without “Bride & Prejudice” feeling preachy or overstuffed is remarkable. So if you want a different, fun, deeply recognizable kind of love story with a lot on its mind for your Valentine's Day viewing, you could do far worse.