I’ve never been to India, but I desperately want to go. It’s a land of luscious pageantry, beautiful beaches, and high melodrama whose every corner hides a veritable parade of colorfully dressed dancers just waiting for the chance to burst into a larger-than-life song and dance performance in celebration of just about anything.
Or, at least, this is what I’ve learned from Gurinder Chadha’s (Bend It Like Beckham) newest film, Bride and Prejudice.
While this might not be the most accurate portrayal of real life in India, it is a pretty good representation of the country’s cinema. Affectionately known as Bollywood, this genre of film defines itself through a melodramatic tone and a more than liberal use of grandiose choreographed dance scenes. While, the average American audience might find this all to be a bit silly at first, it’s Chadha’s use of this style that makes this film so noteworthy and enjoyable.
In Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha presented an Indian story in a Western setting with a strongly traditional Western style. This time out, she proves her directorial versatility by offering up a classic tale from Western culture, but tinting it with a distinctly Eastern lens. As the title suggests, the movie is an adaptation of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, but instead of taking place in the pastoral setting of 18th century England, the camera takes us through modern-day India, London, Los Angeles, and back again with the fantastical themes of Bollywood following throughout.
The story centers on the tempestuous love/hate relationship between American Will Darcy and Indian Lalita Bakshi. He is the son of a wealthy hotel family; she is an independent and headstrong daughter of a mother eager to marry her and her three sisters off to well-established young bachelors. The pair meets in Amritsar, India at the wedding of a mutual acquaintance and sparks immediately fly. The storyline should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Jane Austen, or any standard boy-meets-girl Hollywood romance, really; what makes this film so enjoyable is its marriage of Eastern style and Western content (especially fun to see when the setting moves to Los Angeles) and the way this relationship parallels the one between Lalita and Darcy.
This marriage of style and content is aided immeasurably by the casting of this film. Aishwarya Rai, known in the world of Indian cinema as the Queen of Bollywood, plays Lalita, imbuing her character with the perfect self-conscious and defensive quality of someone being put up on display. Conversely, Martin Henderson, who plays Will Darcy, looks startlingly like Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, giving the character just the right sense of a healthy, wealthy, pampered and somewhat wooden American playboy.
Nonetheless, both actors have their flaws. Rai, although stunningly beautiful, cannot seem to manipulate her features into more than one or two facial expressions and Henderson, I fear, is just as bland an actor as Darcy is a character. Fortunately, their respective flaws are appropriate to their characters and serve to subtly highlight the multilayered culture clash that this film conveys.
Bride and Prejudice is certainly no masterpiece, but it doesn’t try to be. However, it’s more than merely a cinematic joyride with an ethnic traveling circus. Through a seemingly effortless marriage of disparate elements from the East and West, Chadha establishes it as a very sophisticated and sensitive film.
Coming in the wake of other “intro to new ethnicities” films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Chadha’s own Bend it Like Beckham, Bride distinguishes itself by introducing its viewers to Indian culture through both content and style. By employing the understated romance, unconvincing fight scenes and, of course, the ridiculous song-and-dance sequences of a Bollywood musical, Chadha introduces her viewers to both the Indian way of life and the Indian way of cinema. Essentially, Gurinder Chadha has had her cake and eaten it too; she has treated us to a movie with all the silly fun of Bollywood melodrama, while staying true to the understated grace of Austen’s original story.