Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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Bride and Prejudice is a more important film than most critics have thus far recognized or acknowledged. It is a true original. It further stakes out the territory that Anglo-Asian director Gurinder Chadha has made her own: multiculturalism. Time is on her side, given that multi-ethnicity is an inevitable wave of the future. Chadha's film is also highly original in a genre-bending sort of way. Critics who are measuring Bride and Prejudice primarily as an adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, are really missing the impact of Bride and Prejudice altogether.
Historical Background: Director Gurinder Chadha's life and career has been a virtual monument to multi-ethnicity. She was born in Kenya where her Indian parents lived until the political turmoil that later culminated in Kenyan independence forced them to return to their native India. They later moved to Southall in West London in 1951. After attending the University of East Anglia, Chadha began her career as a news reporter for BBC radio. In 1989, she made a 30-minute documentary for the British Film Institute entitled I'm British But
, which featured young Anglo-Asians whose musical tastes tended toward "acid Bhangra," a mix of rap and bhangra. Chadha set up her own production company in 1990. Her first film under that umbrella was an 11-minute short called Nice Arrangement (1991) about a British-Asian wedding. Chadha's debut feature film, Bhajhi on the Beach (1993), was a splendid success, combining cheeky humor with serious cultural and political themes. The film centered on three generations of Anglo-Asian women vacationing at Blackpool.
For the rest of the nineties, Chadha returned to making films for the BBC, including a drama, Rich Deceiver, and several documentaries. Her next film for the big screen was What's Cooking (2000), the story of four disparate families in Los Angeles, one Vietnamese, one African-American, one Mexican, and one Jewish, over a Thanksgiving weekend. In 2002, Chadha directed Bend It Like Beckham (2002), a story about an Asian girl who takes an interest in football. It was one of the highest grossing British films in its release year.
True to her multicultural inclinations, Chadha's approach to the filming of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice was bold and innovative. "It's a combination of Hollywood and Bollywood," said Chadha. "It's pushing British filmmaking into a whole new direction." Chadha is all about multiethnic fusions and Bride and Prejudice accomplishes a genuine blending of East and West. Packed with colorful images and festive song and dance numbers, the film nicely reflects its director's affectionate enthusiasm for various cultural traditions.
The Story: The story loosely follows the contours of the Jane Austen novel, though deviating in a variety of ways. Mr. (Anupam Kher) and Mrs. Bakshi (Nadira Babbar) were four times blessed with daughters. The elder two, Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) and Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar), have reached marrying age. Mrs. Bakshi is intent on finding them husbands by taking every opportunity to place them in the path of eligible young men. Since both young women are beautiful, nature should take care of the rest. Mrs. Bakshi is an unabashed gold-digger, however, and nothing less than a wealthy young man will do. The two younger daughters include the less beauty-endowed Maya (Meghna Kothari) and the dangerously precocious Lakhi (Peeya Rai Chowdhary), who is perhaps even more determined to have a husband than are her older sisters.
Opportunity comes knocking in the form of the wedding of a family friend. The Bakshis are friends of the bride's family. The groom's best man is a successful and single young Indian-born Londoner, Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews). Bingley has a genuine appreciation for his native culture, but he arrives accompanied by his snooty sister, Kiran Bingley (Indira Varma), and a wealthy and out-of-sorts American hotel magnate, William Darcy (Martin Henderson). Bingley has come back to his hometown with the express hope of finding a suitable native girl for a wife but Kiran and Darcy have arrived with the express intent of getting back to "civilization" as quickly as possible.
Bingley's eyes fall almost immediately on the lovely Jaya Bakshi and soon the pair are discovering that their chemistry is matched by an easy rapport. Darcy's eyes come to rest less easily on the figure of the lively and independent-minded Lalita. Their chemistry is the combustible variety. Lalita is put off by Darcy's supercilious dismissal of the Indian traditions and what he calls the general backwardness of this rural Indian city Amritsar. The proud Lalita is anything but shy in confronting Darcy's prejudices. Astute movie viewers will now realize that the entire point of the remainder of the story will be the manner in which Lalita and Darcy will overcome the antipathy of their viewpoints so that their chemical attraction to one another can have its way. Along the way, various subplots will arise as further obstacles and/or inducements. Lalita is temporarily enthralled by the smooth talking but slimy Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), who has previously run afoul of Darcy, while trying to seduce Darcy's beloved sister, Georgie (Alexis Bledel). Later, Mrs. Bakshi lines up an unwanted suitor for Lalita in the form of distance cousin Mr. Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra), an oily, cackling, eccentric Beverly Hills goofball, who ultimately proves just the ticket for Lalita best friend, Chandra Lamba (Sonali Kulkarni). Then, there's the formidable Catherine Darcy (Marsha Mason), William's mother, who is determined that he should marry (or should one say merge with) Anne (Georgina Chapman), who will someday inherit a rival hotel chain. Both Kiran Bingley and Darcy do their level best to discourage Balraj Bingley from linking up with Jaya, though she's clearly the woman of his desires, and that interference naturally doesn't sit well with Jaya's loving sister, Lalita. The various obstacles are gradually overcome, culminating in a double wedding of elephantine proportions.
Themes: While Bride and Prejudice certainly lacks the thematic depth of Austen's incisive novel, it is not devoid of some intelligent social comment. Foremost among the themes invoked by the film is the clash of cultures. Austen was interested in the conflict between Darcy's aristocratic perspective and Elizabeth's upper middleclass background. Chadha is instead preoccupied with the clash between the cultures of various ethnic groups. The entire premise of melding traditions of Hollywood and Bollywood captures that notion. So too does the transporting of a classic English novel to an Indian context. Most of all, it's inherent in the romance between Lalita and Darcy. Chadha wants to illustrate how one culture can enrich another, rather than the two being in conflict. Chadha's purpose is different than Austen's but just as noble and more contemporary.
Also still recognizable in this film is Austen's proto-feminist advancement of women as intelligent, independent-minded equals of their male counterparts. Though Lalita's assertiveness lacks the powerful underpinnings provided by Elizabeth's incisive intelligence, she nevertheless exhibits the same capacity to stand up to her mother's attempts to exploit her as a pawn for family advancement and Darcy's mother's attempts to cast her aside. She shows the same determination as Elizabeth to find a man who will appreciate her as a complete person and not merely a subservient helpmate and sex partner. Also evident in the film is the novel's notion that first impressions are often wrong.
Production Values: If one approaches this film from the vantage point of its faithfulness as an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, one is bound to be thoroughly disappointed. Bride and Prejudice is really only drawing snippets of the plot from the novel, but very little of its incisive social commentary and none of its brilliant wit or turns of phrase. The best of the adaptations of the Austen novel, the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice, runs 300 minutes and even that version had to trim some significant scenes that occur in the novel. The present film runs 112 minutes, but I would estimate that at least 30 minutes of that time is allotted to song and dance numbers, which, while entertaining, do little to advance the story. So, only about 80 minutes of the film are devoted to exposition of the plot and/or development of themes. It would be silly to pretend that Bride and Prejudice can do justice to the subtle social commentary and perceptiveness about relationships that make the original a treasure.
Even limiting consideration to merely the plot structure, the script for Bride and Prejudice falls far short of the original. One of the brilliant aspects of the novel is the gradual transformation of perfect contempt into perfect love. At the time of Darcy's first marriage proposal, Elizabeth not only has no interest in him at any level, she harbors multiple reasons for disliking him. Elizabeth is therefore utterly flabbergasted when he professes his "love" and proposes, since she had assumed that his antipathy for her matched her own for him. Bride and Prejudice spoils that quintessential delight of the original by adopting the more conventional Hollywood approach of establishing a chemistry between Lalita and William, near the beginning and later on, well before his first declaration of love. One might conclude that the scriptwriters for Bride and Prejudice, Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha, missed the most salient plot device of the novel. There are other problems as well. There is no basis provided in Bride and Prejudice for Darcy's influence over his friend Bingley in discouraging his pursuit of Jaya. The transgression committed by Wickham with Lakhi is reduced to the two spending some time together in London, making Wickham far less than the dastardly miscreant that he is in the novel. Plot pacing in this film is poor, being very measured during the first three-quarters of the film and extremely rushed near the end. I could go on, but all of these shortcomings in the script are largely irrelevant to the merit and entertainment value inherent in Bride and Prejudice. The script for this film is no more than a clothesline on which brilliantly colored bed linen and clothing has been hung out to dry and which are now dancing in the wind, creating fantastic displays of movement and images. This film deserves to be viewed from a fresh perspective. Yes, Austen's novel has been bowdlerized into pulp, but the shards have been turned into flares illuminating another purpose altogether.
In the tradition of Bollywood, the cast and extras periodically break out into fantastic, intricately choreographed dance numbers. The outfits are colorful, the music is highly rhythmic and lively, and the resultant splashy production numbers full of frenzied glee. Bride and Prejudice needs to be appreciated, first and foremost, as an ebullient celebration of multiculturalism. Certainly what Chadha is serving up is not genuine, traditional Indian culture. As Lalita says to Darcy at one point, in a sly bit of mockery of the entire production, Chadha is handing us "five-star comfort with a bit of culture thrown in."
The casting for this film is a mixed success. To begin with the pluses, Aishwarya Rai is certainly a knockout as Lalita. She's not only physically beautiful, but has a smile to die for, the requisite capacity for enthusiastic joy, and a strength of personality to be credible as the independent, self-assured protagonist. Rai is beloved in India and was selected by Time Magazine as one of the hundred most influential women in the world. She is a former Miss World (from 1994). Also impressive were the actresses playing two of the other sisters: Namrata Shirodkar as Jaya and, especially, Peeya Rai Chowdhary as Lakhi. Chowdhary very nearly steals several of the scenes in which she is featured. Meghna Kothari also did a commendable job as the sometimes embarrassing fourth sister, Maya. Nadira Babbar and Anupam Kher were excellent as the Bakshi parents. Kher is a Bollywood regular and also appeared in Chadha's previous film Bend It Like Beckham (2002).
Nitin Chandra Ganatra struck a very nice balance between obnoxiousness and entertaining eccentricities as the oily Mr. Kholi. Naveen Andrews was superlative as Balraj Bingley, as was Indira Varma as his sister. Andrews is well known internationally, appearing in The English Patient (1996) and Mighty Joe Young (1998). Sonali Kulkarni was pretty good as Chandra. Daniel Gillies was not particularly effective as Wickham. I was also unimpressed with Alexis Bledel as Georgie Darcy or Marsha Mason as her mother.
I've saved my major casting complaint for last: the painfully stiff Martin Henderson as Darcy. I assume that many women must view him as a hunk, but I don't see much in the way of appeal underlying that surface handsomeness. Where's the charm of, say, Colin Firth, or the passionate depth of Laurence Olivier? The problem with casting a hollow hunk in the role of Darcy is that it calls into question Lalita's depth as a person and ability to look beneath the surface for a man of quality. If part of the point of Austen's novel is the importance of men looking beneath the surface to appreciate the inner qualities of women in addition to their surface charms, isn't that point undermined by a Darcy who has only surface appeal? It would be an even bigger problem for this film had Darcy not also been treated mainly as a cipher. Henderson is perhaps best known for his appearances in The Ring (2002) and Windtalkers (2002).
Bottom-Line: The Miramax DVD provides a widescreen transfer that does justice to the luscious colors. Bonus features include deleted scenes, extended songs, Ashanti's song, a "making-of" documentary, conversations with Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson, and a feature commentary with director Curinder Chadha and co-scriptwriter Paul Mayeda Berges. There's a French language track, optional Spanish subtitles, and optional English captions. I watched this film twice yesterday, once using a video projector on a large screen and a second time on a television. This is one film that very much benefits from large screen projection because its top attraction is big color combined with big production numbers.
So which one is proud and which one prejudiced? Austen sophisticates love to argue that both Elizabeth and Darcy exhibit each defect at one time or another. While that's true, if one is pressed to apply the two title traits separately to the two main characters, most readers concede that Elizabeth's principal defect is prejudice while Darcy's is pride. In Bride and Prejudice, by contrast, it is Lalita who is manifestly proud of her Indian heritage, while William Darcy is prejudiced against what he perceives as a "backward" quality of life in Amritsar. That's an interesting reversal that Chadha has engineered, but, then again, she has turned just about everything else about the novel topsy-turvy. If you focus too much on comparing Chadha's film to Austen's novel, you'll miss out on what this film truly has to offer: a rip-roaring good time watching a brilliantly colorful parody of the cheesy nonsense routinely served up by both Hollywood and Bollywood.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up Ages 8