I'm not entirely sure this is what Jane Austen had in mind.
Still, this 2004 Hollywood-Bombay hybrid does little harm to Austen's novel or to her reputation, and, who knows, she might even have liked the fun. No, the problem with "Bride & Prejudice" is that despite its lavish costumes, sets, music, production values, and amour, it's essentially a typical lightweight, starry-eyed comedy with little but hot air to sustain it. It's vaguely amusing in parts, but largely tiring.
The strategy appears to have been to do a takeoff on or a homage to (it's not quite clear) Austen's novel of class and gender biases, while at the same time combining the cinematic styles of India and Hollywood. For the unacquainted, India has long been the single biggest producer of motion pictures in the world. There are actually more films made in India than in Hollywood each year, although few of them ever reach American shores and most of them are quite alike: big, elaborate romances filled with a good deal of music and dancing from huge throngs of performers. Because Bombay is the center of the movie industry in India, the films have come to be dubbed "Bollywood" productions.
With the success of her 2002 film "Bend It Like Beckham," director Gurinder Chadha apparently attempted to duplicate the achievement with another such crossover feature, a story also revolving around societal prejudices. I don't think she quite obtained the desired results this time around.
The idea behind "Bride & Prejudice" is not only to update the Jane Austen classic and not only to make a Bollywood movie more appealing to American audiences, but also to show the culture clashes between India and America, something like what "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" did with Greek-American relations. Perhaps therein lies the newer film's problem. It tries to do too much and succeeds too little.
Like Austen's Bennett family, Chadha's Bakshi family live in a large country house but live beyond their means. The mother (Nadira Babbar) sees the only possible road to financial prosperity is by marrying off her four beautiful, marriageable daughters. The setting, naturally, is India; and just as naturally the countryside is gorgeous. This is, after all, a Bollywoodized India, a travelogue of sorts showing us the loveliest parts of the country. It is as it should be.
As with all Bollywood productions, the emphasis is on singing and dancing and love affairs, and that is exactly what happens not five minutes into the picture. Rooms full of people are suddenly shaking their bods and prancing around in the most ravishing costumes imaginable, performing routines that would make Busby Berkeley proud. Later, entire towns and villages break out into song and dance. It's all quite exuberant and certainly a pleasure to the eye, but none of the dancing or music is very memorable. Indeed, it all looks and sounds very much alike, modern pop arrangements of the middle-of-the-road variety designed to appeal to everyone and, ultimately, to no one.
At a big wedding party, Lalitha Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai) meets a rich, handsome American, William Darcy (Martin Henderson), and before the final fade-out they begin a rocky relationship that has them quibbling and quarreling throughout the story, mostly about their views on India and on the role of women in society, etc. (She finds Mr. Darcy at various times "rude, arrogant, conceited, intolerant, and insensitive.") A minor digression from Austen's story, though, is that in the book Mr. Darcy never found Elizabeth Bennett particularly attractive when they first met (he called her "tolerable"), while in this version anyone who didn't find Ms. Rai attractive would have to be blind. She is a former model and Miss World. Oh, well, not only do we get to see the most beautiful areas of India, England, and America, we get to see the most beautiful people, too. A tourist's guide to the world. Fair enough.
Other than in appearance, however, Lalitha's character sticks to the Austen model. Lalitha is more serious than her sisters and more resigned to her fate. She is also the most proud and the most outspoken of the family. Combined with Ms. Rai's natural beauty and grace, the Lalitha character is strong and her presence always commands a scene. This, unfortunately, is in direct contrast to Henderson's Darcy, who is never up to Ms. Rai's charisma or energy level. It's true that he is supposed to be something of a stuffed shirt, always thinking of business before pleasure, but it leaves us rather one-sided in the relationship department.
It doesn't help that most of the other characters are forgettable as well. Mr. Bakshi (Anupam Kher) is quiet, firm, sensible, and long-suffering. But he doesn't say much. Darcy's friend, Balraj (Naveen Andrews), educated in England, could have had possibilities but is barely given any screen time. Likewise, a bounder named Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies) might have had promise, but with so much going on, he, too, is rather lost in the shuffle. With the exception of Lalitha, the Bakshi daughters could be interchangeable. And poor Mr. Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), an Indian who has found his fortune in America and is now back in the old country looking for a wife, is introduced solely as a stock comic character, with absurd, exaggerated American mannerisms.
Unlike "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which was genuinely warm and funny, "Bride & Prejudice" lacks the needed humor to bring it home. Mr. Kholi, for example, is foolish, not amusing. The filmmakers resort to using a pair of high-profile cameos toward the end of the story, Marsha Mason and Alexis Bledel as Darcy's mother and sister, but they are mere window dressing. Likewise is a brief appearance by pop singer Ashanti. The dance numbers are elaborately staged and well choreographed, but ultimately they are repetitious, redundant, and routine. And while Ms. Rai lights up the screen, to be sure, she's not enough to carry the whole top-heavy show.
"Bride & Prejudice" is a little under two hours long, which by Bollywood standards is quite brief, Indian films often averaging three hours or more. Otherwise, much of the Bollywood style is retained, along with much of the glitz and glamour of thirties' Hollywood films. But expect it to be all show. Although the wide-angle panoramas of people, temples, mansions, and such are a pleasure to the eye, the music and dance extravaganzas are, as I've said, humdrum.
One other detail: The movie doesn't so much celebrate the power of love as it does the power of money. People either have too much of it or want it badly. Mr. Darcy is fabulously wealthy and can literally provide a girl with the stars. I'm not convinced Ms. Austen had only this intent in mind. Still, the film's visual charms may be enough to seduce a viewer's time, and how can one complain about that.
People will probably come to this film for the spectacle above all, and in this regard its high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer pays off. The movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is mostly preserved, as are the movie's vibrant colors, alive and pulsating with loveliness. There is a slight grain noticeable in a few outdoor scenes, especially in early morning and evening shots, and definition is only so-so most of the time, yet one hardly notices these minor anomalies in light of the picture's radiant beauty.
The sound matches the look of the picture in that it is excellent in almost every way. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics have a strong dynamic impact, clean-cut transients, and decently deep bass. Musical ambiance is all-encompassing through the surrounds, while the front-channel stereo spread is admirably wide.
There's certainly no lack of extras on the disc; it's just that like the movie itself, they are close to all flash, with little substance. For the few minutes I listened to director Gurinder Chadha and cowriter Paul Mayeda Berges speak on the audio commentary, they seemed earnest and straightforward in their observations but not necessarily of much interest to me. Nevertheless, I'm sure the commentary is more than satisfactory and will serve its purpose well for listeners inclined to such things.
Next, there are six deleted scenes in widescreen and four extended songs. I understand the Hindi version of this movie runs about ten minutes longer than the American release, so my guess is that some of this material was included there. After that are a pair of featurettes, "The Making of Bride & Prejudice," a typical promo, ten minutes long, wherein the filmmakers discuss why they did this and that, with plenty of film clips to illustrate their points; and "The Crew Does the Songs," a cute, four-minute bit with the film's crew singing and dancing some of the movie's tunes. Then, there's the song in the film by Ashanti presented by itself. The director explains that this a very important part of every Bollywood movie, an "item" number where a very sexy girl does a specialty song that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. After that, there are two interviews, a "Conversation With Aishwarya Rai" and a "Conversation With Martin Henderson," that are eight and four minutes respectively and repeat much of what was said in the promo.
Finally, there are twenty scene selections, with a chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. A full-blown documentary on the Bollywood film industry would have pleased me, but, what can I say, I'm hard to please.
I think anyone going into this film knows pretty much what it's going to be about, how it's going to end, what it will look like, and basically what to expect. There are no surprises. "Bride & Prejudice" is a pleasant, family-oriented, feel-good exercise in Bombay, India, filmmaking via Hollywood. Its greatest assets are its look and sound. Its weakness is its bland predictability. But for the fan of Bollywood films or old-fashioned romances, its weakness may be its strength