Bride and Prejudice (Balle Balle Amritsar to L.A.)

Reviewed by Anabela Voi You

Director: Gurinder Chadha
Music: Anu Malik; Lyrics: Various
Year: 2004
Running Time: 111 minutes (122 Hindi version)

I first saw Bride and Prejudice on a San Francisco-London flight, long after the UK had already seen and reviewed it. This colorful musical was my initiation into Bollywood and I was quickly addicted to the charisma and musical splendor of the world’s largest film industry. It reminded me how starved I was for simple movies that are both an awe-inspiring sight to behold and a celebration of life. For those of us who are from more “stiff” and reserved cultures, the thought of “I wish my culture had rhythm like them!” might have crossed our minds during the viewing of B&P. Critics have dissenting opinions of whether B&P is a pure Bollywood film or a Hollywood one; director Gurinder Chadha claims B&P is both but to me it leans towards the Bollywood side with the only exception being that it is an English-language film with a Hollywood-esque length. Xenophiles and Anti-Americans should overlook the storyline, as neither party will find the ideological aspects of the film to be consumptive – this will later be discussed.

I was impressed with how Gurinder Chadha threw in a Gospel choir on a beach where Aishwarya and Martin Henderson were romancing. I liked this scene most because then I knew I was watching something wonderful and eclectic, a masala, a smorgasbord, or a melting pot of all musical genres that ranged from folk to pop. There is definitely some fantastic music in B&P that should not be missed and the energy and charisma in the film is unrivalled. In an interview director Gurinder Chadha mentioned that she was impassioned to introduce the Bollywood elements of vibrant colors, bombastic music, gorgeous people, dance and larger-than-life themes to a wider international public. Indeed, watching certain Bollywood films can be an antidote to languishing imagination and diminishing appreciation towards life, and B&P was a superb visual celebration of just that. I have heard complaints about how English lyrics were used instead of Hindi but I didn’t find the language usage unnatural or odd at all.
Some people seem to forget that classic American musicals in which Frank Sinatra broke into song and dance in a sailor suit (or when Gene Kelly performed under fake rain) were once the norm – and it was all done in English and done very well indeed. Why all the sniffing giggles regarding Bollywood, I wonder? I don’t see many differences between an American musical produced in the 1940s and 50s versus a contemporary Bollywood film; the “Western” film industry has undergone a cinematic evolution of experimental film-making much more deeply than Bollywood has and admittedly Bollywood generally needs to develop some of its elements with more sophistication, i.e. plot and character developments. B&P’s choreographer was Devdas’ Saroj Khan, and the cinematographer was Asoka’s Santosh Sivan, and these credentials alone speak for the visual quality of B&P.
I don’t quite understand critics’ dissatisfaction with the fusion of Jane Austen’s novel and a Bollywood representation. I can’t think of a more perfect fit of transplanting the story into class-conscious and marriage-obsessed modern-day India. Standard adaptations of Pride and Prejudice have been done to death and a new style of narrative isn’t a bad idea at all. In my opinion it is due. Austen’s themes have a universality that are cross-cultural, and in fact the Bennett girls’ issues are the exact same ones that plague the Bakshi girls – class distinctions, the conflict of love and money, defensiveness of one’s social and financial standing, and parental obsessions on their children’s marriages. On the surface the characterizations were faithful to Austen’s novel: Lalita like Elizabeth is proud, cerebral and headstrong. Elder sister Jaya is conventional, beautiful, and uncomplicated. The mother is a chatterbox obsessed with marriage and money. The father is silent but wise and always carrying an amused smile. And Darcy appears to be arrogant and class-conscious but is just misunderstood.
Critics complain about Aishwarya but I must come to her defense: she isn’t an incompetent actress nor is she extraordinary, which doesn’t mean she can’t act. Ash brought a bit of feistiness and spark to Lalita that I don’t think I’ve seen from her in any other role. I think Ash looks even more beautiful here than she was in Devdas, which sounds impossible, but B&P proves it to be possible. Deliberately gaining 20 lbs. was an advantageous move for Ash, and she dispels the theory that women must be under a certain weight to look good (completely unrelated to this review and a bit of trivia, in her 60 Minutes interview Ash made known her enormous appetite which is amazing considering how thin she has been all these years). Moving on, I rarely feel Ash has any chemistry with her fellow romantic co-stars (even with the infinitely charismatic Shah Rukh Khan), and she doesn’t have much sizzle with Henderson either. I think the whole point in the movie was just to use a wedding as an excuse to put Aishwarya in a gorgeous fuchsia-pink sari and buckets of jewelry for the sake of Indian pageantry. Indians love their women, especially their very own Marianne of India, in sumptuous saris and would definitely flock to see B&P just for that spectacle.
Martin Henderson’s performance as Darcy is rather problematic in my opinion because his portrayal does not have a well-rounded personality. Austen’s Darcy initially came across as stuffy, arrogant, and bordering on annoying, but Henderson’s Darcy unfortunately just says the wrong thing at the wrong time (i.e. my hotel had electrical problems), which renders him hapless in the eyes of the pissed off Lalita (Aishwarya) because she’s so politically correct and anal. Lalita comes across as an intellectual with a mood swing who seems to be hypersensitive and defensive rather than having a genuine beef to be incensed at Darcy for. It annoyed me that Lalita felt like she was the defiant speakerphone for her country and parroted many social, political, and economic issues about why she doesn’t like Darcy or elements he represents such as American imperialism, economic hegemony, cultural ignorance, etc. But then she falls for him – for no particularly strong reason. He’s a “nice” guy she later on discovers. When was “niceness” the only thing that made people fall in love?
I think Gurinder Chadha made Lalita irritating and attempted to portray her “intelligence” by making her politically sensitive and reactive to just about every detail in her environment. How and why Lalita finally relented to Darcy and married him is still a question mark in my mind. What made Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy so engaging is that these two souls have underlying tension, chemistry, and rapid-fire witty banter – Ash and Henderson have almost nil chemistry. My interpretation of Elizabeth and Darcy is two people destined to be together but who are simply indulging in “foreplay” of verbal bickering and superficial warfare; Darcy and Lalita didn’t convey that energy to me at all. I think what annoyed many people about B&P is its superficial political and cultural concerns but at the same time endorsing the relationship between Darcy and Lalita who represent two completely different backgrounds, philosophies, and motivations. These characters were completely antithetical to each other and yet they married on grounds that are far more superficial than the reasons for why they hated each other – or rather, why Lalita hated Darcy!
Gurinder tries to be faithful to Austen’s Darcy and Elizabeth, and they are supposed to be different and yet attracted to each other due to irresistible magnetic chemistry. Without this chemistry, the union of Lalita and Darcy is not convincing. I haven’t seen every Pride and Prejudice interpretation that exists out there, but one of the best portrayals of Darcy is that of Colin Firth – stuffy, arrogant, sophisticated, verbally economical yet meaningful, misunderstood, but still radiating a sexual and mental tension underneath all that stuffiness. Henderson’s Darcy has none of that. He just appears to be a pretty boy who is unlucky enough to get verbally hammered by Lalita and has no mental capability to defend himself effectively. Henderson’s Darcy doesn’t resemble the rich hotelier that he is supposed to be – he is more like a disheveled graduate student backpacking with his buddies in India. The tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is the reason why so many are drawn to this timeless story and why particularly women are fascinated by the character of Darcy - so much so that other films these days, i.e. Bridget Jones, love to stick Darcy anywhere even without much of an Austenian storyline. I think B&P failed to capture this synergy between the main characters.
When the minor characters are more interesting than the main ones, it never bodes too well for an audience’s reception to a movie. Lalita bitches about how Darcy disagrees with her culture’s customs such as arranged marriages, but she herself doesn’t like the idea – this is only one of the few contradictions of her character throughout the movie. The reason why she started to despise Darcy was that she thought he rejected her when he had trouble fixing his costume. However, she then starts to harp on his “imperialistic” tendencies instead of the real truth behind her annoyance. Lalita also retaliates by nitpicking everything Darcy says into a political and social conspiracy deserving of public lambastes from her. Her brain seems to be transplanted from an over-reactive student marching in a riot somewhere in the world for some idiotic cause. Although the façade is gorgeous who would want a conversation with such a belligerent person?
The supporting cast is the highlight of B&P. Anupam Kher (Mr. Bakshi) must have been thrilled to be playing a serious father instead of the goofball daddies he’s been playing in just about every major, successful, and popular Bollywood flick in existence. The only movie I’ve seen so far where Anupam wasn’t a paternal sillyhead, with children a million light years more mature than he, was in 1942: A Love Story. He is one of India’s finest supporting actors and I hope that he will receive more pivotal roles to play in the future. Nitin Ganatra’s Mr. Kholi was great and was probably the one guy who generated the most laughs – his hip-hop wanna-be antics were hilarious. I liked his performance a great deal and it was memorable. He poked fun at himself and was a wonderful comic presence. Ashanti was a guest star and does a Bollywood song-and-dance number during a Goa club scene, and I’m not sure what to make of it other than it’s not extravagant enough for me – this is India – throw in more gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, extras, lots of extras, and even elephants for god’s sake. Even though the Cobra Dance, performed brilliantly by Meghna Kothari, was a farce it was still well-danced.
British actors Indira Varma and Naveen Andrews had some very intimate moments in 1996’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, and it is hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief as they now play the Bingley brother and sister in somewhat gross fashion. Namrata Shirodkar was perfect as Jaya or Jane, exactly how Austen has written her character. Mrs. Bakshi (Nadira Babbar) was appropriately loud, pompous, and small-minded. The youngest sister Lucky (Peeya Rai Chowdhary) was very annoying, and the evil side of me says that she and that conniving Brit Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies) deserved each other. Aside from Ash’s unreal beauty, there is no real magnetism to the main characters, and the supporting cast saved the day as well as provided much relief when the storyline between Ash and Henderson became too tedious.
Mrs. Bakshi chides Lalita for not giving into an arranged marriage with Mr. Kholi, “First you marry, then love grows, she wants love from the very beginning!” It must be odd for the average individualistic Westerner to accept marriage not based on love and marriage that is made possible by official matchmaking. I think arranged marriages have been unfairly vilified in the West, although I do believe that people should have the freedom to choose their spouses. The older I get the more I realize that there’s more wisdom to this thinking than the blindly individual search for love based on emotions and chemistry alone. Objective parties are more clear-headed and perceptive about who’s a better match for you in terms of temperament, interests, background, education, habits, and family lifestyles, as “being in love” tends to overlook these things which will in time rear their ugly heads and break unions apart. Families do their research and background checks for you.
I think in the end B&P again simplified the complexity of arranged marriages into black-and-white formulas – arranged marriage is bad; marriage based on love is good. For example, Lalita marrying Darcy is good while her best friend marrying Mr. Kholi, an arranged marriage, is just a joke. Gurinder Chadha emphasized that B&P was “diaspora-centric” and I can certainly respect that attempt except that it needs to be more thorough. While diaspora-centrism may apply to Bend It Like Beckham, it hardly applies here. The only Indians who are diasporic Indians are Mr. Kholi, Niran, and Bajral, and they are just peripheral characters. The Bakshis are just well-to-do farmers in Amritsar, Punjab, and most of the movie takes place there with a few instances where the Bakshis end up in London and L.A. for sightseeing and a wedding attendance. It’s hardly a discussion on the Indian diaspora at all.
In the end this film is a marvelous spectacle if you completely ignore the discrepancies of the plot and characterizations. If you can’t get over these discrepancies, then the shortcomings might just be enough to override your enjoyment. The visual splendor was so colorful and energetic that you forgive these problems during your viewing; it is after your viewing that you begin to question some of the issues this film superficially raised and titillated without much in-depth exploration.

Rating: 8.0

Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Character List

Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai) – Elizabeth Bennett
Jaya Bakshi (Namrata Shirodkar) – Jane Bennett
Maya Bakshi (Meghna Kothari) – Mary Bennett
Lucky Bakshi (Peeya Rai Chouhuri) – Lydia Bennett
Mrs. Bakshi (Nadira Babbar) – Mrs. Bennett
Mr. Bakshi (Anupam Kher) - Mr. Bennett
Balraj (Naveen Andrews) – Mr. Bingley
Kiran (Indira Varma) – Miss Bingley
Mr. Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra) – Mr. Collins
Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) – Fitzwilliam Darcy