As the London-born daughter of first-generation Indian parents, director Gurinder Chadha naturally gravitates toward issues of identity, but her recent work stands as a lesson in the perils of multiculturalism. Her little-seen indie What's Cooking?, an ensemble comedy about several ethnic families putting their own delectable spin on the American holiday of Thanksgiving, typifies the problem. Chadha seems to believe that when a bunch of ingredients are tossed into the melting pot, the result is a rich cultural stew, when it's really more like the tepid casseroles dished out at a Midwestern potluck. When two nations come together in a Chadha film, both stand to lose something.
Expanding on the success of her semi-autobiographical sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha introduces Jane Austen to Bollywood in the East-meets-West musical Bride & Prejudice, but the two prove surprisingly incompatible. With her roots in both Britain and India, Chadha would seem like the right person to mediate these distinct cultures onscreen, but her translation reads so broadly that it might as well have been overdubbed in Italian. The awkwardness commences when she unites Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood's most glamorous marquee star, with Torque stud Martin Henderson, Hollywood's cheesiest stubble-faced C-lister. In the bustling Indian village of Amritsar, a determined matriarch (Nadira Babbar) seeks suitable companions for her four beautiful girls in the days leading up to a lavish wedding. Committed to marry for love, her headstrong daughter Rai initially brushes off American hotel magnate Henderson as an arrogant jerk who only sees her country as an exotic place for five-star comfort. But when Henderson proves more open to the "real" India than Rai assumed, the two start connecting, and she embraces the possibility of finding love on her own terms.
Threading Austen's serious themes on class, family, and gender equality through a colorful Bollywood spectacle isn't such an awful idea, since the lightness and wide-reaching generosity of her work seems perfectly suited to the musical form. But Chadha doesn't seem at home with either Austen or Bollywood, and her ambitions far exceed her competence in the song-and-dance numbers, which are a clutter of stiff choreography and silly original lyrics. The early scenes in Bride & Prejudice, when the town comes alive in anticipation of the coming wedding, have some of the joy Chadha must have been angling for, but her sensibility is too broad to handle Austen adequately, and too studied and graceless to do justice to Bollywood. And if there is still a place for a character to exclaim "Whassup!" in any cultural tradition, she definitely hasn't found it here.