There’s good news and bad news for American rom-com fans sick of rewatching the same Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts vehicles over and over again: The good news is that Bollywood—Mumbai’s booming Hindi-language film industry—has literally thousands of romantic comedies just waiting to be discovered. The bad news is that it can be a a little intimidating to dive into a new, unfamiliar cinematic world for the first time. For her 2004 passion project Bride & Prejudice, writer-director Gurinder Chadha set out to bridge that gap and make Bollywood accessible to Western audiences. And she did so by embracing her own diverse cultural heritage. Raised in London after being born in Kenya to Indian parents, Chadha decided to blend the ultimate British novel, Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, with the filmmaking style she’d grown up loving. The result is a joyful, goofy musical romantic comedy with some surprisingly weighty ideas lurking just beneath its glitzy surface.
Chadha had previously tried to get a Bollywood pastiche off the ground in 1996, but it fell through due to disagreements about tone. Following the unexpected success of her 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham—which grossed $76.6 million on a $6 million budget and proved to be a bit of a cultural phenomenon, especially in Britain—Chadha finally had the clout to bring her dream project to life (although Bride & Prejudice was still produced for a modest $7 million). Chadha’s interest was first and foremost in celebrating Bollywood, and the idea of adapting Jane Austen came second. As she told The Telegraph, “Pride And Prejudice is a universal love story that’s sort of familiar to people. So they can sit back, not worry they’re going to miss the story, and just get into a different film language.” Indeed, though Bride & Prejudice stays largely faithful to its source material, Austen’s enemies-to-lovers story is a familiar template even for those who don’t know the novel.
For those who do, however, Bride & Prejudice is a real treat. Unlike Bridget Jones’s Diary, which takes Pride And Prejudice as the loosest of source material, Bride & Prejudice brings most of the novel’s major characters and storylines to life with both a modern and cross-cultural twist. Chadha’s big hook for the film is that Regency era England and contemporary small-town India share a lot of similarities, particularly when it comes to mothers eager to make good marriage matches for their daughters. The Indian city of Amritsar stands in for the Hertfordshire countryside, and the Bennet family are reimagined as the Bakshi family. Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi (Anupam Kher and Nadira Babbar, respectively) have four unmarried young daughters—gentle Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar as the Jane figure), outspoken Lalita (Aishwarya Rai as the Lizzy figure), quirky Maya (Meghna Kothari as the Mary figure), and rebellious Lakhi (Peeya Rai Chowdhary as the Lydia figure). (The movie cuts the second-youngest Bennet daughter, Kitty, who mostly just functions Lydia’s sidekick.)
One of the movie’s cleverest adaptation choices is to update the all-important balls from the novel into Indian wedding celebrations, which also double as an excuse to bring the film’s multicultural cast together. Bride & Prejudice is a love letter both to India as a country but also to Indian people living all over the world. As Chadha observed, “Most Indian families are spread around the globe. When Paul [Mayeda Berges, Chadha’s husband and collaborator] and I got married, my relatives came from Kenya, India, Australia, America. It was the same when my dad died. It’s the very nature of Indian life, the way we move from country to country. That was an element I wanted to focus on in the film.” To reflect the modern day Indian diaspora and tell a truly multicultural story, Chadha set her film in three different countries—India, the U.K., and the United States.
As Bride & Prejudice opens, a wedding has sent Amritsar into a celebratory tizzy and brought some foreign guests into town, including successful British-Indian barrister Balraj (Naveen Andrews as the Mr. Bingley figure), his sister, Kiran (Game Of Thrones’ Indira Varma as the Caroline Bingley figure), and their white American friend Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), a wealthy hotelier who’s immediately overwhelmed by his first visit to India. Darcy doubles as a stand-in for Western audiences unfamiliar with Indian culture, or, more specifically, unfamiliar with the tropes of Bollywood filmmaking. Bride & Prejudice quickly dives into heightened reality with its opening boys vs. girls musical number “Balle Balle,” during which Naveen Andrews transforms into the “Indian MC Hammer” and looks like he’s having more fun than anyone has ever had on film. Kiran starts by explaining the number to Darcy, initially translating its lyrics into English. From that point on, Bride & Prejudice becomes a full-on musical, one that blends Bollywood traditions with American movie musical ones.
In addition to maintaining the focus on class and gender from Austen’s original novel, Bride & Prejudice is even more interested in race and culture. When Darcy and Lalita first butt heads, it’s because his attempts at small talk are filled with casual condescension towards India. He doesn’t understand how business gets done with the city’s imperfect infrastructure, and he finds the idea of arranged marriages “backwards.” Lalita’s quick to call out his complaint as a cliché and note that modern day arranged marriages are more of a “global dating service” than something forced on children by their parents. Bride & Prejudice creates a pitch perfect depiction of casual American arrogance in Darcy’s thoughtless cultural insensitivity, but the movie’s also sympathetic to the fact that Darcy is overwhelmed at being thrust into a big, loud celebration on his very first day in a new country. The best Pride And Prejudice adaptations recognize there’s an element of social awkwardness that fuels the behavior that makes Mr. Darcy seem standoffish and arrogant. Bride & Prejudice gets that just right.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only element of Will Darcy that Martin Henderson gets right. His casting is the single biggest misstep of the film, a bizarre holdover from a time when the New Zealand actor made a brief run at being a Hollywood leading man (he played a supporting role to Naomi Watts in The Ring and starred in the 2004 racing action film Torque, opposite Ice Cube). When it comes time to sell Darcy’s transformation to selfless romantic hero, Henderson mostly just stares in wide-eyed confusion. It could simply be a bad casting choice (Chadha described Henderson as an “old-fashioned matinee idol” who could sell the film’s Bollywood-appropriate chaste romance), but I also think the rom-com genre in general suffers from the fact that male actors are so spoiled for choice in the film industry that the truly talented ones don’t have to take supporting roles in female-led films in the way that uber-talented women often do in male-led ones.
But, as I continually argue in this column, I don’t think a good rom-com entirely hinges on a good romance. The great ones do, of course, but if a rom-com has a compelling protagonist, engaging supporting characters, solid world-building, and something to say, it can still work despite a so-so romance. For what it lacks in a Darcy, Bride & Prejudice more than makes up for in its Lizzy. Aishwarya Rai was one of Bollywood’s biggest stars when she made her English-language debut in Bride & Prejudice. And her spirited, expressive, emotionally grounded performance is the glue that holds the film together. Chadha described directing the project as a “constant negotiation” of tones, especially when it came to finding a balance between the heightened, sometimes over-the-top Bollywood acting styles and the more naturalistic styles of American and British actors. Rai gets that balance just right—lending the film a little melodrama when it needs it but also embodying Lalita as a laid-back everywoman. Plus her effervescent dance abilities elevate many of the film’s big production numbers.
Bride & Prejudice channels most of its cultural critiques through Lalita, and Chadha and Berges’ script isn’t afraid to mince words. When Darcy argues that investing in a luxury hotel in Gao will help stimulate the country’s economy, Lalita shoots back that she doesn’t want India to become a theme park for rich foreign tourists. As she puts it, “You want people to come to India without having to deal with Indians… Five-star comfort with a bit of culture thrown in.” She then dismisses Darcy as an imperialist, arguing that’s a role Americans have been more than happy to take over from the British.
And Bride & Prejudice doesn’t just save its cultural critique for its white American characters, either. As the boorish Mr. Collins figure, Mr. Kohli (Nitin Ganatra) is an Indian ex-pat obsessed with his new L.A. life. When Mr. Kohli dismisses India as “too corrupt” to become a major player on the global business stage, Mr. Bakshi argues that India’s potential is far from over, especially since the country only achieved independence in 1947. Lalita responds with an even more impressively pointed rebuttal: “What do you think your U.S. was like after 60 years of independence? They were killing each other with slavery and blindly searching for gold.” It would be an impactful cultural critique for any film, let alone a lighthearted rom-com. That it’s a conversation that takes place among a diverse group of Indian characters is even rarer.
In a 2005 interview with Female First, Chadha had this exchange:
Q: Your films are often described as “feel good” movies but would you agree that there’s a sense of anger beneath the surface?
A: I think anger might be a little bit of a strong word, but I’m really pleased that you notice that. It’s... what it is I’m not sure. I don’t often talk about the films like this, but basically all my films are about racism and prejudice. They might be dressed up as comedy but everything I’ve ever done is always about making whoever’s watching it think differently about the person on the screen. That’s not to say that they’re all big anti-racist statements, they’re just about humanising people who are different and showing you people in a different light and showing you people that you thought were different to you but actually were very similar to you. That’s what drives my work, it’s the engine behind everything and the reason why it moves. On top of that there’s the bodywork and upholstery and all the rest of it, and the bigger the budget the flashier the car, but that’s the heart of it underneath and then it’s dressed up in different ways.
Like Austen’s Lizzy, Lalita is appreciably intelligent and outspoken, but also a little too swayed by her first impressions of people. After their terse first meeting, she’s quick to read malice into her future conversations with Darcy, even when it’s not really there. And she’s a bit too easily blinded by the seemingly sensitive Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), Darcy’s former childhood friend-turned-enemy. Of all of the modern day adaptations of Pride And Prejudice, I’m not sure any have ever more accurately captured the spirit of Mr. Wickham than the way Bride & Prejudice reimagines him as a hot British backpacker with a performative laid-back cultural sensitivity.
For the first hour or so, Bride & Prejudice cruises along, enlivened by a strong point of view and engaging production numbers like “A Marriage Has Come To Town,” a Garba dance, and the absolute bop that is “No Life Without Wife”—a girl group performance that’s easily the film’s catchiest musical number (with apologies to Ashanti’s “My Lips Are Waiting”).
Unfortunately, the film largely loses steam in its second half, as it hops rather aimlessly between London and L.A. and rushing through Pride And Prejudice plot beats without bringing enough emotional depth to them. For as effective as Bride & Prejudice is at establishing Darcy’s cultural condescension, it’s not particularly great at resolving it, nor at establishing why Lalita falls for him. The cleverest scene in the latter half of the movie is an L.A.-set musical number in which a Mariachi band, bartenders, surfers, lifeguards, and a gospel choir all become spontaneous backup singers for Darcy and Lalita’s love story. It’s a funny sight gag, and an effective reminder that the big Bollywood production numbers are no more reflective of real Indian life than a gospel choir singing on a beach is representative of actual American life. For the most part, however, the second half of the film loses track of its supporting players and rushes too quickly to a happy ending that feels a little bit hollow.
At its worst, Bride & Prejudice is a goofy 101-entry point for both Bollywood filmmaking conventions and Pride And Prejudice plot points. At its best, however, it’s an impressively pointed, wonderfully colorful cross-cultural celebration. Chadha has described her films as being “genially subversive” when it comes to tackling tough subject matter in an engaging way. In a rom-com genre that’s sometimes guilty of churning out shallow entertainment without much to say, you can’t accuse Bride & Prejudice of not having a lot on its mind.
Next time: Before Taraji P. Henson learned What Men Want, Mel Gibson discovered What Women Want.