Bride & Prejudice (2004)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. — We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.
— Elizabeth to Darcy, Pride and Prejudice

Lalita Bakshi is dazzling in a movie star sort of way (and played by former Miss World/hugely popular Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai, to underline the point). She’s also self-confident and headstrong, opposed in principle to her mother’s culture-bound notion that she take a husband selected for her. At the same time, because she is the oldest daughter of four, Lalita is also beginning to worry that she’ll be left behind in the wedding sweepstakes that her household has become.

In Bride & Prejudice, Gurinder Chandha’s lively Bollywoodification of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lalita is at once the skeptic and the convert-to-be, the daring independent whose education involves coming to terms with both her constraining heritage and her desire to fit in. In this sense, she rather embodies the problem of the movie, which simultaneously resists convention and wholly subscribes to it. The scripted tensions are both regular (generational and class-based) and updated (national and raced), but all lead to the same place: Lalita’s capitulation to romance. Here, that means she finds love and marriage with Caucasian British hotel magnate Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), whose unstoppable stiffness makes him seem at once a tedious and unfathomable choice.

Darcy first appears during a wildly colorful, mightily choreographed party scene (this one, only the first of many, occasioned by a friend’s upcoming nuptials). While Lalita’s sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) spots a hometown boy turned London-based barrister Balraj (Naveen Andrews) across the dance floor, the camera ensures you also see the gazes exchanged between lovely Lalita and this very white person: Darcy not only wears head-to-toe white, but he also looks dour and awkward, in repeated close-ups that hammer home his marginality in relation to the energetic gyrations before him. When he’s asked to dance, he looks sheepish and says he has to work, scuttling off screen as if he might catch something from all this overt display and commotion (the dancers sing outright of their desires to be hitched and the problems of courtship).

Austen’s Darcy was also diffident, of course, and Elizabeth Bennet was both forward-thinking and fretful about her social place. Her concern is amplified by the fact that Darcy appears an English imperialist in capitalism’s slick costume: she informs him that buying up hotels and hiring Indian wait-staff is less good-hearted than exploitative; he blanches at her dressing down, but eventually sees the error of his own ways.

While such renovation of Austen’s witty edge is clever enough, it also complicates the Darcy-Lalita relationship in a way that can’t be fully explored in this fast-paced, globe-trotting movie. It simply has too much else to do, much of it accomplished through frenetic pacing and occasionally graceless editing decisions, so that “important” plot points — Darcy’s arrogance, Lalita’s resistance, her mother’s insistence, the nefarious intervention of Darcy’s childhood friend Wickham (Daniel Gillies), here something of a beach bum, dashing and devious — are quickly established and essentially abandoned (though the mother’s interventions do come to feel overstated).

The movie’s busy-ness leaves you breathless. It careens from crowded city streets where Indian drag queens advise Lalita and company on effective girlishness (their performance brief and cartoonish, hard to parse in the context, except as they appear sensational objects), to the appearance of yet another male suitor, the too-hip-for-himself California-transplant Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra). He has returned home to find an appropriately “Indian” wife, the American girls being too self-absorbed and intimidating for his gauche insecurity.

And for another, it plops its couples down in a variety of culture-clashing locations, from India to London and L.A. And for still another, it delivers a run of East-West dance mash-ups, as the sisters cavort while singing “No Life Without Wife,” making fun of Kholi’s frankly obnoxious declaration; Darcy and Lalita musical-montage their way across Los Angeles, landing on a Santa Monica beach where they are serenaded by a fantastic blue-robed gospel choir, whose rendition of “Take Me To Love” echoes the rhythms of previously heard Indian melodies. This is globalization before it was so called, less tacky and onerous, more generous and potential, the vibrant intersections and cross-feedings of musical forms.

The other version of this culture-crashing idea comes embodied in Ashanti, who sings at yet another party scene, something approximating a rave — young pretty people smiling and swaying on a beach. Though she has nothing to do with the film’s romantic machinations, Ashanti appears on a stage to swish her fabulous hips and sing “My Lips Are Waiting (a.k.a. Goa Groove).” It strikes you as you’re watching the predictable reaction-shot inserts (Lalita is flirting with Wickham, so they look happy, Darcy scowls) that no one but this oddly in-betweener pop star could look so perfectly out of place and at ease at the same time, simultaneously appropriating and disconnected from her own performance.

And that’s the way Bride & Prejudice works, partly exultant and seductive in its discoveries of so many coincidences of culture, partly sinuous in its intertwinings, and partly just unwieldy, straining to bring so much together so summarily.