Bride & Prejudice (2004)

India’s the place for me.
India sets you free.
— Ashanti, “My Lips Are Waiting (a.k.a. Goa Groove)”

For us, part of the pleasure of this movie was that if you were a Jane Austen fan, you could recognize how we kept going back to the novel.
— Gurinder Chadha, commentary, Bride & Prejudice

“I feel the more we talk about our characters, about the storyline, it tends to dilute what the film is all about, and kind of tends to create preconceived ideas,” says Aishwarya Rai. “And so I always leave this open to the audience to come forth and see it, but I think the fact that you’re given an idea that his is Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice, this is a fairly broad giveaway on who the character is in the given storyline.”

Rai makes her comments quickly (literally, she speaks rapidly) and her voice is rather musical. She’s arranged here for a “conversation” (more of a monologue) for the new DVD release of Bride & Prejudice, Rai is backed by flowers and print pillows, her recollections of the production focused on the demanding schedule and occasional difficulties with elements (running through the fountains was cold!). And to be fair, director Gurinder Chadha makes the same point in her commentary track, with co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges: “This film was a really hard film to make. It took us two years, and now we’re going to relive the whole thing.” Still, for Rai, most beautiful woman in the world (according to Julia Roberts) and popular Bollywood star, the most significant point about the shoot is that is was great fun and the time flew. Chadha was clever, the production numbers were grand, and her costars were wonderful.

Such enthusiasm is immediately visible in this lively Bollywoodification of Jane Austen’s novel (and indeed, throughout the DVD extras, including six deleted scenes, four extended songs, a making-of documentary, and a featurette on Ashanti’s performance). Rai plays Lalita, 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.

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 stiff, Caucasian British hotel magnate Will Darcy (Martin Henderson, in his DVD “conversation,” notes that Western films are not so “light” as Indian movies).

Darcy first appears during a wildly colorful, mightily choreographed party scene, this one, the first of many, occasioned by a friend’s upcoming nuptials. As Chadha notes during this introduction to characters, “If this was a complete, full Bollywood movie, the [first] shot of Aishwarya would be in slow motion.” Instead, the camera closes on her gracefully, and moves the film along as well. While her sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) spots a hometown boy turned London-based barrister Balraj (Naveen Andrews) across the dance floor, Lalita sees Darcy, who not only wears head-to-toe white, but he also looks dour and awkward. 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).

Darcy is at once imperialist and capitalist: Lalita informs him that buying up hotels and hiring Indian wait-staff is less good-hearted than exploitative. When he complains about the hotel where he’s staying (the internet connects are unstable), Lalita takes it as judgment of her culture, where the $5000 he wants to pay (and charge) for a hotel room is more than most folks make in a year. He tries again: “People who can afford it, they want the best. There’s nothing wrong with having standards, is there?” Close up on Lalita, as she schools him, “No, as long as you don’t impose them on others.” He’s got nothing.

The film complicates Austen by reframing Darcy-Lalita relationship through a number of filters, that is, beyond class, they also face national and cultural differences. As the movie trots them around the globe — from India to England to the U.S., it seems to have almost too much to do. Much is accomplished through frenetic pacing, 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).

As Chadha says, “That’s really the thing about this movie, is that every single element of it is a balance, of how Eastern or Western to go.” Sometimes this balance seems lost, only to be recovered by a bit of imbalance in the next scene. It is, as Rai notes, a “clever” way to lace through all the possibilities, though it can also leave you breathless. It careens from crowded city streets where Indian drag queens advise Lalita on effective girlishness, 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.

The East-West dance mash-ups set the sisters against a series of backgrounds, both geographical and cultural. They sing “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. (This is a phenomenal scene, and, as Chadha and Berges observe, it combines all kinds of magical moments, evoking other movies as well as the romance at hand.) 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.