It seems Jane Austen’s seminal novel Pride & Prejudice is everywhere these days. The recent BBC mini-series, the
Bride is an extravaganza of color, light and sound. It tears across boundaries. It's a cross-cultural buffet table with open invitations for everyone. For many Westerners, it may not as comfortably familiar as Chadha's previous film Bend It Like Beckham, which I pegged as the best foreign film of 2003, a choice I still stand behind. Then again, it probably depends on whether you dig Jane Austen, as it is a cross-genre fan script of her novel "Pride & Prejudice" and those extravagant Bollywood musicals you haven't seen enough of. Bride & Prejudice uses similar characters and situations to Austen's social circles and includes musical aesthetics and conventions from Bollywood, creating a gestalt hyper-film of color, music and love, English-Indian-style. Plus, as with Beckham, there are a bevy of supremely hot women and men to ogle moronically at.
On it's own merits, it is a joy to watch. The whole film is one gigantic, explosive party. In Amritsar, India, Mrs. Bakshi (Nadira Babbar) dreams of the day when her four daughters: Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar), Lalita (Aishwarya Rai), Maya (Meghna Kothari) and Lakhi (Peeya Rai Chowdhary), can be sufficiently wedded to suitable bachelors. When Jaya meets Balraj (Naveen Andrews) at a friend's wedding, they know they are meant to be. When Lalita meets his best friend Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), she too is intrigued but only by his arrogance and yet for some reason, she can't stop thinking about him. Across international borders, alternate suitors, a tremendous cultural divide and complicated dance steps, will Lalita and Darcy end up together? If you know Bollywood films, you know the answer.
As a musical comedy, the film is nearly perfect and those unfamiliar with and yet open to the Bollywood musical style will agree. The songs are sung in English and Hindi and feature surprisingly toe-tapping club beats mixed with beautiful vocals and razor-sharp lyrics. This is the type of club music you hear a lot in the local Indian curry places (if you're lucky enough) that the young waiters listen to; the sort of music I would have in my CD collection if I didn't fear the derisive looks I'd get from the Indian record store clerks if I'd asked the question, "So, which of these is good?"
In most Hollywood musicals, the introduction of song bursting forth from a regular scene of speaking actors feels artificial enough to put off most American viewers. This is not the case with Bride, which is odd because all of the songs are clearly lip-synched and there's no way that everyone in the film would be that perky. Yet it all works and when those extras start singing and dancing, the cynicism one would expect is replaced by sheer wonder and enthusiasm. There is something very comforting about a group of people, be it a family or a town, getting together and feeling joyous enough to sing and dance like brain-damaged fools. It doesn't matter that it looks silly - they (and we) are stylistically experiencing the happiness of togetherness. That is a powerful emotion, one that is largely absent from American films, be they musical or not.
Also, there are belly laughs had the whole way around, mostly provided by Nitin Ganatra as one of the unsuitable suitors, Mr. Kholi. Kholi is a green-carded Indian who comes to Amritsar looking for a traditional, subservient wife. His character is immediately recognizable as a foreigner who has fallen prey to the decadent and foolish lifestyle of so many successful Americans. The constant reminders to his fellow countrymen of the upward value of his just-purchased home in the Valley (including a bathtub with super-jets!) falls flat when it is revealed to be just another track house in the newly developed desert. Who hasn't met a real estate obsessive-compulsive like that?
Bride is actually a very complex film, as all Chadha's films are. She tends to cover not only conflicts of culture, but of generation as well. While I wouldn't say Bride is as inspiring or textured as Bend It Like Beckham, for a romantic comedy it's not your average American disposable Wedding Date-esque date movie. One can really sense Chadha behind the scenes, underneath the script, mightily pulling people and cultures together like ocean waves. It is her mission as a filmmaker to bridge cultural gaps, along with her unabashed feminism, dedication to a family-friendly format, and her widespread, international, inter-generational appeal, that make her one of the most unique, inspiring, and dare I say, great filmmakers of our time.
After all this great stuff, the only glaring flaw is male lead Martin Henderson as Will Darcy. The character is introduced as such an ugly American, such a pig-headed capitalist that it's all but impossible to forgive him near the end of the film when he shows himself to be a caring and emotionally capable individual to our heroine/bachelorette, Lalita. Lalita (flawlessly portrayed by Rai, the current reigning Queen of Bollywood in her first English film) herself is an incomparable beauty and is the sharpest, most intelligent character in the entire film. Why she would choose Darcy among all the men in the world is a suspension of way too much disbelief. Sufficed to say, the ending of the film is not preferable to the idea of her starting her own international law firm, which the character has more than enough moxie to do. The ending, although Austen's original, feels too beneath Chadha's ideological character writing and so, leaves a sour taste.
But then there are always the colors, the music and the warm fuzzies in this movie-musical stew. So invite the grandparents over and/or your other assorted nutty Jane Austen advocate-relatives to see Bride & Prejudice. Brace yourself for a "happy" ending, but then again togetherness, after all, is the point.
DVD is certainly a better format for this film, as finally, through Chadha's various tutorials and commentary with husband/producer Paul Mayeda Burges, we finally get some context to the many, many Bollywood conventions that are actually in the film. It isn't exactly an all-star commentary, but with it one certainly gets the sense of how much the screenwriters tried to honor not just Bollywood and all of its conventions, but also Jane Austen as well. And more than an homage to both, it is a true meshing and compromise between cultures, and a successful and fun one at that.
I'll bet you didn't know the Jane Austen Society was so enthused and ecstatic after sitting through a screening, they offered Chadha a lifetime membership. So there you go. You can mix genres and conventions and still come out a winner.
Other extras include deleted scenes, the extended musical numbers, a documentary featurette, brief interviews with Rai & Henderson regarding their roles, outtakes featuring the singing crew, as well as another very short featurette regarding Ashanti and her musical role in the film, and what a role it is! In her, what the Bollywoodians call, "item number", a Bollywood tradition in which a featured sexy girl gets up in the middle of the movie and does a sexy dance number that the characters watch but is not necessary for the narrative, she gyrates her hips and plunges those beautiful abs, but what really put me over the edge was the singing in Hindi. Yowza!
Other than those hips, abs and singing, the extras are nothing to write home about. I'm really not fond of deleted scenes, especially when they're not cut back into the film and instead left out and stitched together like discarded table scraps. One or two of them perhaps would have been better left in the film, like the scene in which Darcy's mother offers to pay Lalita not to marry him, a knife driven deeper in the cultural and class divide the film attempts to bridge. For the most part, however, I agree with the director's final cut. There was nary a dull or superfluous moment.
What would've made the extras simply perfect is a commentary by the lead actors. It would've been fantastic to get a perspective from Aishwarya Rai, the reigning Queen of Bollywood, on this film along with her costars. I suppose it really, really would've been too much to ask for a Maxim-inspired photo gallery featuring the cast. Ah well.