In 1813, not even the venerated Jane Austin could’ve accurately predicted that Pride and Prejudice would become one of the most beloved novels of all time, much less the inspiration for a contemporary Bollywood musical. But today, 192 years later, that’s exactly what’s happened, thanks to a legion of loyal fans, and a young, ingenious director named Gurinder Chadha.
Like the novel upon which it’s loosely based, Bride and Prejudice opens at an elaborate party, where the film’s protagonist, Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai, Devdas), a fiery Indian farm girl, meets Will Darcy (Martin Henderson, The Ring), a haughty American hotel heir, visiting Amritsar with longtime friend, Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews, Lost). The two engage in a heated exchange over local customs – Darcy equates performing a traditional Indian dance with petting a dog and screwing in a light bulb – while Balraj and Jaya, Lalita’s demure older sister, form a sudden romantic attachment.
Of course, no one could be happier about this potential pairing more than Mrs. Bakshi (a scene-stealing Nadira Babbar), who willingly authorizes a weekend trip to Goa, as long as Lalita is present to serve as the couple’s chaperone. Unfortunately, much to Lalita’s chagrin, Darcy and Kiran, Balraj’s snobby younger sister, show up at the hotel and tension mounts, causing Lalita to strike up a friendship with Wickham (Daniel Gillies, Spider-Man 2), a handsome British drifter whose mother was Darcy’s nanny.
Still, the reunion between Darcy and Wickham is anything but cordial and before long, escalates into a full-fledged competition for the heart of the gorgeous Lalita. But when Lalita finds out Darcy forced Wickham to leave his family’s London estate following his mother’s death, she refuses to have anything to do with him, despite her budding feelings.
Anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice knows this literary classic is based on a series of romantic roadblocks that not only come between Elizabeth and Darcy, but also highlight relevant issues relating to class structure, feminism and social inferiority. Gurinder Chadha, who rose from virtual obscurity in 2002 to direct the independent gem, Bend It Like Beckham – another feel good film featuring an intelligent, independent, strong-willed woman, not unlike Lalita Bakshi (aka Elizabeth Bennet) – may not strictly adhere to Austin’s brilliant narrative, taking artistic liberties to give the film a modern twist. But what she does accomplish with Bride and Prejudice is to maintain the novel’s piercing wit without compromising its fundamental themes about love, reputation and class.
To do this, Chadha lampoons the archaic notion that a woman’s sole value is based on how well she marries, portraying the rural Indian village of Amritsar as a class-conscious society – similar to Longbourn, England – where a single, young woman, need only marry a wealthy, prominent husband to improve her social standing. For example, when Lalita rejects a marriage proposal from Mr. Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra) – a bumbling California heart surgeon shopping for an Indian bride – her foolish mother tells her she’s brought disgrace to the Bakshi family, and that she’ll never speak to her again.
Fortunately, Mrs. Bakshi’s anger is short-lived and within hours, she changes her tune, prompting Lalita and her sisters to rejoice by breaking into song. Like most Bollywood musicals, Bride and Prejudice marks moments of pure joy with a vibrant blend of 50s style Pop and Sangeet, including the snappy No Life Without Wife, an infectious tune, which mocks Mr. Kholi’s presumptuous claim that a single man in possession of a good fortune is always in want of a wife.
Fans of the 1995 A&E miniseries, Pride and Prejudice – starring Colin Firth – will likely be disappointed by Martin Henderson’s performance as Mr. Darcy, calling it wooden and uninspired. Henderson, who has yet to prove himself as a formidable leading man, lacks the insight, intelligence, and intensity to portray a complex character, like Will Darcy. Often appearing out of place in scenes where his character snubs the clever Lalita Bakshi. On the other hand, Naveen Andrews, who plays the amiable Balraj Bingley, is perfectly cast as Darcy’s gallant best friend, and brings a genuine sense of charm and charisma to an otherwise thankless role. But like any great onscreen heroine, its breakout star Aishwarya Rai, who truly makes Bride and Prejudice sing, turning the character of Lalita Bakshi into such a brilliant, feisty, young woman, not even the legendary Jane Austin could’ve envisioned her.