A film review by Craig J. Koban
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE
2006, PG, 110 mins.
Lalita Bakshi: Aishwarya Rai / Will Darcy:
Martin Henderson / Mr. Bakshi: Anupam Kher / Mrs. Bakshi: Nadira Babbar
/ Balraj: Naveen Andrews / Jaya Bakshi: Namrata Shirodkar / Johnny Wickham: Daniel Gillies
Miss Bingley: Indira Varma / Maya Bakshi: Meghna Kothari / Lucky Bakshi: Peeya Rai
/ Choudhuri /
Will's mother: Marsha Mason / Mr. Kholi: Nitin Chandra Ganatra
I have often taken great pains to lament on one of my biggest pet peeves about particular films – the fact that they often suffer from what I call 'cinematic multiple personality disorder'. In other words, they try to be too many things, ultimately lose their way, and inevitably become a convoluted and chaotic mess. Well, I have to stand back a bit from that philosophy when looking at Bollywood films, because it is their very persistence at throwing everything at the screen but the kitchen sink that is precisely their strong point.
Bollywood cinema is greatly afflicted by cinematic multiple personality disorder, but that is largely where most of its charm and allure is derived from. These films are all over the place in terms of narrative, style, tone, and sentiment, but there is no denying their energy, appeal, liveliness, and overwhelming sense of cheerfulness and fun. You may scratch your head at a lot at what you may see in a Bollywood film, but you nevertheless are inspired to giggle a lot though them and always with a smile on your face.
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a remarkably enjoyable riot because of all of the reasons mentioned. It’s Jane Austen done as an Indian, Technicolor musical. Okay, maybe at first glance the fusing of the classic Victorian literature and the flamboyant and vibrant Hollywood musical would be enough to have many thinking that Austen would be turning over in her grave. Yet, the film is still largely faithful to the source material – it too is a film about a clash of cultures and societies – but what this film adds is a cute, colorful, and unbridled spectacle of sights and sounds that only Bollywood has the tenacity to offer. The film works not because it is a film of probing themes or characters; it’s a predictable love melodrama and a comedy of family manners through and through. It works because of its sense of heedlessness and willingness to be bold, boisterous, zany, vivid, lush, and undeniably good spirited and pleasurable. BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a small little masterpiece of daffy wit and vivacious self-reverence. It both celebrates and parodies that oozing Bollywood cheese we know and love.
Okay, but to the uninitiated, what is Bollywood? Well, for starters, it is the informal name given to the popular Mumbai-based film industry in India. It may surprise many to find out that India is the leading film producing country in the world and actually completely overshadows American in terms of yearly film productions. The Bollywood films are a pervasive cultural phenomenon in India, but they have also seen consistent and growing popularity in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, Africa, parts of South East Asia, and most recently the UK.
Most Bollywood enterprises are ostensibly musicals (Indians expect the most bang for their buck) and are overwhelmingly melodramatic. They recycle every formulaic ingredient from the cinematic cookbook – star crossed lovers, domineering mothers that impede said lovers, reversal of fortune, love and fate, conniving and self-centered villains, insanely handsome and gorgeous female and male characters, not to mention great scenery, drama, comedy, farce, and an overall pathological zeal and fancy-free spirit. BRIDE AND PREJUDICE has all of this, plus the presence of Aishwarya Rai.
Rai is the centerpiece of this wonderful droll and wickedly bouncy farce. She, of course is the former Miss World (gee, it’s one thing to be Miss 'fill in your country’s name', but to be Miss World – that’s a whole other upper echelon indeed). PREJUDICE represents her first foray into an English speaking films and she, more or less, falls into it rather effortlessly. She sure is a screen presence. The IMDB has dubbed her “The Queen of Bollywood” and, most notably, one particular Chicago Sun Times film critic has repeatedly called her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Hmmmm…the jury may still be out on that verdict, yet there is no denying that she is, unequivocally, an utterly luminous, stunning and dazzling sight to behold. Despite her near inhuman and incomparable beauty, she has a lot of sass, spunk, and vigor in her lead role in PREJUDICE. Bollywood films, by their very nature, are eye candy, so for its main actress not to be an equally spirited looker and participant would have been a large detriment.
However, BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is not completely a Bollywood enterprise. It is more of a conglomeration of Hollywood and Bollywood. It is largely a Brit and Yankee production with Disney fitting the bill and Miramax overseeing. It is clear that, by the end of watching the film, the influence of both parties is undeniable. PREJUDICE does utilize some of India’s most revered performers and is the sort of lavish, neo-1950’s musical that Hollywood does not seem to make anymore. The main difference with PREJUDICE from traditional Bollywood fare is simple – this one is in English, for the most part, and has a fairly sizable bankroll (a typical Bollywood film’s budget would probably be the entire catering budget on BATMAN BEGINS).
The story is wisely touted as being “influenced by” Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. In all instances, cultural classes seem more prevalent in the film than the class ones in the book. However, the basic underlying story of love permeates the film as it did in the novel. The main engine of the plot centers on an American millionaire workaholic named Will (Martin Henderson) and the intoxicatingly beautiful Lalita (Rai), who is the middle daughter of a middle-class Indian couple. Lalita lives in Amritsar and when Darcy arrives they sort of have a “meet cute” that is punctuated with a bit of contempt and scorn thrown both ways.
Of course, love between the two blossoms throughout the course of the film, but there are, as with all romantic melodramas, complications that get in the way. Firstly, there is Lalita’s enormously traditional Indian mother, Mrs. Bakshi (played very humorously by Nadira Babbar) who only wants her four daughters to be “set up” for life with the right Indian man. Clearly, marriage for the mother equates less with something that naturally occurs and more with a pathetic game show that rivals WHO WANTS TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. Well, the mother’s strategy works, to a small degree, as her other daughter, Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and Darcy's best friend, Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews) meet and have successful nuptials. Things do not go as planned for Will and Lalita, as their progress is stalled mostly from the advances of a mysterious stranger named Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies) and the completely slimy and unwanted advances of Mr. Kholi, played by Nitin Chandra Ganatra in one of the funniest supporting performances of recent memory.
Kholi seems like the dream suitor for Lalita in Mrs. Bakshi’s eyes, that is, of course, if she could look past his millions and see what a completely undesirable dweeb he really is. Yes, Kholi is filthy rich and has had much success in Los Angeles, and his penchant for trying to appropriate American vernacular and hip-hop lingo with his thick accent makes for some of the more amusing moments of any comedy I’ve seen this year. His attitudes about women in general further perpetuates what an unflattering suitor he would be. When asked about women at a crucial dinner table scene, he responds that he prefers the “submissiveness” of Indian women to American ones, who try “too hard to be opinionated, independent, career oriented and, worst of all, some even turn to the lesbianism.” Kholi is so insidiously hilarious in his small role and garners the biggest laughs from the slightest of gestures, movements, and innocuous words. His performance is something Peter Sellers would have been proud of.
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a film that can be easily hated if seen in the wrong light. This is not meant to be a literate and thoughtful retelling of Austin’s work (I think the four hour 1995 mini-series told that story). This is Austen that gleefully feels the opportunity to break out into about a half dozen song and dance numbers, all which sparkle on their own with wit, silliness, and craziness. The opening number is a wonderfully realized kaleidoscope of lush colors, vibrant costumes, and simple-minded and fun choreography. I loved the way the film had playfulness with even the background performers, who manage to turn up without much warning to take part in the celebration of all things offbeat. You just got to give your props to a film that has the tenacity to place a gospel choir on a LA beach with BAYWATCH-esque lifeguards singing background lyrics. You just can’t buy that type of infectious high spirit and daftness.
The sights are a wonderful mishmash of sweet, innocent, and festively busy songs and dances, but it is Rai that is the effervescent crowd pleaser of the film. When she is on screen it is next to impossible to look at anything else, not to mention that it's a lot of fun to see her cavort around and partake in the film’s ridiculousness with a certain amount of charismatic humility and poise. Not only is she an enormously graceful presence, but also I liked the way the film did not dumb down her character to be a victimized woman to be taken advantage of. Lalita is as sharp-witted as she is gorgeous, and always seems uninhibited to speak her mind and challenge anyone that she might disagree with. Her peskiness and droll sense of sarcasm and wit makes her a slippery prey for the suitor in Will, which, of course, makes their banter more playful than it otherwise would have been. Lalita deals with issues of pride in her home country and defends it relentless from Will’s prejudice. She does all of this, of course, while wildly breaking out into song and dance numbers in the streets, whereby all other bystanders get in on the action as well.
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE was directed by Gurinder Chadha, who made one of the more interesting comedies of the last few years in BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. You may remember that film also was about culture clashes that also managed to contain the standard elements of a sports picture. Thinking of the concept of a Bollywood PRIDE AND PREJUDICE seems like a dubious one, to be sure. Yet, at the end of it all, Chandha pulls it all off in a film that embraces its sheer invention and savoury and light-hearted humour. This is one of those films that purposely dispenses reality out of the window and throws everything it viscerally can at you until you can’t help but smile. BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a hoot. It's a wacky and daft post-modern Austen tale that achieves simple things – it places gorgeous people in broad and beautiful settings and let’s them sing and dance with reckless abandon. This is a film to sit back and experience and let in envelop you in its feisty tenacity and gusto. And then there is Aishwarya Rai, who just may be the most stunning woman in the world. Like BRIDE AND PREJUDICE, she sure is easy on the eyes.