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I first saw director Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice in the theater, not long before I started watching Hindi films in earnest. Though the film is still cute, a second viewing feels like a step into a Bollywood uncanny valley.
As hinted at by the title, the movie is Chadha’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The action is relocated to Amritsar, where the story focuses on the Bakshi family and their four single daughters.
Eldest daughter Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) catches the eye of wealthy London NRI Balraj (Naveen Andrews), who is accompanied on his visit to India by his sister Kiran (Indira Varma) and friend Will Darcy (Martin Henderson). Darcy takes a shine to Jaya’s beautiful sister, Lalita (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), but the two get off to a rocky start.
Both potential romances veer off course upon the arrival of two other suitors: a rich NRI from L.A., Mr. Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), and Darcy’s nemesis, Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies).
Despite the trappings of a stereotypical Bollywood movie — colorful wedding sets and big dance numbers — Bride and Prejudice has more in common structurally with Broadway musicals. In a typical Hindi film, the songs that accompany dance numbers are intended to be sold as soundtrack singles, so their lyrics are more about mood and general feelings than the literal expressions of one’s thoughts.
By contrast, the song lyrics in Bride and Prejudice are the characters’ internal and external monologues set to music, and dance numbers arise from that. For example, the lyrics to the song that Lalita and her friends sing while shopping for last-minute wedding items refer specifically to the woman getting married and to the festivities taking place in Amritsar.
The effect is weird. Perhaps Chadha would have been better served to start Bride and Prejudice onstage before filming it. A theatrical run would have forced the story to define itself as musical theater rather than a confused Bollywood hybrid. Also, it would have given the composers time to craft better music. Most of the songs in Bride and Prejudice are awful, especially “No Life Without Wife.”
The highlight of revisiting the film is spotting all of the stars who would later establish themselves in other roles. The film released during the first season of Lost, in which Andrews starred. Gillies would make his mark as Elijah in the TV series The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off, The Originals. Varma — who looks amazing in the movie — presently plays the dangerous Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones.
As the biggest star and leading character in Bride and Prejudice, Rai Bachchan leaves something to be desired. Her dialogue delivery is stilted, and her angry outbursts are tepid. She and Henderson lack chemistry.
Her performance — along with all the others in the film — is overshadowed by Ganatra’s comic turn as the tacky braggart Kholi. He is so desperate to share his American dream that he insults the very women he’s trying to woo. His pathetic and annoying acts are balanced by his sincerity, so his shtick never gets tired.
The presence of Kholi, Darcy, and Balraj in India raises questions about the assumptions outsiders — NRIs included — make about Indians, particularly Indian women. It’s a fascinating topic, but the way it’s dealt with is so on the nose that it feels like the characters are checking items off a list of stereotypes.
For all its shortcomings, Bride and Prejudice is certainly interesting and ambitious. Some adjustments to the story structure and soundtrack might have given it more lasting appeal.