Bride and Prejudice (United Kingdom/United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

At first, the marriage between classical British literature and Bollywood musical would seem doomed to failure. But this particular match, arranged by Gurinder Chadha, finds a surprisingly rich field of common ground. Bride and Prejudice is bright, colorful, and exhilarating, and brings new dimensions to a story that has been told so many times that it's astounding to recognize that someone has found a fresh perspective. I don't know what Jane Austen would have thought of the film, but I enjoyed it.

Bride and Prejudice is one of the new breed of Hollywood/Bollywood offspring. It's an American/British co-production, and, while Disney money is involved, it is filtered through Miramax. The influence of both parents is apparent. Bride and Prejudice uses many top Indian actors, and the style is heavily influenced by the Bollywood approach (which is famous for sprinkling lavish musical numbers throughout an otherwise dramatic production). There's plenty of Hollywood here, as well. The film is in English and has a sizable budget.

The story is influenced by Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In this case, culture replaces class, but most of the essential story elements remain the same. The main plot focuses on the relationship between wealthy workaholic Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) and Lalita Bakshi (the "Elizabeth Bennett" role, played by Aishwarya Rai), the second daughter of a middle-class Indian couple. When Darcy arrives in Lalita's hometown of Amritsar, it's contempt at first sight, but as these two mismatched individuals get to know one another, love blooms. There are plenty of complications, not the least of which are Lalita's pride and Darcy's prejudice. There are also subplots: the romance between Lalita's older sister, Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar), and Darcy's best friend, Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews); the unwelcome advances towards Lalita by the oily Mr. Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra); and the more welcome attentions of Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies).

One could argue that the movie is almost too faithful to Austen in broad strokes. (The subtleties and social commentary of the novel are diluted to the point of being unrecognizable.) It took the landmark 1995 mini-series more than four hours to cover the material that Bride and Prejudice condenses into one-hundred eleven minutes (and that includes interludes for about a half-dozen song-and-dance numbers). Perhaps if more had been cut, the last 20 minutes would not seem so rushed. Also, by spending as much time with the secondary characters as Chadha does, she robs us of more scenes between Lalita and Darcy. This film lacks the delicious build-up of romantic tension between these two that lovers of the book have come to treasure.

For former Miss World-turned-Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai, this represents a first foray into American theaters. Rai has been described in some corners as "the most beautiful woman in the world." While I don't subscribe to that hyperbole, she is attractive and her seemingly unaffected mannerisms serve her well in this part. Martin Henderson is not her equal in terms of screen presence or looks, but he's adequate as the rather dour Darcy. (I wonder if anyone considered giving Colin Firth a third shot at the part…) A number of the secondary actors, including Bollywood heavyweight Anupam Kher (as Lalita's supportive father) and international star Naveen Andrews (as Mr. Bingley), give strong performances. American actresses Marsha Mason and Alexis Bledel round out the cast as Darcy's domineering mother and vulnerable sister. Henderson gets a lot of scenes stolen out from under him by his co-stars.

Bride and Prejudice represents the latest chapter in Gurinder Chadha's intriguing career. After struggling in relative obscurity for a number of years, she achieved international success with Bend it Like Beckham. The profitability of that film allowed Chadha to make Bride and Prejudice. The premise might have looked dubious on paper, but it works brilliantly on the screen. This isn't just Austen by way of India; it's an affectionate parody of Bollywood's cheese. Rarely has an adaptation of a classic been so vivacious. The colorful costumes light up the screen, and the musical numbers, while not standouts, are catchy and well-placed. Bride and Prejudice has a sense of humor about the inclusion of musical numbers in Bollywood productions. (One character remarks, "The Indians are into 'American Idol.' I hope you brought your earplugs.") And the lip-synching is so bad at times that it must be intentional. The film takes a lot of chances, and, while not all of them work, there are enough successes to make this a source of guilty pleasure. (But pleasure is pleasure, whether it's guilty or not.)

Bride and Prejudice (United Kingdom/United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2005-02-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1