When Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice two hundred or so years ago, she was doing more than telling a story about lovers at cross purposes, she was also dissecting with her society with a deadly precision and wry humor. Gurinder Chadha has taken that classic story and updated it to the multicultural 21st century without losing any of the originals intelligence or humor.
Chadha spins the plot between India, London, and Los Angeles while remaining remarkably close to Austens story. The mother, Mrs. Bakshi, bewails the problem of having four daughters and no money for their dowries and her second daughter, Lalita (Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai), ponders why it is that everyone assumes a single man with money must be looking for a wife.
Things take off in earnest when William Darcy (Martin Henderson), a rich American, meets Lalita Bakshi while accompanying his best friend, Balraj (Naveen Andrews), a wealth Anglo-Indian, to a wedding in Amritsr where Balraj is the best man and the bride of Lalitas lifelong pal. The sparks of an immediate attraction fly as they spy each other across the crowded room. Alas, a wardrobe malfunction resulting from Darcys attempt to wear traditional Indian clothing are just the beginnings of mutual misunderstandings, pre-conceived notions, and cultural differences that affect them both more than they realize that keep these two apart for most of the film. Further complications arise when Lalita is presented with two suitors in the persons of the charming and mysterious Wickham (Daniel Gillies), who shares a complicated history with Darcy, and Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra), the buffoonish Indian-American that Lalitas mother has brought over with a promise of marriage.
And because is this a film about multiculturalism, there is the infusion of Bollywood that is a bit jarring at first, to be honest, but jibes so well with the nature of the story that by the time the mariachi band plays and the gospel choir sing, nothing could seem more natural. There are the big production numbers with vibrant colors, and a delicious, almost kitschy pop interlude involving the four Bakshi sisters bewailing Lalitas fate if she marries Mr. Kholi. The sight of Ganatra in patriotic underwear during the song is something not quickly forgotten. This is a character rendered in broad comic strokes and a somewhat disturbing horse laugh that does more, though, than just provide some comic relief, with him, Chadha takes on the differing attitudes of the Indians themselves about what and where the future is for them. Heavy stuff with no easy answers, but laid out with nary a trace of pedantry.
As Lalita, Rai is perhaps prettier than Austen intended with her incandescent, almost preternatural beauty, but an arch intelligence and a biting sense of comedy is on target. Henderson is a bit bland, coming across as more clueless than as arrogant, but with a nice sense of self-possession. It is Anupam Kher and Nadira Babbar, though, as Lalitas parents that almost steal the spotlight, with her comfortable bickering and his affectionate if long-suffering patience in the face of it. It may lack the razzle-dazzle of Lalita and Darcy as a love story, but affection is every bit as palpable and as strong.
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a bright, splashy, and very smart film infused with wit and warmth. The class conflicts and the minutiae of society in the English countryside translate effortlessly by Chadha onto a bigger playing field, and observations about cultural imperialism that are, arguably, even more trenchant than Austen could imagined. Further, Chadha plays on the same pre-conceived notions plaguing her hero and heroine by subtly challenging any that the audience might harbor. Yet shes never confrontational, preferring instead to explore both sides of that particular human frailty with a flash of insight rather than a load of guilt.