By Nicole Ackman
In August, Gurinder Chadha’s latest film “Blinded by the Light” (2019) was released. It tells the story of a young Pakistani man in England who finds his voice through Bruce Springsteen’s music despite struggling with discrimination. It’s hardly the first time that Chadha has explored the theme of cultural inclusion, exclusion, and immigration. Chadha herself is an Indian woman raised in England so she brings her personal experiences to the films she writes and directs, including her most famous “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002).
The release of her latest film seems like a good time to revisit one of her earlier works, “Bride and Prejudice” (2004), which often doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The film takes Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice” story and transports it to modern-day India. The script, written by Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges, is mostly in English. In this movie, the Bakshis are a middle-class family in small-town India.
When a young British-Indian barrister comes to town for a friend’s wedding, bringing along with him his white American hotelier friend William Darcy, sparks fly between them and the two eldest Bakshi daughters. While Jaya and Balraj are a natural match, Darcy struggles to adjust to the Indian way of life and Lalita finds him condescending and rude. Meanwhile, the charming backpacker Johnny Wickham and the Bakshi’s obnoxious distant cousin who has returned from America to find a bride also contend for Lalita’s affection.
“While “Bride and Prejudice” is certainly not the best adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” ever to grace the screen, it’s a surprisingly clever one. It manages to update the story without losing its heart and deftly moves it from Regency-era England to modern small town Amritsar, India.”
Despite the success of Chadha’s film two years prior to this one, “Bride and Prejudice” is not well known, particularly when compared to other “Pride and Prejudice” adaptations like the 1995 BBC series, the 2005 Joe Wright film, or even the YouTube series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” Only 5,300 people have logged it as “watched” on Letterboxd, as opposed to the 97,000 who claim to have seen the 2005 adaptation or the 86,000 who have logged another modern “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation, “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
While “Bride and Prejudice” is certainly not the best adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” ever to grace the screen, it’s a surprisingly clever one. It manages to update the story without losing its heart and deftly moves it from Regency-era England to modern small-town Amritsar, India. It retains the sense of community and family that the book has and the feeling of everyone being involved in each other’s business in the town. There are many creative liberties taken, from cutting out one Bennet sister to making Darcy’s mother the Catherine de Bourgh character. Perhaps it is because of its willingness to stray from the original narrative when it needs to that it is so successful.
The cast clearly understand the characters they are embodying. Namrata Shirodkar is perfect as the serene, but never insipid Jaya Bakshi (Jane Bennet), while Nadira Babbar plays the interfering but well-intentioned mother Mrs. Bakshi (Bennet) with just the right level of cluelessness. Meghna Kothari captures Maya Bakshi’s (Mary Bennet) teenage gawkiness and Peeya Rai Chowdhary gives Lakhi Bakshi (Lydia Bennet) over the top willfully exuberant energy. Perhaps the best performance is by Nitin Ganatra who plays Kohli Saab (Mr. Collins) with all of the delicious awkwardness and tactlessness of a badly used car salesman.
Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai had her English-speaking debut in the role of Lalita Bakshi (Elizabeth Bennet). Rai perfectly encapsulates the vivacious and intelligent, but headstrong heroine. Lalita is the vessel for many of the film’s striking remarks about racial and cultural relations between India and the Western world. From her obvious disdain for Kohli Saab’s declaration that India is the past and America the future to her challenging Will Darcy on his ideas about India being backwards, she articulates the sort of cultural critiques that characterized Jane Austen’s own work. It may cause the audience watching to reconsider some of their ideas about things like arranged marriages, which Lalita describes as a dating service.
The film also functions as a great introduction to Bollywood movies for English-speaking audiences. While the accents of the actors might be difficult to understand for some, most Bollywood films are in Hindi, Urdu, or another Indian dialect and thus inaccessible to English-speaking audiences. It features some of the classic characteristics of a Bollywood movie like a fairly chaste romance and enthusiastic and camp dance numbers. The film functions essentially as a rom-com but with large scale, Bollywood dance numbers sprinkled throughout.
“The selling point of “Bride and Prejudice” isn’t really the romance at all; it’s the story of a woman who wants more from her life and the tight-knit community that surrounds her.”
These song and dance numbers can be a little jarring at first, particularly because they lack the subtlety that we are used to seeing in movie musicals. They’re more similar to the MGM movie musicals of yesteryear with colorful costumes, flashy dancing, and numbers that don’t always make sense. The easiest modern comparison is the flamboyant, fun “Mamma Mia” (2008). While all of the numbers in “Bride and Prejudice” are fun, it’s “No Life Without Wife” that will remain in your head for days (I’m not joking).
“Bride and Prejudice” is not a perfect movie. The ending is rushed and characterization is skipped over to wrap things up nicely. Martin Henderson’s Darcy isn’t as dreamy as Colin Firth, Matthew McFayden, or Daniel Vincent Gordh and his transformation is a bit difficult to buy into. However, the selling point of “Bride and Prejudice” isn’t really the romance at all; it’s the story of a woman who wants more from her life and the tight-knit community that surrounds her.
“Bride and Prejudice” hasn’t received the love it should have for being a fun and engaging modernization of “Pride and Prejudice.” Not only is it directed by a woman of color, but it weaves themes of culture clash, immigration, and discrimination into Jane Austen’s classic story. For fans of Austen’s work or anyone who wants an easy introduction to Bollywood films, “Bride and Prejudice” is definitely worth a watch.