Amritsar, India. The Bakshi sisters are all grown-up yet none of them are spoken for yet, in spite of their mother’s manic attempts at match- making. Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) is particularly reticent to be part of an arranged wedding and would rather be alone then unhappy… Which doesn’t mean she isn’t open to love, as will become evident when she meets Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), a rich American hotel chain heir – a male Paris Hilton, basically – who’s in India for the first time. Theirs won’t be an easy road to happiness though, as pride and prejudice on both sides, other suitors and an endless series of misunderstandings will come between them.
Like Deepa Mehta’s “Bollywood/Hollywood” before it, “Bride and Prejudice” blends the extravagance of Bombay musicals with the clichés of Hollywood romantic comedies, but it has the added pedigree of being inspired by Jane Austen. That actually makes a lot of sense because British and Indian cultures have long cohabited and issues of class divisions and arranged marriages in 18th century England are still realities in contemporary India. Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges’s screenplay also interestingly touches upon the way the new world economy affects people all over, with the former British colonialism being replaced by global capitalism. Darcy’s family wants to buy property in India to build a tourist resort, where Americans can experience minimal local flavor in the comfort they’re used to. On a more intimate level, this is the story of, in Chadha’s words, “a man from the First World encountering a woman from what is considered the Third World – and their love is nearly undone by all their preconceptions, judgments and misunderstandings of what that means.”
But enough about all that stuffy stuff! The actual experience of watching the movie is much lighter and joyful. There’s a good half dozen musical numbers that will bring a smile to the face of even the most blasé viewer. Chadha’s direction is a bit messy, sometimes feeling more like something out of a bad music video than the epic lushness associated with Bollywood, but the vivid candy colors, energetic dancing and contagious joie de vivre more than make up for that. The tunes are mighty catchy, even though the lyrics are pretty dumb. That might be the case with all Bollywood songs, but it sounds less silly in Indian then in English, doesn’t it?
And now we get to the film’s one extraordinary grace, the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, Aishwarya Rai. Uneven pacing and over-reliance on cheesy montage be damned, I was won over whenever Rai was on screen. It’s not just her gorgeous eyes and her killer smile and her voluptuous body and her great singing voice and the way she moves, she’s a resourceful actress as well and I love how funny and game she is – she’s not stuck-up in her beauty. Not many actors could seem worthy of her, but Martin Henderson is still spectacularly inadequate. He’s like a weird cross between Christian Bale and Owen Wilson… Which equals Luke Wilson, I guess, but even wimpier. Naveen Andrews, who plays Darcy’s best friend, is much more charismatic and, even though his character is bad news, it’s still easier to root for Daniel Gillies’ Wickham than for Henderson. Heck, I even liked Nitin Ganatra’s Kholi better – he might be a goofy mofo, but at least he’s not boring!
Still, lame leading man and all, “Bride and Prejudice” remains a wonderfully entertaining picture. Hopefully it will bring more of Aishwarya Rai and Bollywood in general to our screens.