In "Bride and Prejudice," director Gurinder Chadha gives Jane Austen the Bollywood treatment, turning Austen's white Englishfolk into singing, dancing, vibrantly dressed Indians.
The director's ambition is exciting, since many a popular Bollywood extravaganza is about the vagaries of love, family, and marriage, and Austen's social observations are applicable to nearly any modern culture at any time.
But like Chadha's last film, the popular "Bend it Like Beckham," "Bride and Prejudice" betrays its best intentions. Trying to capture the vibrancy of multiculturalism while playing cross-cultural clashes for laughs, the movie ends up excruciatingly petty in its handling of racial identity and cultural fidelity.
In "Bride and Prejudice," weddings abound. The first is in Amritsar, the Punjabi city where the invitees include white American hotel heir Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), his British-Indian friend Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews), and Balraj's haughty sister, Kiran (Indira Varma). Will is instantly smitten with Lalita, a member of the wedding party, who's played by Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World winner and Indian film icon, starring in her first English movie.
It's hard to tell whether Lalita notices Will because he's cute or because the kurta he's wearing is just a little whiter than everybody else's. Regardless, while Balraj embarks on a fling with Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar), one of Lalita's handful of unmarried sisters, she and Will enjoy a tentative flirtation, fraught with cultural friction. With the permission of the girls' senseless mother (Nadira Babbar) and sensible father (the wonderful Anupam Kher), they head to a resort on Goa, which Will announces he'd like to buy. Lalita is quick to remind him: this paradise is not India!
Their antipathy seems so strong that the screenplay, by Chadha and her frequent collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges, runs into trouble. When the inevitable rapprochement arrives, it makes all the political disagreements that came before seem trivial.
A few months ago, director Mira Nair poured Bollywood flavoring atop William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" like ketchup. In some ways, Chadha's adaptation of Austen is preferable; she at least tries to capture the cheeky essence of her source material. Both women have fascinating post-colonial thoughts about India's relationship to England, but neither has come up with a resonant vehicle to express them. Maybe Bollywood is not the answer.
As a musical, "Bride and Prejudice" feels drowsy. The songs, by Craig Pruess and the outrageously prolific Anu Malik, are sugary and snappy, and Saroj Khan's choreography is her usual pleasing blend of grinding, twisting, and twirling. But the staging of the numbers is missing the fever that keeps you from worrying that the actors might, say, fall off their mattresses as they dance and lip-sync with each other. The movie hops from India to England to the United States, but rarely feels like more than a celebration of globe-trotting, and often a wrongheaded one at that. The only person who pledges a love of India is the American R&B singer Ashanti, who looks uncomfortable chirping in a nightclub, "India is the place for me, India sets me free." And Chadha's Indian characters are freakier than everyone else.
Witness the snake dance Lalita's sister does for her family and guests (Chadha is betting you'll find that a scream). She also bets more laughs are in store for Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), the tacky Americanized nerd who calls the house in his Los Angeles subdivision his "crib" and wears his shirt open to his navel. Because Kholi claims to have money and prefer an Indian wife (American girls are too rootless, too independent, too lesbian), Lalita's mother throws her on the slab.
Some audiences might warm to all this (it feels harmless), though it's impossible to imagine which. It's unthinkable, for instance, that any competent filmmaker would shoot a romantic comedy with Martin Henderson as her lead while Naveen Andrews languishes in a thankless side part. Andrews is currently playing the Iraqi on "Lost" and he's a charismatic actor. He shouldn't be second banana to Henderson, a New Zealander most famous for making out with Britney Spears in her "Toxic" video.
Beautiful as she is, Rai is not enough of a presence to redirect the movie's energy or its troubling points of view. She's a Bollywood megastar, and in her Hindi vehicles, she's extremely fun-loving but utterly chaste. Things between her and Henderson never seem more than platonic.
You get the impression that Chadha believes the races should collide, that white and brown, Indian, British, and American should merge because that's an accurate reflection of the world. But in attempting to show us a love blind to class, culture, and color, she's also made it bland.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.