Indian film goddess Aishwarya Rai’s first English language film, the Jane Austen-meets-Bollywood musical comedy “Bride & Prejudice,” seems designed for the express purpose of capturing Tinseltown’s attention–and on that end, the film is undoubtedly a success. As someone who has long praised Rai’s Bollywood work for the last few years, it is gratifying to see her make the transition from East to West with amazing ease. Showing off her charisma, chops, and charm as headstrong and outspoken Lalita, of one five daughters borne of the marriage-minded Bakshi family in the Indian town of Amritsar, Rai shows that there’s no language more universal than simple star quality.
As a whole film, however, this take on Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is less effective, but it’s not for lack of ambition on the part of director Gurinder Chadha, whose recent effort was another East-meets-West entertainer, the global sleeper success “Bend It Like Beckham.” Translating Austen’s weighty and very British tome and all of its various characters and entanglements to a multi-national cast and setting, not to mention to the music- and dance-filled Indian film language, is no small task–and one that Chadha proves to be unable to totally pull off. Chadha’s familiarity with Bollywood conventions is readily apparent, following the formula so closely that those unfamiliar may be a bit confused with some touches, such as the inclusion of an “item number,” which is a narrative-unrelated dance number centering on a name star cameo appearance (in this case, Ashanti, who does surprisingly well with her Hindi pronunciation). But familiarity doesn’t exactly equal finesse, and the Bollywood bread-and-butter of song sequences generally fall flat in Chadha’s less experienced hands. The only song picturization that strikes a memorable chord is Lalita and her sisters’ infectious pajama-clad romp “No Life Without Wife,” but it succeeds despite Chadha’s unimaginative staging and the rather rote choreography (which plagues every number, all the more disappointing given Rai’s justly-celebrated dancing abilities) due to Anu Malik’s catchy melody, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and–above else–the exuberance of its performers.
The best way, then, to look at “Bride & Prejudice” is less as an Austen adaptation or a Bollywood musical than as its own uniquely cheeky yet affectionate homage to the source novel and Indian popular filmmaking. Surprisingly, Chadha and co-scripter Paul Mayeda Berges do stay close to Austen’s narrative blueprint, whose most primarily track centers on the clashing prides and prejudices, both class-related and cultural, of Elizabeth Bennet stand-in Lalita and the wealthy Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), here an American businessman. As the various plot threads go about their byzantine business and Lalita and her family indulge in the occasional song and dance, Chadha’s mind is wisely and primarily focused on her strong suit of light comedy. Rai is appealingly feisty, particularly during Lalita’s verbal sparring sessions with Darcy; and all of the gifted Indian supporting players playing her family and friends get their moments to shine–most of all Nitin Chandra Ganatra, who nearly steals the show outright as Mr. Kohli, Lalita’s obnoxious Indian-born, American-raised suitor who is not nearly as slick nor hip as he thinks he is.
If the film has a huge failing, it’s Henderson as Darcy. His casting falls perfectly in line with his apparent occupation in Hollywood as the go-to charisma void used expressly by filmmakers to further amplify the already-obvious star qualities of his leading lady (see also: Naomi Watts and “The Ring”), but Rai is such a silver screen natural that she deserves an equally formidable leading man. (Where were, say, Ewan McGregor or Hugh Jackman when we needed them? There’s an idea–have them sing and let Rai dance…) But it speaks of the power of Rai, and the fleet-footed appeal of the whole of “Bride & Prejudice” that not even he can put a damper on the frothy, feel-good fun.