If you find the punning title cute or clever, chances are you’ll enjoy Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywoodization of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. But though “Bride and Prejudice” is anxious–one might even say desperate–to please, it’s unlikely to persuade anybody that the union of the Indian song-and-dance form with a California studio sensibility was a particularly good idea. It’s certainly colorful, and in watching it one can almost feel the enthusiasm of the filmmakers (Chadha’s habit, as in her previous film “Bend It Like Beckham,” of showing the ebullient cast and crew over the closing credits, underscores that). But it’s also amateurish, with acting that’s often so flat that it seems almost cruel to emblazon it across a big screen. And ultimately the attempt to imprint the narrative on Austen’s novelistic framework comes across as more contrived than charming, neither western fish nor eastern fowl.
In the reworking by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) has become an Oxford-educated American hotel heir who visits India with his school pal Raj (Naveen Andrews) and accompanies him to a traditional wedding celebration. There he meets the lovely Lalita (Aishwarya Rai), one of the four marriageable daughters of laid-back Bakshi (Anupam Kher) and his volatile, match-making wife (Nadira Babbar). Will and Lalita at first don’t hit it off, even though they take a trip to the seacoast together, where she’s approached by a supposed old chum of Will’s, Wickham (Daniel Gillies), whom she invites to visit her family back home. That’s part of the difficulty that arise between them, since Will knows Wickham to be a rascal bound to be up to no good, despite his charismatic exterior. Complications increase as Momma Bakshi tries to arrange Lalita’s marriage to a self-promoting Indian-American (Nitin Ganatra) and a visit by Lalita to California, where she and Will realize their mutual attraction, brings Will’s snooty mother (Marsha Mason) into the picture–not in a positive way. A Bakshi family stopover in London provides the occasion for a big finale involving not only the two designated lovebirds but the sleazy Wickham and one of Lalita’s younger sisters, too.
Juicing up this complicated but distinctly simpleminded scenario are song-and-dance routines of an ersatz Bollywood sort; the music is pretty typical, with repetitive rhythms, but the lyrics, in English of course, are almost unbelievably inane. The accompanying dancing, some performed by large groups, is enthusiastic but certainly not step-perfect.
But the greatest failing of “Bride and Prejudice” lies not in the content but in the execution. Chadha’s direction seems not to know the meaning of subtlety, and this has a dire effect on some of the performances. The worst offenders are Babbar and Ganatra, who come across as overdrawn stereotypes, she of the aggressively manipulative Indian mother and he of the boobish poseur–both rather cruel caricatures. (One can imagine, in fact, the Peter Sellers of “The Party” playing Ganatra’s part.) Mason is less extravagant in her overacting, but no less overbearing. At the other end of the spectrum is Henderson, who’s so flat and charmless that it’s hard to believe he’s a professional with some solid credits on his resume. (The only comparably catastrophic turn by an established star I can remember was Tom Berenger’s embarrassing performance in “Gettysburg.”) On a more positive note, Kher is nicely understated as Bakshi, and Gillies makes a convincingly attractive rogue. And Rai is utterly lovely as Lalita; the part doesn’t call for any deep thespian power, but it certainly confirms her status as one of the world’s most beautiful women.
It’s entirely possible that Chadha, who rightly judged moviegoing tastes with “Beckham,” which drew huge audiences despite its obvious, predictable character, will strike gold again with this curiosity. But the fact is that viewers would do a lot better with either the Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier “Pride and Prejudice” from 1940 or almost any real Bollywood music-and-dance epic.