Jane Austen is the hardest-working dead authoress in Hollywood. Having posthumously contributed to the success of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which borrowed incalculably from the sparkling plot structure of Pride and Prejudice, the late novelist now extends her influence to that least Hampshirish of genres born of the dazzling heat and dust of India, the Bollywood musical. Bride & Prejudice is based, as the title suggests, on Austen’s 19th-century literary masterpiece about a spunky young woman from a genteel if asset-poor family whose future happiness with an equally formidable mate depends on her ability to overcome the obstacles of his pride and her prejudice. But under the direction of Bend It Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chadha, this festively busy and exuberantly multicultural charmer is its own intriguingly postmodern creation — a savory entertainment as irresistibly faux-exotic as a Putumayo CD sampler of world music.
Here, in the role of the headstrong heroine now named Lalita, is Bollywood royalty and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai. Here is Bollywood royalty and former Miss India Namrata Shirodkar as the sweet-natured eldest sister, now in love with Anglo-Indian Balraj Bingley, played by TV’s Lost royalty Naveen Andrews. Bland New Zealander Martin Henderson (Torque) pretends to be American as Mr. Darcy, blander fellow Kiwi Daniel Gillies fills in as the deceptively attractive Mr. Wickham — and the pudding-soft presence of the two only strengthens Chadha’s amusing notion of East-West synthesis.
Before her movie ends, in a knowingly corny spray of fountain jets, the director has brought in an African-American gospel choir, a Mexican street band, a knot of English Morris dancers, and a scrum of SoCal beach bodies straight out of Baywatch. She has shuttled her silly but ultimately open-minded protagonists from Amritsar, India, to London to Los Angeles and back again. In the script Chadha wrote with Paul Mayeda Berges, she has made sharp jokes about aggressively yuppie expat Indian men who follow the money to the U.S. but shop for an arranged marriage to a subservient, exportable wife back home, as well as goofy comments about modern electronic communication even among traditional Indian families. (One sister says of another, ”She’s spending all night texting voice.”)
At under two hours, the movie is easily less than half the length of a true Bollywood production. The acting is broad, the dance numbers are hybridized, and the musical numbers are tricked out with such disposable lyrics as ”I just wanna man who gives some back/Who talks to me and not my rack.” Yet rather than detracting, the phosphorescent artificial fibers of the material shape up into their own optimistic whole cloth. Before her hit Beckham (where she overshot her multiculti goal with all that heavy-footed girls-and-sports politicking), Chadha tried but couldn’t quite shape her passion for ethnic mélange into a satisfying experience in the unwieldy 2000 comedy What’s Cooking? With the Bollywood language of Bride & Prejudice, the filmmaker has devised a delightful interpretation of Austen’s wise observation: ”For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”