Same Old Song and Dance

The twain attempt to meet in Holly-Bolly rom-com

Bride & Prejudice is the third major film released stateside in the past few years to fuse the epic romantic musical stylings of Indian "Bollywood" movies with more Westernized, "Hollywood" elements. It's also the most successful of them, but when the only significant competition has been The Guru and Bollywood/Hollywood, that isn't saying a whole lot.

As the title suggests, Bride & Prejudice is a loose remake of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The broad strokes of the story are as follows: A lower-class mother wants her four daughters to marry wealthy men. One of the girls is caught between a rich guy who initially comes off as an obnoxious bastard but really isn't, and a not-so-rich guy who's charming but secretly a total jackass. Complications ensue, while the other sisters deal with minor subplots of their own.

It's a story that, while dated by contemporary Western standards, still works fairly well when transposed to a culture where parents still marry off their daughters to prearranged suitors. India may welcome e-mail, text-messaging and drag queens (all are present here), but tradition still prevails, especially in the small town of Amritsar, described by the movie's Caucasian characters as "Hicksville, India." (Confusingly, "Amritsar" and "America" sound very similar when spoken with a strong Indian accent.)

Wedding bell blues: Aishwarya Rai stars in Bride & Prejudice.
Wedding bell blues: Aishwarya Rai stars in Bride & Prejudice.

Breezing into this bustling burg is Balraj (The English Patient's Naveen Andrews), a thoroughly Anglicized Indian who lives with his sister in a fancy U.K. abode just downriver from Windsor Castle. His major purpose is to show his rich American friend Will Darcy (Martin Henderson, of Torque and The Ring) the country as a possible location to build a new hotel. But in short order, the wealthy Balraj is singled out by a local woman, Mrs. Bakshi, who's seeking to marry off her eldest daughter Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar). Things look good -- the two seem to like each other, and Balraj has no problem with the notion of arranging a marriage to someone he scarcely knows. But culture clash ensues when Darcy meets Jaya's sister Lalita (Aishwarya Rai, a Bollywood star and 1994 Miss World). She chastises Darcy for being a tourist only interested in a homogenized view of India; he rightly gets defensive at her demeaning characterization of both him and the States. Lalita's friend Chanda (Sonali Kulkarni), on the other hand, showing an astute knowledge of American feminism, advises her to "marry him, divorce him right away, then give me half!"

Being a typical red-blooded male, Darcy doesn't let Lalita's being a total bitch distract him from the fact that she's incredibly hot. So rather than be completely insulting in return, he tries to be somewhat apologetic, at least until a romantic rival literally emerges from the ocean. Wickham (Daniel Gillies, a.k.a. John Jameson in Spider-Man 2) is lower-class, English, and has a cut set of abs. Darcy doesn't stand a chance -- or rather, he wouldn't if this were real life. But the musical numbers remind us that reality isn't particularly in effect here, especially when Ashanti shows up to give a small concert at a rave . . . on the beach . . . in India. So there's hope for our rich American hero after all. (Remind us again why we should feel sorry for a fabulously wealthy heir with a cool best friend? Oh, right, the most beautiful girl in the movie kinda-sorta thinks she hates him. Doesn't your heart bleed?)

Not that Darcy and Wickham are the only options -- there's also Mr. Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra), a California resident fond of hip-hop slang, who comes off as an Indian version of Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comedian of the '80s whose entire shtick consisted of banal observations about the differences between America and Russia, and a laugh that sounded like a congested mule.

The musical numbers are fairly infrequent, and the fact that most are in English rather than Hindi turns out to be a detriment. Watching a Bollywood film, one hears the exotic music and sees the erotic dance and assumes it must be saying something cool. Here, the lyrics are exposed as trite, and the attempt to "Hollywoodize" them yields a result no better than the most mediocre of show tunes. Honestly, The Phantom of the Opera movie was better with the big numbers.

Director Gurinder Chadha reprises her end-credits "musical number with bloopers" bit from Bend It Like Beckham, and also brings back Anupam Kher to play more or less the same role as the heroine's traditional but loving father. Unfortunately, the melodrama on display here is even more banal than in Beckham. A musical montage set in America is inventive -- especially the scene that draws parallels between India and Mexico -- but it also highlights how unimaginative the rest of the movie is.

 
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