Bollywood goes Hollywood in Bride and Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha's musical adaptation of Jane Austen's novel about pride, prejudice and the need for a husband (to pay the bills). India, home to one of the world's largest film industries, hasn't made much of a dent in the American market thus far, despite turning out song-and-dance extravaganzas that would have been right at home in the old Mickey-and-Judy, let's-put-on-a-show days. But Bride and Prejudice, aimed squarely at the crowds that lined up to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding, could change all that. Audience-friendly to the point of pandering, this British-American co-production lays out a vision of Indian society in which everybody is rich and beautiful.
Well, not everybody. The Bakshi family, like Austen's Bennetts, is hanging on to financial respectability by a thread. Only by marrying off its four daughters to the highest bidders will it be able to turn its fortunes around. Luckily, the daughters are beautiful almost beyond belief. In fact, two of them, Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) and Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar), are played by former Miss Universe contestants. Rai, who actually won, also happens to be India's biggest movie star, and although she seems a little awkward here, that may have more to do with pursuing English as a second language than with talent. Besides, beauty has a way of trumping talent, and Rai has the kind of face that causes men to build Taj Mahals.
Rai's Lalita is the Elizabeth Bennett character ' smart, witty, quick to judge. And where Bride and Prejudice breaks ranks with Pride and Prejudice is by having its heroine venture outside her class, not to mention her country, in the quest for an appropriate husband. Alas, New Zealand's Martin Henderson, who has the bland handsomeness of a men's-underwear model, makes for a pallid Darcy, here conceived as an American hotelier who comes to India looking for business opportunities and finds the whole place kind of backward. (He even makes a don't-drink-the-water reference to 'Delhi belly.') Obviously, he's due for a lecture in cross-cultural understanding, and Lalita, eyes blazing like sapphires, is just the teacher to deliver it.
The movie adheres closely to the novel's plot, but the dialogue is to Austen as the Revised Standard Version is to the King James ' colloquial at best. Instead of 'It is a truth universally acknowledged,' Austen's famous first line, we get this: 'All mothers think that any guy with big bucks must be shopping for a wife.' Ugh. Some of the song lyrics are even more colloquial: 'I just want a man who gives me some back, who talks to me and not my rack.' Double-ugh. Still, the musical numbers themselves are a great deal of fun ' colorful splashes that may have nothing to do with life in India but everything to do with fantasy life in India. It's enough to make you nostalgic for the days when Hollywood musicals still knew how to dream.