Beware literati of Yale: “Bride and Prejudice” is not a visionary reworking of Jane Austen’s masterpiece. Other than the fact that one of the characters happens to be named Darcy — and that love and marriage make guest appearances — this Bollywood comedy bears no resemblance to the 1813 Victorian novel. Directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend it Like Beckham”), the whole thing is one big overblown Indian music video that wears its politics like a pair of skimpy Calvin Klein briefs. Yet the production is so unabashedly silly, with its soap opera acting and crass musical numbers, that it’s hard not to have fun. Your eyes will be rolling (a lot), but your toes will be tapping.
This ethnic fairytale tells the story of Lalita (Aishwarya Rai), the next-to-oldest daughter in a traditional rural Indian family. At an opulent wedding she meets the stiff, upper crust American hotel entrepreneur Will Darcy (Martin Henderson). Initially attracted to him, she is quickly repulsed by his cold superiority, not to mention his gazelle-necked beauty of a girlfriend (the ethereally lovely Indira Varma). Rejecting him, Lalita toys around with another supermodel (Daniel Gillies) — who happens to be Darcy’s ex-friend (gasp!) — while living it up at a five star resort. For a poor little girl, she sure spends a lot of time gallivanting with the rich.
A few song and dance numbers later, Darcy re-enters the picture sans girlfriend. Needless to say, after a few bumps he sweeps Lalita off her feet.
In contrast to this tame story, the India created by Chadha is positively risque. Almost every actor ranging from lead to extra is a feast for the eye presented eu naturel, apparently due to the film’s clothing shortage. Although much pleasure can be derived from observing these scantily-clad beauties, Chadha herself seems distracted by physical beauty, delivering mixed messages about inner worth. In her universe, only the disagreeable characters (like Lalita’s selfish mother and her friend’s obnoxious fiancee) are ugly.
“Bend it Like Beckham” had the same problem, talking girl power in a locker room filled with half-naked models pretending to be soccer players. Adding to the hypocrisy of a message which teaches that only pretty people deserve sympathy, “Bride” aspires to portray the “real” India. It is hard to believe Lalita’s frequent defenses of national integrity when watching a near-naked siren sing “India sets you free,” surrounded by bare chested Indians in tight American blue jeans. In her next film, Chadha would do better to abandon the nationalist and feminist posturing and just have fun.
Between the film’s attempts at meaning and depth its musical numbers take over. Big, crowded, colorful affairs that don’t make the least bit of an effort at good taste, these campy spectacles are liberating. A dream sequence in which Lalita imagines herself in the Victorian countryside surrounded by pale skinned aristocrats even comes close to stumbling upon clever irony. (Or at least it seems to channel Austen’s attempt to interject.)
Although the numbers are overproduced, they maintain a pleasing roughness around the edges. When the lead actresses burst into song they go into exaggeration mode: The meaning of each line broadcast a second time on their faces. And their accents vanish, apparently lost amid all the color. (Don’t worry, obvious dubbing and poor performances are all part of the fun.) The songs themselves don’t make the least bit of sense — it seems Indian choruses don’t need verbs — but of course the spirited dancing makes up for this deficit.
The film is at its very best in the quiet moments, when it is neither moralizing nor in music-video mode. In several intimate scenes, Chadha captures breezy small talk between Lalita and her sisters with genuine skill, and even manages to convey Lalita’s conflicting feelings of hate and love in awkward moments with Darcy. The two lovers do manage some real chemistry (when they aren’t jet-setting to the Grand Canyon to catch the sunset). Henderson is especially good at pouting, and Rai does a fine job with her role, basking in the deliciously overdone plot (her lip-synching is another matter entirely).
With the right mindset — not Ms. Austen’s perhaps, but something closer to Ms. Spears’ — “Bride and Prejudice” is certainly an enjoyable diversion. Perhaps all that awkward moralizing will be gone in time for Chadha’s next masterpiece, “I Dream of Jeanie.”