Director: Gurinder Chadha
Writers: Paul Mayeda Berges & Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Naveen Andrews, Indira Varma, Alexis Bledel, Marsha Mason, Ashanti.
In 2002 a little British movie about a female soccer team made quite the impression worldwide. The film told the story of Jess, a girl torn between her love of football and David Beckham and the traditional values of her Indian Punjabi Sikh family. The film also effectively launched the careers of Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley. That movie was Bend it Like Beckham and it also served as an introduction of sorts for me into Indian culture. I grew up in southern Europe and had not really been exposed to Indian culture, but the movie was funny, lighthearted, and fascinating. In the years since I have devoured Jhumpa Lahiri’s bibliography, along with a handful of other texts, but I hadn’t really consumed any Indian films (I am not counting Slumdog Millionaire, which I have seen and quite liked but doesn’t really fit the standards). Even though Bollywood has created a huge number of successful feature films and musicals, I never seemed to get around to watching any of them, even though I live in a part of the United States which features at least one or two Indian movies in every movie theater. The closest I ever came was the ubiquitous Bollywood musicals projected on television screens in several Indian restaurants I have dined in over the years. I know… unforgivable.
I also know that this particular film doesn’t quite count as a Bollywood production as the film is completely in English and features a somewhat international cast. It is, however, directed by Gurinder Chadha (the woman behind Bend it Like Beckham) and showed up on many sites as the ideal gateway to Bollywood, as it is a musical and does feature many of the elements that make up the genre’s cinematographic characteristics.
As the title suggest, this movie is a modern take on the Pride and Prejudice novel written by Jane Austen. P&P is actually the Austen novel with the largest number of adaptations by far, and yet this film, while not always entirely successful, is a refreshing break from Georgian tradition, and out of the ones I’ve seen, my personal favorite. With the modern day setting, the clash between Indian, British, American, and expat traditions, and the musical numbers, the film takes on a new life and some of the more obsolete cultural issues become much more relevant and resonate as true.
The first part of the film is set in the Indian city of Amritsar, and here we meet Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi and their four daughters. Lalita, corresponding to the Austen heroine Elizabeth Bennet, is the protagonist of the film, and is brilliantly played by the gorgeous and talented Aishwarya Rai (The Pink Panther 2). While attending a friend’s wedding, Lalita and her sister Jaya catch the eye of a couple of out of town visitors: the British-Indian Mr. Balraj (Lost‘s Naveen Andrews), who zeroes in on Jaya, and the American Will Darcy (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Martin Henderson). It’s not long, about 8 minutes into the film, before the first musical number takes place. Each song and dance routine is colorful, over the top in the best way, and a welcome break from the narrative. Especially when a story is so well known to the viewer, anything that can make the experience more captivating is quite nice, and these numbers achieve the effect brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that whenever the story is told through dialogue the pacing slows and drags a bit. No doubt things are not helped by some of the cast members, especially Darcy. It’s always interesting to me when someone is casted as a nationality that forces the actor to put on an accent not their own. Martin Henderson is a New Zealand actor playing an American. He was not casted for his singing or dancing because the character of Darcy can do neither, thus leaving no explanation as to why another actor could not have taken his place. Henderson’s performance is wooden and he never seems comfortable with either his inconsistent accent nor his awkward line delivery, and he doesn’t have the best chemistry with Rai, who otherwise shines in every other scene in the movie.
As stated the plot is known and thus predictable, but there is still fun to be had. The Indian cast is especially stellar (look out for Game of Thrones‘ Indira Varma as the delectably bitchy Caroline Bigley). The American and British cast is not so stellar and nobody really brings their A-game to their characters (even late in the movie appearances by Alexis Bledel as Darcy’s sister and 4 time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason as his mother). There is even a WTF appearance and musical number by R&B singer Ashanti, but the less said about that the better. I did really enjoy the film overall and perhaps now that I have been better initiated into the genre I may get around to watching a Bollywood film or two in the near future.