Austen nuts may rend their frocks, and Bollywood buffs may split their cholis, but there’s an immensely likable, almost goofily playful charm to “Bride & Prejudice” that finally wins the day. Toplined by a spirited performance from young diva Aishwarya Rai, and largely played with gusto by an Indian cast marbled with Westerners, this modern, East-meets-West riff on Jane Austen’s 19th-century classic delights in setting itself up as a target for cultural purists but triumphs with its devil-may-care, good-humored fun. Energetic promo could reap tasty returns, riding on helmer Gurinder Chadha’s rep following “Bend It Like Beckham.”
Pic went out day-and-date in the U.K. and India on Oct. 8. Stateside, “Bride” is slated to walk up the Gotham aisle Dec. 24.
Anyone expecting fidelity to Austen’s classic would be better advised to re-rent the 1995 touchstone BBC miniseries, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth — or maybe wait until Universal/Working Title’s traditional, if youth-skewed version, with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen, due out next year. And auds primed for a pure slice of mainstream Indian cinema (Bollywood or Tollywood) should instead check out an earlier Austen makeover, “Kandukondain kandukondain” (2000), Rajiv Menon’s delish Tamil version of “Sense and Sensibility,” coincidentally also co-starring Rai.
In plotting and social complexities, Chadha and scriptwriting partner Paul Mayeda Berges give a token nod to Austen’s novel. Stylistically, the movie inhabits a cultural sphere that, like the London-raised Punjabi helmer herself, is absolutely its own, infused with a love of the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema but packaged with an NRI’s sensibilities and affinityfor British sitcom characters.
Former Oxford U. chums Will Darcy (Kiwi-born Martin Henderson, with an American accent) and Raj (Naveen Andrews) arrive in Amritsar, Punjab, to attend a pre-wedding party of one of Raj’s friends. Also in attendance are kindly Mr. Bakshi (Anupam Kher), his motormouth, social-climbing wife (Nadira Babbar), and their four daughters, Lalita (Rai), Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar, quietly classy), Maya (Meghnaa) and Lucky (perky Peeya Rai Choudhuri).Workaholic businessman-cum-uneasy Yank abroad, Will meets Lalita at the party, but she finds him arrogant and cold. As the pic swings into a typical boys vs. girls musical number — smoothly staged, but neither mounted nor cut like a real Bollywood extravaganza — the banal, flowery lyrics are translated for Will by Raj’s sister, a cynical, well-heeled NRI.
Having prepped the viewer that this is to be a part-outsider’s view of India and its social conventions, Chadha takes her biggest gamble of all, a colorful, large-scale street number (“A Marriage Has Come to Town”) with — wait for it — English rhyming lyrics. It’s a jolt that requires a leap of faith by any audience, either Western or Eastern.
Dialogue in these early reels is choppy, with Will and Lalita trading cultural cliches. Lalita accuses Will of wanting to turn her country into a tourist theme park, and the story moves south to Goa, where Will is mulling a hotel purchase and Lalita has tagged along on her father’s urging.
Enter Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), an old “friend” of Will’s with an apparent grudge, who starts chatting up Lalita as she strums her guitar on the beach. She invites him to visit her in Amritsar, which he does, but mom has already lined up a gross Hollywood NRI as a prospective husband.
With Will still on the sidelines, the increasingly outrageous plot — more Bollywood than Austen — swings through the U.K. and L.A., back to London and finally to Amritsar.
It’s only when the cultural grandstanding is out of the way that the film slowly starts to work its magic, starting with a spirited sisters-in-pajamas pop-rock number (“No Life Without Wife”), straight out of a Broadway musical. Thereafter, the musical interludes run the spectrum, from a percussive gharbah number in which Lalita and Johnny display apparent attraction, to a nutty fantasy duet which melds locations in L.A., London and India, including a burst of American gospel.
None of this would remotely work without the ensemble cast which, led by the stunning Rai at her most relaxed, enters into the souffle-ish spirit. As the antsy Mrs. Bakshi, forever trying to marry off her daughters, Babbar is a Bollywood mom crossed with a sitcom Indian from “Beckham,” while fellow vet Kher is quietly aces as her patient husband. The sisters blend together well, with girlish Choudhuri getting the most substantial role as the Johnny-struck Lucky.
Of the two Western leads, Gillies is the more involving, making the elusive Johnny a likable figure. Technically the male lead, Henderson is good-looking but unengaging as Will, though in a film centered on the power of sisterhood and the Indian matriarchy, he’s almost a supporting character, requiring little of the sexual charisma of Austen’s Mr. Darcy.
On a tech level, this is Chadha’s smoothest production, showing a command of widescreen that’s surprisingly confident in comparison with her previous, more TV-style pics. Costuming and production design are bright and marginally gawdy, fitting the movie’s generous-hearted, almost sophomoric tone.