Destiny, karma and possible reincarnation unite a maharaja and an English commoner across centuries in tyro writer-helmer Kruti Majmudar’s lavish, albeit corny, romance, “The Memsahib.” Pic reps a notable if highly erratic step for non-resident Indian cinema (Indian-born Majmudar is based in Pittsburgh), though tale of a tragic Brit commoner married to a raja is viewed almost exclusively through Blighty eyes. Location shooting in western India’s pretty Gujarat state provides enough eye candy to boost pic’s chances beyond fests to Stateside distrib pattern that would likely be more indie than Indian.
First 63 minutes are set in Gujarat in 1851, where raja Jayant (Parvin Dabas) welcomes newlywed English schoolteacher Grace (Emily Hamilton) to live at his sprawling palatial estate. Grace embodies pure Western naivete about the East, enthusing in florid missives to her (unseen) mother about her new country’s alluring exoticism.
Unfortunately, not only Grace, but every major character in Majmudar’s script exists to embody an idea rather than a person or personality, each uttering their point of view with an absolute, repetitive conviction that’s the death of interesting drama.
Jayant, the voice of “modern” India, wants his fellow privileged rajas such as arrogant Kishore (Murli Sharma) to share their wealth and ally with Britain.
Grace’s cold-fish cousin Capt. Nelson Roberts (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the voice of Queen Victoria’s empire, repping the East India Trading Co.
Jayant’s nice sister Vinita (Sweta Keswani) is the voice of reason, warning Grace not to flirt with outcasts such as Laxmi (Nitika Anand), who teaches lower-caste children.
Battle lines are drawn so clearly that Grace’s insistent idealism appears myopic and diminishes her ostensible heroic stance, while Jayant’s opposition to the old ways seems like a death wish. After this rather weepy section, closer to a Hallmark tearjerker than “A Passage to India,” final 36 minutes shift forward to the same locale in 2005.
An Asian Studies prof (Denzil Smith) has brought his English friend and student Asha (also Hamilton) to his decaying family estate, where she meets lonely Vijay (Dabas, again), and eventually realizes that she may be Grace, reborn.
Dabas continues the charm he established as the groom in Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding,” standing out in an otherwise uninspired cast. Staging and dialogue are equally stilted, while Majmudar’s talented Indian crew — especially lenser Rajen Kothari and production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai — create such lovely imagery that Grace’s intoxication with India is understandable.