For all of you who are avoiding the movie with the tag line, “Bollywood Meets Hollywood… and it’s a Perfect Match,” out of fear that you might have to read subtitles (and you know who you are), set aside that fear. The film is almost entirely in English, with little more than a couple of the songs having subtitles.
Oh? Songs? Yes, this remonkeyed version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is indeed a musical, so if that’s a problem for you, then the lack of subtitles probably won’t matter.
Like the Bollywood movies it draws its stylistic impetus from, Bride and Prejudice is all too happy to stop dead in its tracks for a production number — the bigger and splashier, the better. But if the musical aspect of Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to her enormously successful Bend It Like Beckham isn’t off-putting to you, this is very much worth checking out — and checking out soon, since it hasn’t exactly opened to brisk business. (Read: If it’s gone by this Friday, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
And it’s a film that benefits greatly from being seen on the big screen, so if you wait for the DVD, you’ll regret it. This is a big, bright, colorful and constantly enjoyable movie that manages to tell a reasonable variation on its source novel (within the film’s fanciful confines).
The film is not, however, terribly substantial, and it’s definitely not without its problems. A rather significant problem lies in the fact that the songs — pleasant enough while onscreen and even passingly infectious — are almost completely unmemorable. With the exception of the clever “No Life Without Wife” song, 30 minutes after the movie, I was left with no recollection of any of them. I could remember — and delight in — the colorful stagings and the occasional brilliant touches (cocktail shakers used as rhythm instruments, a gospel choir appearing out of nowhere as a backing chorus), but the songs themselves had gone in one ear and out the other — a reasonably large drawback for a musical film.
I’m not even sure if “No Life Without Wife” is memorable for any reason other than the fact that it’s tied to the plot more than most of the numbers are. Since the song makes sport of the inept social skills of would-be fiance Mr. Kholi (Nitin Ganatra) — a supremely nerdy businessman who looks like the Indian version of Freddie Garrity (of Freddie and the Dreamers) and whose eating habits are accurately described as “like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting” — I suspect it will be more memorable for its humor and 1960s Beach Party-style staging than for the song. The songs aren’t bad, and they work well enough while the film is playing — just don’t expect to walk out of the theater humming or heading out to buy the soundtrack album.
There’s also a minor structural problem — which may be deliberate since Bollywood movies are known for throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, not for their adherence to any known cinematic aesthetic. When the film gets seriously concerned with its plot, it tends to completely forget that it’s a musical.
Probably the biggest drawback, though, is the casting of Martin Henderson (The Ring) as the romantic lead. (Henderson is much better at being scared to death by Daveigh Chase crawling out of a TV set than he is at light comedy.) True, for two-thirds of the story, his character is supposed to behave like someone with an irrigation pipe up his backside, but as played by Henderson, the pipe-ectomy never occur in the final third. He’s just as stiff and uncomfortable-looking at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning — an demeanor exacerbated by the positively luminous Aishwarya Rai (rightly known as the Queen of Bollywood), who plays his love interest. All she has to do to wipe Henderson off the screen is smile, but in all fairness, she could do that to just about anyone.
Now all this may sound like a lot of drawbacks — and taken at face value, they are. But the overall film is so good-natured, charming and, most of all, filled with life that it hardly matters. It’s impossible not to like the functionally dysfunctional Bakshi family, with its four daughters, its pragmatic and much put-upon father (Anupam Kher, Bend It Like Beckham), and its marriage-minded mother (Nadira Babbar) who dreams of riches by way of marrying off her daughters to well-heeled husbands. And it’s equally impossible not to be charmed by Chadha’s direction and the movie’s sheer invention.
A great movie, it’s not. But flaws and all, Bride and Prejudice is sweet, funny and pretty darned irresistible. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke