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Bride and Prejudice: Rubbishing Jane Austen

This movie is all about marriage mania, Gurinder Chadha's "Bride and Prejudice", as the title itself gives an unmistakable indication.

The film, now being screened in India, is based on Jane Austen's most renowned, highly popular piece of fiction, "Pride and Prejudice", written in the closing years of the 1700s, and first published in 1813.

It portrays life in the genteel rural English society of the day, and tells us of the initial misunderstandings and later mutual enlightenment, admiration and love between Elizabeth Bennet (whose liveliness and humour have often attracted readers) and the haughty Will Darcy. In fact, the story highlights the disdain and discrimination these two lead characters have for each other during the initial period. Austen's work sparkles with wit and wisdom as she essays the passionate tension between Elizabeth and Will, and whose ramifications underline the very nature of a hidden conflict which exists among the upper classes of the 18th and 19th century British society.

The original version of the novel was written in 1796-1797, and was called "First Impressions".It was probably in the form of an exchange of letters. Jane Austen's own tongue-in-cheek opinion of her work, in a letter to her sister,Cassandra, immediately after its publication, read: "Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e. needs] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Bonaparti, or anything that would  form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style".

Sadly, Chadha disappoints us, and awfully. It would be even  unfair to draw a line of affinity between Austen's creation and Chadha's screen adaptation. Yes, we have a hysterical mother with four daughters living in India's Amritsar,and three of them are just desperate to get married, the mother even more so to get them hooked to rich men.

The second daughter, Lalita, is a little like Elizabeth in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", and her conflict with Darcy (the name has been retained in the celluloid version) has little to do with class equations. Rather, it is all about a clash between so-called Indian idealism and perceived American arrogance; Darcy is American, but of course.

Chadha twists Austen's extraordinary effort into a meaningless rhetoric on patriotism, and here again, the director misses her step and falters in the end. For, "Bride and Prejudice" turns out to be yet, yet another confrontation between the male and the female egos. Have we not seen this a million times, particularly in the Bollywood kind of song-and-dance extravaganzas, where the hero woos the heroine through mime and music, where the lady teases and taunts her gentleman with melody and mirth: the battle of the sexes.

Chadha, who gave us sheer novelty with her earlier, "Bhaji on the Beach" and splendid cinema in "Bend It Like Beckham", seems so shockingly naive with her latest, "Bride and Prejudice". Poorly scripted and tending to camaflouge the weaknesses in style and the narrative with colour, gloss, mindboggling movement and elaborate song picturisations, the film has been reduced to motion and nothing else.

She makes very little attempt at characterisations, with the result that Aishwarya Rai as Lalita remains a pretty face. Rai makes no effort to transform herself from a mere star to an actress of cailbre. She flutters her eyelashes, makes faces and hopes to draw attention. One wishes that she would study other beautiful women of the Indian screen. Waheeda Rehman and Nutan, for instance, whose sublimely good looks were never allowed to come in the way of remarkable performances.

However, New Zealand-born Martin Henderson as Darcy steps in with the right degree of histrionics in a part that could have so easily degenerated into an exaggerated farce. As the rich American visiting India, both for a social and a professional reason, Henderson often seems like an island of sanity in a sea of stupidity.

Proping him up are two more actors: Anupam Kher as the harried father of the girls, and Shonali Khulkarni as Lalita's friend, who walks into a marriage of convenience. "I was afraid I would miss the bus if I kept waiting for my prince charming to come along", she tells Lalita with a brave face. Shonali is a fine performer, who uses her eyes to convey the deepest of meanings.

But, what I fail to comprehend is this kind of desperation among  Chadha's girls to walk down the aisle: the director is quite out of sync with modern Indian women, who no longer bet their lives on bells, at least a vast number of them.

Chadha's "Bride and Prejudice" is indifferent to not only today's social trends but also Austen's subtlety of documenting the undercurrents of loneliness and helplessness. These have been  chucked aside as Chadha's players romp around Amritsar (with what else but "bhalle, bhalle"), Goa (to show the girls in their skin), London (it is got to be about the Queen there) and Los Angeles (with its Beverley Hills bucks). Utterly lost in this new dimension of shallowness is Santosh Sivan's imaginative lens work, which tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to lift "Bride and  Prejudice" out of naivety.

In short, Chadha's latest work is nothing but yet another Bollywood masala with hips swaying and bosoms heaving to the beat  of the band and the lisping of lips.

A perfectly adult theme that Jane Austen penned in almost poetic prose has been rubbished by an undoubtedly talented director like  Gurinder Chadha.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated October 15 2004)

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