Jane Austen comes from sturdy stock. She prospered in posh Beverly Hills in "Clueless" and survived a transplant to trendy London in "Bridget Jones's Diary." Now it's India's turn, and Austen proves to be more than up to the switch in scenery in Gurinder Chadha's lively and cheerful "Bride & Prejudice."
As "Bend It Like Beckham," her last film, demonstrated, co-writer (with Paul Mayeda Berges) and director Chadha has a knack for situations that blend cultures. Here she not only mixes Western and Indian characters, she marries the sensibilities of English language independent cinema with the agreeable conventions of India's Bollywood musicals.
The result, to tell the truth, is ragged around the edges, but it creates so much good feeling it is hard to be unduly troubled. Very much in the Bollywood tradition, this broadly comic treatment is popular cinema at its most popular, a movie where we long for the singing and dancing and are not disappointed when it arrives.
It also doesn't hurt to have the beautiful former Miss World and Bollywood luminary Aishwarya Rai starring as Lalita Bakshi (read Elizabeth Bennet), the strong-minded heroine of the piece. Rai had previously starred in another Bollywood Austen adaptation, "Kandukondain Kandukondain," or "I Have Found It," based on "Sense and Sensibility," and she is completely at home in the territory.
Rai's most impressive collaborator, both here and in her earlier "Devdas," is veteran choreographer Saroj Khan, responsible, the press notes claim, for about 2,000 films. Working with composer Anu Malik, Khan has filled "Bride & Prejudice" with the kind of irresistible, energetic dancing that translates into happy faces and high spirits.
"Bride" is set not in a metropolis like Bombay or Delhi but the more removed Indian city of Amritsar. In fact we first glimpse our impeccably turned out heroine on a tractor and looking as at home on that piece of machinery as Paris Hilton.
While Lalita is inspecting the family acreage, William Darcy (New Zealand's Martin Henderson) is getting off a plane. The scion of one of America's richest hotel-owning families, he is on his first visit to India with his equally well-off friend Balraj (Naveen Andrews of "The English Patient," the more recent "Easy," and TV's "Lost.")
Lalita is one of four Bakshi sisters, and fate in the form of a convenient wedding throws these groups together. Balraj is immediately entranced with Lalita's older sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar, yet another beauty queen-turned-actress), while Lalita, a woman with a mind of her own, finds herself less taken with the haughty Darcy.
This wealthy young American has a number of bonehead misconceptions about India. He worries about "Delhi belly" (the film's dialogue is not exactly a strength), and he is insensitive to Indian customs such as matches arranged by the family. "Americans," rails Lalita, "think they have the answer for everything, even marriage."
Making matters worse for audiences, if not necessarily Lalita, is that Henderson, a capable actor who was an asset alongside Naomi Watts in "The Ring," does not make a convincing Darcy. The crucial combination of hauteur and eventual warmth is a difficult one, and every actor can't be a Laurence Olivier (who nailed the role in 1940's "Pride and Prejudice"), but what we have here is not what's called for.
It's a mark of the strength of "Bride & Prejudice's" other elements and the verve Chadha brings to the proceedings that we can more or less shrug this off and concentrate on the actors who do well, such as Nitin Ganatra as Mr. Kholi.
An amusing riff on Austen's Mr. Collins, Mr. Kholi is presented as an arriviste accountant from California, complete with gold chains, who has come to India to find a wife because he finds women in L.A. to be too outspoken and career-oriented. "Don't say anything too intelligent," Mrs. Bakshi cautions Lalita, but the warning comes too late.
Aside from the singing and dancing, it is the color and pageantry of India as filtered through the work of cinematographer Santosh Sivan (who directed the very different "The Terrorist") that captivates us. There's a real sense of unbridled spectacle here, which extends to putting a gospel choir on the beach in Santa Monica for the film's L.A. sequences, and it's best to simply let it all wash over you.
As the original novel demands, it is the women who are the heart of things in "Bride & Prejudice." When they get together to sing and dance to the ironic, reggae-inflected "No Life Without Wife," they marry the worlds of Jane Austen and Bollywood in a way that no one would dare put asunder.
'Bride & Prejudice'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual references.
Martin Henderson...William Darcy
Aishwarya Rai...Lalita Bakshi
Nitin Ganatra...Mr. Kohli
A Nayar Chadha production for Pathé Pictures and Inside Track 1 LLP, released by Miramax Films. Director Gurinder Chadha. Producers Deepak Nayar, Gurinder Chadha. Screenplay by Paul Mayeda Berges & Gurinder Chadha. Director of photography Santosh Sivan. Editor Justin Krish. Choreographer Saroj Khan. Music Anu Malik, Craig Pruess. Production designer Nick Ellis. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.Exclusively at the Landmark Regent, 1045 Broxton Ave., Westwood, (310) 281-8233; and ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun