Gurinder Chadha crafted a richly authentic tale of friendship between cultural opposites in “Bend It Like Beckham.” But the director has less success creating a believable vibe in “Bride & Prejudice,” which updates Jane Austen’s 19th century novel as a Bollywood musical romance in modern India, England and the United States.
It’s clear why small-town Indian beauty Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai, a Bollywood star making her English-language debut) catches the eye of wealthy American Will Darcy (Martin Henderson). Besides being an absolute knockout, Lalita is fiercely bright, free-spirited, compassionate and endless fun to be around.
Will, however, has hunky looks and barrels of money, enough to win the hand of many women — but not a romantic like Lalita, who yearns to marry for love. Pleasant enough in a puppy-dog kind of way, Will lacks the stature to win the heart of a woman as discriminating as Lalita.
The fault is not so much with the script, co-written by Chadha and her writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges, which generally puts the right romantic cooings in Will’s mouth to turn Lalita’s head. Rather, the trouble is with the casting of Henderson, best known as Naomi Watts’ doomed pal in “The Ring.”
If you saw “The Ring” and are having trouble calling a picture of Henderson to mind, therein lies the problem. He did not leave much of an impression as a supporting player then, and he’s just as forgettable as a romantic lead in “Bride & Prejudice.”
The story opens as hotel heir Will arrives in India with British-Indian buddy Balraj (Naveen Andrews), who takes him to a friend’s traditional wedding. Sparks fly between Balraj and Lalita’s older sister, Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar).
Lalita and Will share initial hormonal surges at the sight of each other. But a few conversational blunders by Will convince Lalita he’s an imperialist snob.
As romance develops between Jaya and Balraj, Will grows incensed when Lalita begins falling for British cad Wickham (Daniel Gillies), an old acquaintance who has a bad history with the Darcy clan.
To the delight of the Bakshi girls’ gold-digging mother (Nadira Babar) and consternation of her kindly father (Anupam Kher), Lalita also is pursued by well-to-do Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), a boorish expatriate Indian living in America. Ganatra’s amusingly over-the-top antics are among the film’s comic highlights.
The story flits from India to London to Los Angeles and back again, punctuated by a handful of song-and-dance numbers as romantic allegiances ebb and flow.
The opening wedding dance presents a colorfully costumed but lackluster introduction to the musical parts. The subsequent tunes are similarly tepid, the music unremarkable and the choreography too stagy to feel as though it’s springing spontaneously out of the action.
“Bride & Prejudice” is at its strongest during a long midsection, when the musical numbers are at a minimum as Lalita and Will have a second go at making a good first impression.
Chadha strives for cross-cultural tension to supplant the socio-economic clashes of Austen’s novel, but the results are shallow and artificial.
The film’s most notable accomplishment is introducing Rai to Western audiences. Her charming Lalita is a force to be reckoned with, a woman rooted in provincial culture yet willful enough to make her way with confidence wherever she travels.
Maybe the film is a more contemporary story than we’re giving it credit for. After all, it’s modern woman Lalita, not trophy husband Will, who’s going to be wearing the pants in the Darcy family 10 years down the road.