Healthy, wealthy, and wives

Martin Henderson as Darcy and Aishwarya Rai as Lalita spar their way through a Jane Austen-derived wedding theme park in Bride and Prejudice.

Bollywood divorces the ambivalence in Jane Austen's masterpiece

The prejudice that coy bride Lalita Bakshi (Rai) adopts toward Will Darcy (Henderson) after meeting him in her native Amritsar is that he is yet another arrogant, ignorant American. Darcy, a fabulously wealthy tycoon, weighs adding a property in Goa to his family's chain of luxury hotels, and Lalita faults him for adopting a tourist's view of India. "I don't want you to turn India into a theme park," she complains.

Yet Bride and Prejudice, a merry adaptation of Jane Austen's novel to contemporary global multiculturalism, turns India (as well as London and California) into a theme park. The theme is marriage. "It is a truth universally acknowledged," proclaims the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, "that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Austen, who never married, acknowledges no such truth, but Gurinder Chadha's film ignores the English novelist's exquisite ambiguity, purging all irony from one character's insipid claim that: "All mothers think that every guy with big bucks must be shopping for a wife."

With four lovely, nubile daughters, the Bakshi household is a veritable shopping mall for any guy with bucks and pluck. While Balraj Bingley (Andrews), an Anglo-Indian barrister who lives in London, courts Jaya, the eldest, his best friend Darcy spars with Lalita. After making his fortune in southern California, Kholi (Ganatra), an obnoxious emigre who finds American women insufficiently docile, returns to India to prospect among the Bakshis. A backpacking Brit named Johnny Wickham (Gillies) also preys on the sisters. Bride and Prejudice is driven by handsome young hunks who hanker to hunker down in legal domesticity with comely Punjabi babes. The movie's population is devoid of babies and - except for two manipulative mothers obsessed with matchmaking and one slyly detached father - anyone over 30. This is an ebullient musical with gorgeous sets and costumes and zestful dance sequences whose muse seems Seven Brides for Seven Brothers more than Jane Austen. The Bakshi household has no books, and Lalita passes for the movie's intellectual when she is mocked for perusing an unidentified volume while sitting beside a swimming pool. This is a world that has banished thoughts about anything but matrimony.

   Bride and Prejudice

Dir. Gurinder Chadha; writ. Chadha, Paul Mayeda Burges, based on a novel by Jane Austen; feat. Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Daniel Gillies, Naveen Andrews, Ntin Chandra Ganatra (PG-13)

Though Darcy seems to find nothing of interest in Amritsar except the Bakshi daughters, Lalita recommends a visit to its revered Golden Temple. The film offers no evidence that the city, a center for Sikh separatism, is also the site of continuing inter-communal violence. The streets of the movie's Amritsar are filled with uniformly cheerful shopkeepers and fewer Sikhs than pastry chefs. It is a travel agent's view of Northwest India, and when the story moves to London, it is to the Millennium Dome, the South Bank, and other tourist destinations. Images of America are monopolized by the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Grand Canyon.

The opening sequence offers a glimpse of peasants toiling in the Bakshi fields through which Lalita regally rides her tractor. But almost all the characters with speaking parts are either merely affluent or incalculably rich. While this is probably a healthy antidote to films such as Salaam Bombay! or City of Joy that portray India as a sinkhole of destitution, Bride and Prejudice is a fantasy of privileged lives with nothing to worry about except how to link with other privileged lives. And in sharp contrast to ethnic, regional, religious, and linguistic tensions that continue to threaten the precarious unity of the Indian subcontinent, the film projects a fantasy of ardent harmony. Everyone speaks English, even Punjabis among themselves. Everyone joins the dance. They step to the sounds of sitar and tabla, as well as brass band, mariachi combo, and gospel choir, celebrating the marriage of local culture to global commerce.

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