‘We’re Not So Different’: Tradition, Culture and Falling in Love in ‘Bride & Prejudice’

Originally posted at Bitch Flicks as part of their Interracial Relationships theme week 

The late 90s, early 2000s saw a boom of Austen inspired adaptations hitting our screens. Clueless, Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Bridget Jones Diary and the later 2005 Pride & Prejudice are just some of the well loved movies which are pretty much straight translations from the book itself. This phenomenon is still going on (audiences just love Jane Austen) with the recent release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which is another, rather different take on the classic novel. There’s one Austen inspired film, though, which stands out above all the others – Bride & Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha, 2004)  . Instead of keeping it traditional with the era, nationality of the characters or even the country in which the original novel is based – Bride & Prejudice transports the story to India and introduces us to the Bakshi sisters. Though clearly based on the novel, Bride & Prejudice is a successful piece of transnational cinema, which uses the interracial relationship between the Bakshi’s second eldest daughter Lalita and white American Mark Darcy to discuss differences in race, tradition and cultural imperialism. And of course, features a lot of singing and dancing – as any film dedicated to exploring social commentary should.

Writer and director Gurinder Chadha is renowned in her filmmaking for focusing on Indian women reconciling their culture and traditions with modern day living, usually prompted by the female protagonist living in the UK. Bride & Prejudice is no exception to this, apart from the location. The film primarily takes place in the Bakshi’s hometown of Amritsar but the family travel to Los Angeles, London, Windsor and Goa throughout the film – making the film a truly eclectic mix of both Bollywood and British Cinema. Chadha builds on the existing identity crisis within the original Pride & Prejudice and adds into the mix the clashing of cultures, expectations and a trans-atlantic love story. The story closely follows the novel; Elizabeth is replaced with Lalita (Aishwarya Rai), younger sister to Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and older sister to Maya and Lakhi. Lalita and Jaya meet Balraj (the Mr Bingley character, played by Naveen Andrews) and Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) at a spectacular wedding. Jaya and Balraj fall for each other in the first instance whereas (true to the novel) Lalita and Will spend the rest of the film misunderstanding each other, fighting and eventually declaring their love for one another.

Whilst we already know from their first meeting that Lalita and Will are going to end up together, there is a fascinating dynamic between them which speaks volumes about the imperialist relationship between India and Europe/USA. It is through their relationship as people from two wholly different cultures that the film is able to explore just how perversely the West treats Indians and Indian culture. Whilst Jaya and Lalita are accompanying Balraj and Will on a trip to Goa, Will tells Lalita that his family plan on building a hotel in the area. He expects her to be pleased, assuming that she will be happy that his business will bring jobs to the area. Lalita, instead, is furious and talks at length about how the tourism industry is destroying the more rural parts of India. Lalita explains to Will that she can only see how the big hotel companies are draining the culture out of India, and that they want the experience of India without the Indian people. “Five star comfort with a bit of culture thrown in? Well, I don’t want you to turn India into a theme park”.

We trust Lalita as our protagonist and we understand her views – the comparison between her home town of Amritsar and the beautiful tourist resort of Goa is proof enough that what she is saying is true. There is a clear divide in opinion about what Will Darcy believes is good for India, and what Lalita (the person who actually lives there) believes. It’s by no accident that Will Darcy is a white man trying to tell Lalita that he actually knows better than she does. Lalita herself mentions the history of British Imperialism within India, and accuses Will of doing the same with his family’s hotel business. Bride & Prejudice, although predominantly a feel-good film, doesn’t hold back with it’s thoughts on how Europe & America have systematically exploited the Indian people and land, and indeed continue to do so.

Throughout Bride, the Bakshi parents main motivation is to marry off each of their daughters to a suitable husband. As Bride is an amalgamation of both British and Bollywood cinema, Will can almost be seen as a surrogate for Western audiences watching the film. Specifically, his view on arranged marriages. The ‘arranged marriage’ is a slightly foreign concept for many viewers in Europe/USA in comparison to those watching the film in India, who would (generally) be more knowledgeable and understanding of the situation.

Will speaks out about the concept, in a similar vein to how most Americans would feel – remarking how backwards the idea of an arranged marriage is. The irony here of course is that in the original novel, the marriages are pretty much arranged for both Elizabeth and Jane. At least – their mother (in both Bride and Pride) is set on finding suitors for both girls, and each girl would only be allowed to get married with the permission of their father.The irony runs even deeper, when Lalita discovers that Will’s own mother is arranging him a marriage back in Los Angeles. Whilst Lalita accepts the differences and similarities within the two cultures, Will is unable to see past his ignorance and superiority to understand that the two of them are not so different or that the idea of an arrange marriage is backward.

Bride & Prejudice uses stylistic elements from both traditional Bollywood cinema with English dialogue and Western references as a metaphor for the interracial relationship between the two main characters. The visuals marry both types of cinema: we are treated to large scale dance numbers that are performed in English, or accompanied by a gospel choir on a beach in LA. If the technical elements of the individual national cinemas can come together, then so can Lalita and Will. The discourse within the film is almost postcolonial via the character of Lalita herself – she encompasses the traditional nationalism by performing traditional Bollywood choreographed sequences with her sisters and undergoing the conventional ‘love story’ narrative. Yet her views and opinions about the world she lives in are incredibly modern (particularly the song ‘No Life Without Wife’) which puts her at a unique crossroad.

Of course, these themes are surrounded by extravagant dance numbers, catchy songs and comedic dialogue. Despite it’s family friendly, light hearted approach – Chadha doesn’t hide the ideas about cultural imperialism. Bride & Prejudice is proof that a film can be playful and funny but also make serious comments on race, tradition and culture. It’s message is slightly diminished by the reconciliation of Lalita and Will at the end of the film – mostly because it takes very little time for Lalita to suddenly decide that Will is actually a nice guy. Most of Will’s niceness stems from the fact that the character of Johnny Wickham is worse than Will – putting him into a much better light in the Bakshi’s eyes. He does redeem himself and one of Bride’s accomplishments is that Lalita does not have to compromise her views and meet him halfway, like so many other flawed couples have to. It is Will who changes his opinions completely and refuses to allow his family to build a hotel – much to Lalita’s happiness. It is coy, and the film ends with the double wedding of the two eldest sisters (as in the novel) but coyness doesn’t mean that it doesn’t speak volumes about the cross-cultural barrier that Lalita and (mostly) Will had to navigate around.

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