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Jane Austen Goes Bollywood

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C05

First, you'll need a beautiful and chaste -- chaste is key here -- heroine with a hankering for a hunky hero. Make sure that, as the lovers travel toward happily ever after, they encounter all sorts of mean, nasty villains determined to keep them apart. Toss in a little campy comedy. Shake it up with song-and-dance numbers rife with hip-shaking sexual innuendo. Watch the couple ride into the sunset with absolutely, positively no kissing.

Take none of this terribly seriously. After all, that's Bollywood.

Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) and William (Martin Henderson) get chastely close in the musical "Bride & Prejudice." (Miramax Films)

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And that's "Bride & Prejudice," the latest effort of Anglo-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, who entranced with 2002's "Bend It Like Beckham." Sure, "Bride & Prejudice" riffs off Jane Austen's 1813 original, but the film is a big ol' homage to another original: Bollywood, the world's most popular cinema. Which is to say that you'll need to suspend any Western notions of cinematic storytelling: Expect melodrama and slapstick to coexist in the same storyline. Expect everyone to break into song at the slightest provocation. Expect everyone and everything in it to be Barbie-doll pretty.

On the pretty part: The star here is Aishwarya Rai, former Miss World and reigning queen of Bollywood, a woman so outrageously gifted in the looks department that even Julia Roberts dubbed her "The World's Most Beautiful Woman." (Playing her sister is a former Miss India.) Having conquered all of Bollywood, Rai, who makes her English-language debut with "Bride," is now taking on Hollywood.

Rai plays Lalita Bakshi, the Indian version of Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, a headstrong hottie from Amritsar, India (aka "Hicksville, India") who decides, arranged marriages be damned, she's marrying for love. This is a declaration that gives Lalita's busybody mother heart palpitations as she's busy manipulating a merger with a nice Indian boy, an accountant from Los Angeles who's itching to get hitched. Her instructions to her four daughters as she lines them up to meet the accountant: "Stand up straight. Smile. And don't say anything too intelligent."

Instead, Lalita has her sights set on two non-Indians, the wily Brit Wickham (Daniel Gillies) and William Darcy (played by a very stiff Martin Henderson, "The Ring"), an American hotelier whom she hates but can't stop making goo-goo eyes with from across a crowded room. And therein lies the quandary: Will Lalita pick the politically correct but morally compromised Wickham over the dundering Darcy, who's really the good guy?

To find out, you'll have to follow the three would-be lovers (remember: no kissing!) across three continents and through surreal singing scenes -- an African American gospel choir magically appears on the Santa Monica beach and hip-hop princess Ashanti somehow ends up singing at a beach rave in Goa.

Hip-hop? Gospel? Bollywood? Who knew? But we digress . . . .

But then again, so does Chadha. Every chance she gets.

In Chadha's hands, Darcy is a bit of a bigot, a cardboard stand-in for American cluelessness; conversely, Lalita serves as the spokeswoman for Indian conventions, defending arranged marriages as a "global dating service" -- never mind her love-marriage-only proclamation. They face off like warring nations at a United Nations powwow, bickering back and forth about cultural imperialism and India's struggles to gain a toehold in the First World economy. In the right hands, their sparring could be witty fun, something along the lines of "His Girl Friday." But these verbal contretemps clunk instead of zing. What's more, the whole East-West cultural tension thing has been done before, and done better, most notably with Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding," another homage to Bollywood and marathon Indian nuptials.

The whole movie's a mess, a big, sprawling, sweet-natured mishmash with plots upon subplots and enough characters to make the head spin. But you're not watching "Bride" for narrative structure and precise plot development, are you? No, you're watching it so you can snicker along as Lalita and her sisters decry boorish beaus in "No Wife, No Life" or watch an entire village burst into song as a young bride-to-be dances through a marketplace. Just look at the pretty pictures, and nod your head to the beat.

Bride & Prejudice (111 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated PG-13 for references to sex.

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