It was only a matter of time before the West got hip to the cheesy charms of Bollywood cinema. Indian audiences have come to demand maximum value for their moviegoing dollar, and they usually get it, with lavish, bargain-produced entertainment that aims to provide something for everyone. Try smashing The Godfather together with Titanic, Singin’ in the Rain and Love Story, and you might come up with your average Bollywood epic. If that’s a little too heavy, try a comedy: you’re likely to get Meet the Parents crossed with Never Been Kissed and There’s Something About Mary, with a few of The Matrix’s action scenes and some dance numbers á la Janet Jackson (sans exposed nipple, of course). In a Bollywood flick, it might take three and a half hours, but the guy always gets the girl, the supporting characters are always over-the-top and the world is usually saved from nuclear annihilation.
So who better to bring Bollywood to English-speaking audiences than Gurinder Chadha, director of the feel-good, cross-cultural, clichéd but exuberant hit Bend It Like Beckham. For Bride and Prejudice, Chadha has mashed-up some genres of her own choosing: Bollywood epics, British domestic comedies, Grease-era Hollywood musicals and modern-day Jane Austen updates. The plot loosely follows the latter influence, with the impossibly lovelorn Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) trying to choose the right man while struggling with her parents’ wishes, her sisters’ schemes and the unwanted advances of a corny potential suitor (Nitin Ganatra). It doesn’t help that neither of the Western men in her life seems like a perfect guy, at least at first: Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) is a conceited American heir to a hotel fortune, and Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gilles) is a hunky slacker Brit who may or may not be hiding something under his laid-back backpacker exterior.
So far, nothing too out of the ordinary — but what sets the film apart are its musical numbers. At any point the characters are liable to break into song: at a party, out in the street or in the privacy of their bedroom. At times, it’s exhilaratingly corny. When Lalita and her sisters start crooning in a crowded marketplace and all the men selling their wares join in, the film takes its place alongside classic musicals, Hollywood, Bollywood or otherwise. Unfortunately, the fun drains out of the film after about 40 minutes or so. Perhaps predictably, once the setting changes from India to America and/or Britain, the plot becomes repetitive, the dialogue awkward and the musical numbers lifeless. When Lalita and Will stroll down a Los Angeles beach and come across a full gospel choir arbitrarily perched atop of a set of cheap bleachers, you know the filmmakers have cashed in their chips. For all its touchy-feely cheesiness, Bend It Like Beckham succeeded on the strength of its spot-on characterizations and heartfelt lead performances. Unfortunately, by trying to juggle Bride and Prejudice’s elaborate musical numbers with down-to-earth characters, Chadha loses sight of both.
Showing at the Maple Art Theater (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills). Call 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].