For all the noise about Bollywood, most North American filmgoers have yet to see the real thing. And maybe they never will. So how about an Anglo- Indian compromise? That's what Gurinder Chadha, whose Bend It Like Beckham was a surprise hit in 2003, has in mind with her Jane Austen adaptation, Bride & Prejudice: star-crossed love, family-values conflict, lots of vigorous song and dance. The only differences are it's in English and, at 1 hr. 51 min., it's about an hour short of a full-length Indian epic.
On the surface, it's an inspired idea to transpose Austen's comedy of impeccable manners from the county of Hertfordshire to a proper middle-class family in Amritsar, Punjab. Both 19th century Britain and modern India are societies with strict modes of behavior, where subversion is practiced with a raised eyebrow. (A recent, pretty decent Pride and Prejudice, available onDVD, was set amid another cloistered group, young Mormons.) But Chadha and co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges seem less interested in explaining India's social conservatism than in larkishly mocking it, pinching the cheeks of the supporting characters until they blush into stereotype: the wedding-manic mother, the catty friend, the nouveau riche boor. A true Bollywood film is ever on the verge of tears; this one is giggling up its sleeve.
In the lead role, Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai is pretty as a picture--a still picture. She appears always to be fluffing her hair for the next fashion shoot. She's got moves on the dance floor; and in the sumptuous and catchy score by Anu Malik and Craig Pruess, she smartly sells a few numbers that try to update the Austen ethos ("I just wanna man who gives some back/ Who talks to me and not my rack"). What she can't yet do is suggest a complex spirit behind the lovely façade.
It would be lovely to see a real Indian musical, or even a plausible fake, strike sparks with a mass audience. Heart and art can make a beguiling pair. Those are mostly missing in this strained hybrid, which is less Bollywood than Follywood. --By Richard Corliss