Gurinder Chadha sets out to do the impossible: bring Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice to the screen and make it fresh. It's not as if recent filmmakers haven't taken cracks at the classic text--think "Bridget Jone's Diary," where an overweight, insecurity Rene Zellweger makes a match with her own Mr. Darcy after a series of unfortunate events. Fortunately, Chadha, the director of the surprise international hit film "Bend It Like Beckham," has some impressive tricks up her sleeve. She transplants the traditional tale of manners to colorful India, infusing the tired story with the energy of some rousing dance numbers, bright saris, orange marigolds, magnificent elephants, and the stunning Bollywood star, Aishwarya Rai herself. Still, the film's ending is foretold from the start. No matter how much she seems to despise him, Rai will fall in love with her Mr. Darcy (the unfortunately bland Martin Henderson.) Her affection, naturally, will be returned.
"Bride and Prejudice" strives to be entertaining. The dialogue, at times, is crackling and laugh-out-loud funny. But Aishwarya Rai, the film's biggest draw, turns out to be the film's greatest weakness. She looks lovely as Lalita Baskshi, but her character--an independent, free-thinking woman who only wants to marry for love--should seem pronouncedly feisty. Instead, Rai's characterization comes off as demure. Her presence is often upstaged by those around her: an unsuitable Indian suitor from California (Nitin Chandra Ganatra in a hilarious performance as Mr. Kholi), her sex-pot little sister Lucky (the gleeful Peeya Rai Chowdhary), and even her overbearing mother (Nadira Babbar) who pleasantly shines in what could easily have been a stereotypical role.
Chahda's screenplay confronts Western notions of the West. Displeased with the man who calls her hometown Hicksville, India and complains about unreliable Internet connections, Lalita educates the wealthy but provincial Darcy about his misinformed views of Indian culture; the hotel mogul, smart enough to be smitten, receives a quick education. Patrons of Hollywood films, not used to Bollywood cinema, will also get a spirited education to the popular genre.
The song and dance numbers in "Bride and Prejudice," arranged by well-known Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan, are both cheesy and enjoyable. When the story takes the Bakshis to sunny California, Chadha once again plays with tradition, staging a comical Bollywood production on the beach, casting an entire Gospel choir, enthusiastic surfers, and singing lifeguards.