The release in 2004 of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice marked yet another contribution to celluloid’s Austen mania that began in the 1990s and is still going strong. Released almost simultaneously on three different continents (in the UK, US, and India), and in two different languages (English and Hindi), Bride and Prejudice, however, is definitely not another Anglo-American period costume drama. Described by one reviewer as “East meets West”, Chadha’s film “marries a characteristically English saga [Austen’s Pride and Prejudice] with classic Bollywood format “transforming corsets to saris, … the Bennetts to the Bakshis and … pianos to bhangra beats” (Adarsh). Bride and Prejudice, thus, clearly belongs to the upcoming genre of South Asian cross-over cinema in its diasporic incarnation. Such cross-over cinema self-consciously acts as a bridge between at least two distinct cinematic traditions—Hollywood and Bollywood (Indian Hindi cinema). By taking Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as her source text, Chadha has added another dimension to the intertextuality of such cross-over cinema, creating a complex hybrid that does not fit neatly into binary hyphenated categories such as “Asian-American cinema” that film critics such as Mandal invoke to characterise diaspora productions. An embodiment of contemporary globalised (post?)coloniality in its narrative scope, embracing not just Amritsar and LA, but also Goa and London, Bride and Prejudice refuses to fit into a neat East versus West cross-cultural model. How, then, are we to classify this film? Is this problem of identity indicative of postmodern indeterminacy of meaning or can the film be seen to occupy a “third” space, to act as a postcolonial hybrid that successfully undermines (neo)colonial hegemony (Sangari, 1-2)? To answer this question, I will examine Bride and Prejudice as a mimic text, focusing specifically on its complex relationship with Bollywood conventions.
According to Gurinder Chadha, Bride and Prejudice is a “complete Hindi movie” in which she has paid “homage to Hindi cinema” through “deliberate references to the cinema of Manoj Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra and Karan Johar” (Jha). This list of film makers is associated with a specific Bollywood sub-genre: the patriotic family romance. Combining aspects of two popular Bollywood genres, the “social” (Prasad, 83) and the “romance” (Virdi, 178), this sub-genre enacts the story of young lovers caught within complex familial politics against the backdrop of a nationalist celebration of Indian identity. Using a cinematic language that is characterised by the spectacular in both its aural and visual aspects, the patriotic family romance follows a typical “masala” narrative pattern that brings together “a little action and some romance with a touch of comedy, drama, tragedy, music, and dance” (Jaikumar). Bride and Prejudice’s successful mimicry of this language and narrative pattern is evident in film reviews consistently pointing to its being very “Bollywoodish”: “the songs and some sequences look straight out of a Hindi film” says one reviewer (Adarsh), while another wonders “why this talented director has reduced Jane Austen’s creation to a Bollywood masala film” (Bhaskaran).
Setting aside, for the moment, these reviewers’ condemnation of such Bollywood associations, it is worthwhile to explore the implications of yoking together a canonical British text with Indian popular culture. According to Chadha, this combination is made possible since “the themes of Jane Austen’s novels are a ‘perfect fit’ for a Bollywood style film” (Wray). Ostensibly, such a comment may be seen to reinforce the authority of the colonial canonical text by affirming its transnational/transhistorical relevance. From this perspective, the Bollywood adaptation not only becomes a “native” tribute to the colonial “master” text, but also, implicitly, marks the necessary belatedness of Bollywood as a “native” cultural formation that can only mimic the “English book”. Again, Chadha herself seems to subscribe to this view: “I chose Pride and Prejudice because I feel 200 years ago, England was no different than Amritsar today” (Jha).
The ease with which the basic plot premise of Pride and Prejudice—a mother with grown-up daughters obsessed with their marriage—transfers to a contemporary Indian setting does seem to substantiate this idea of belatedness. The spatio-temporal contours of the narrative require changes to accommodate the transference from eighteenth-century English countryside to twenty-first-century India, but in terms of themes, character types, and even plot elements, Bride and Prejudice is able to “mimic” its master text faithfully. While the Bennets, Bingleys and Darcy negotiate the relationship between marriage, money and social status in an England transformed by the rise of industrial capitalism, the Bakshis, Balraj and, yes, Will Darcy, undertake the same tasks in an India transformed by corporate globalisation. Differences in class are here overlaid with those in culture as a middle-class Indian family interacts with wealthy non-resident British Indians and American owners of multinational enterprises, mingling the problems created by pride in social status with prejudices rooted in cultural insularity. However, the underlying conflicts between social and individual identity, between relationships based on material expediency and romantic love, remain the same, clearly indicating India’s belated transition from tradition to modernity.
It is not surprising, then, that Chadha can claim that “the transposition [of Austen to India] did not offend the purists in England at all” (Jha). But if the purity of the “master” text is not contaminated by such native mimicry, then how does one explain the Indian anglophile rejection of Bride and Prejudice? The problem, according to the Indian reviewers, lies not in the idea of an Indian adaptation, but in the choice of genre, in the devaluation of the “master” text’s cultural currency by associating it with the populist “masala” formula of Bollywood. The patriotic family romance, characterised by spectacular melodrama with little heed paid to psychological complexity, is certainly a far cry from the restrained Austenian narrative that achieves its dramatic effect exclusively through verbal sparring and epistolary revelations. When Elizabeth and Darcy’s quiet walk through Pemberley becomes Lalita and Darcy singing and dancing through public fountains, and the private economic transaction that rescues Lydia from infamy is translated into fisticuff between Darcy and Wickham in front of an applauding cinema audience, mimicry does smack too much of mockery to be taken as a tribute. It is no wonder then that “the news that [Chadha] was making Bride and Prejudice was welcomed with broad grins by everyone [in Britain] because it’s such a cheeky thing to do” (Jha). This cheekiness is evident throughout the film, which provides a splendid over-the-top cinematic translation of Pride and Prejudice that deliberately undermines the seriousness accorded to the Austen text, not just by the literary establishment, but also by cinematic counterparts that attempt to preserve its cultural value through carefully constructed period pieces. Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, on the other hand, marries British high culture to Indian popular culture, creating a mimic text that is, in Homi Bhabha’s terms, “almost the same, but not quite” (86), thus undermining the authority, the primacy, of the so-called “master” text.
This postcolonial subversion is enacted in Chadha’s film at the level of both style and content. If the adaptation of fiction into film is seen as an activity of translation, of a semiotic shift from one language to another (Boyum, 21), then Bride and Prejudice can be seen to enact this translation at two levels: the obvious translation of the language of novel into the language of film, and the more complex translation of Western high culture idiom into the idiom of Indian popular culture. The very choice of target language in the latter case clearly indicates that “authenticity” is not the intended goal here. Instead of attempting to render the target language transparent, making it a non-intrusive medium that derives all its meaning from the source text, Bride and Prejudice foregrounds the conventions of Bollywood masala films, forcing its audience to grapple with this “new” language on its own terms. The film thus becomes a classic instance of the colony “talking back” to the metropolis, of Caliban speaking to Prospero, not in the language Prospero has taught him, but in his own native tongue. The burden of responsibility is shifted; it is Prospero/audiences in the West that have the responsibility to understand the language of Bollywood without dismissing it as gibberish or attempting to domesticate it, to reduce it to the familiar. The presence in Bride and Prejudice of song and dance sequences, for example, does not make it a Hollywood musical, just as the focus on couples in love does not make it a Hollywood-style romantic comedy. Neither The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) nor You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998) corresponds to the Bollywood patriotic family romance that combines various elements from distinct Hollywood genres into one coherent narrative pattern. Instead, it is Bollywood hits like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995) and Pardes (Subhash Ghai, 1997) that constitute the cinema tradition to which Bride and Prejudice belongs, and against which backdrop it needs to be seen. This is made clear in the film itself where the climactic fight between Darcy and Wickham is shot against a screening of Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim (East and West) (1970), establishing Darcy, unequivocally, as the Bollywood hero, the rescuer of the damsel in distress, who deserves, and gets, the audience’s full support, denoted by enthusiastic applause.
Through such intertextuality, Bride and Prejudice enacts a postcolonial reversal whereby the usual hierarchy governing the relationship between the colony and the metropolis is inverted. By privileging through style and explicit reference the Indian Bollywood framework in Bride and Prejudice, Chadha implicitly minimises the importance of Austen’s text, reducing it to just one among several intertextual invocations without any claim to primacy. It is, in fact, perfectly possible to view Bride and Prejudice without any knowledge of Austen; its characters and narrative pattern are fully comprehensible within a well-established Bollywood tradition that is certainly more familiar to a larger number of Indians than is Austen. An Indian audience, thus, enjoys a home court advantage with this film, not the least of which is the presence of Aishwarya Rai, the Bollywood superstar who is undoubtedly the central focus of Chadha’s film.
But star power apart, the film consolidates the Indian advantage through careful re-visioning of specific plot elements of Austen’s text in ways that clearly reverse the colonial power dynamics between Britain and India. The re-casting of Bingley as the British Indian Balraj re-presents Britain in terms of its immigrant identity. White British identity, on the other hand, is reduced to a single character—Johnny Wickham—which associates it with a callous duplicity and devious exploitation that provide the only instance in this film of Bollywood-style villainy. This re-visioning of British identity is evident even at the level of the film’s visuals where England is identified first by a panning shot that covers everything from Big Ben to a mosque, and later by a snapshot of Buckingham Palace through a window: a combination of its present multicultural reality juxtaposed against its continued self-representation in terms of an imperial tradition embodied by the monarchy.
This reductionist re-visioning of white Britain’s imperial identity is foregrounded in the film by the re-casting of Darcy as an American entrepreneur, which effectively shifts the narratorial focus from Britain to the US. Clearly, with respect to India, it is now the US which is the imperial power, with London being nothing more than a stop-over on the way from Amritsar to LA. This shift, however, does not in itself challenge the more fundamental West-East power hierarchy; it merely indicates a shift of the imperial centre without any perceptible change in the contours of colonial discourse. The continuing operation of the latter is evident in the American Darcy’s stereotypical and dismissive attitude towards Indian culture as he makes snide comments about arranged marriages and describes Bhangra as an “easy dance” that looks like “screwing in a light bulb with one hand and patting a dog with the other.” Within the film, this cultural snobbery of the West is effectively challenged by Lalita, the Indian Elizabeth, whose “liveliness of mind” is exhibited here chiefly through her cutting comebacks to such disparaging remarks, making her the film’s chief spokesperson for India. When Darcy’s mother, for example, dismisses the need to go to India since yoga and Deepak Chopra are now available in the US, Lalita asks her if going to Italy has become redundant because Pizza Hut has opened around the corner? Similarly, she undermines Darcy’s stereotyping of India as the backward Other where arranged marriages are still the norm, by pointing out the eerie similarity between so-called arranged marriages in India and the attempts of Darcy’s own mother to find a wife for him. Lalita’s strategy, thus, is not to invert the hierarchy by proving the superiority of the East over the West; instead, she blurs the distinction between the two, while simultaneously introducing the West (as represented by Darcy and his mother) to the “real India”. The latter is achieved not only through direct conversational confrontations with Darcy, but also indirectly through her own behaviour and deportment. Through her easy camaraderie with local Goan kids, whom she joins in an impromptu game of cricket, and her free-spirited guitar-playing with a group of backpacking tourists, Lalita clearly shows Darcy (and the audience in the West) that so-called “Hicksville, India” is no different from the so-called cosmopolitan sophistication of LA. Lalita is definitely not the stereotypical shy retiring Indian woman; this jean-clad, tractor-riding gal is as comfortable dancing the garbha at an Indian wedding as she is sipping marguerites in an LA restaurant.
Interestingly, this East-West union in Aishwarya Rai’s portrayal of Lalita as a modern Indian woman de-stabilises the stereotypes generated not only by colonial discourse but also by Bollywood’s brand of conservative nationalism. As Chadha astutely points out, “Bride and Prejudice is not a Hindi film in the true sense. That rikshawallah in the front row in Patna is going to say, ‘Yeh kya hua? Aishwarya ko kya kiya?’ [What did you do to Aishwarya?]” (Jha). This disgruntlement of the average Indian Hindi-film audience, which resulted in the film being a commercial flop in India, is a result of Chadha’s departures from the conventions of her chosen Bollywood genre at both the cinematic and the thematic levels. The perceived problem with Aishwarya Rai, as articulated by the plaintive question of the imagined Indian viewer, is precisely her presentation as a modern (read Westernised) Indian heroine, which is pretty much an oxymoron within Bollywood conventions. In all her mainstream Hindi films, Aishwarya Rai has conformed to these conventions, playing the demure, sari-clad, conventional Indian heroine who is untouched by any “anti-national” western influence in dress, behaviour or ideas (Gangoli,158). Her transformation in Chadha’s film challenges this conventional notion of a “pure” Indian identity that informs the Bollywood “masala” film.
Such re-visioning of Bollywood’s thematic conventions is paralleled, in Bride and Prejudice, with a playfully subversive mimicry of its cinematic conventions. This is most obvious in the song-and-dance sequences in the film. While their inclusion places the film within the Bollywood tradition, their actual picturisation creates an audio-visual pastiche that freely mingles Bollywood conventions with those of Hollywood musicals as well as contemporary music videos from both sides of the globe. A song, for example, that begins conventionally enough (in Bollywood terms) with three friends singing about one of them getting married and moving away, soon transforms into a parody of Hollywood musicals as random individuals from the marketplace join in, not just as chorus, but as developers of the main theme, almost reducing the three friends to a chorus. And while the camera alternates between mid and long shots in conventional Bollywood fashion, the frame violates the conventions of stylised choreography by including a chaotic spill-over that self-consciously creates a postmodern montage very different from the controlled spectacle created by conventional Bollywood song sequences. Bride and Prejudice, thus, has an “almost the same, but not quite” relationship not just with Austen’s text but also with Bollywood. Such dual-edged mimicry, which foregrounds Chadha’s “outsider” status with respect to both traditions, eschews all notions of “authenticity” and thus seems to become a perfect embodiment of postcolonial hybridity.
Does this mean that postmodern pastiche can fulfill the political agenda of postcolonial resistance to the forces of globalised (neo)imperialism? As discussed above, Bride and Prejudice does provide a postcolonial critique of (neo)colonial discourse through the character of Lalita, while at the same time escaping the trap of Bollywood’s explicitly articulated brand of nationalism by foregrounding Lalita’s (Westernised) modernity. And yet, ironically, the film unselfconsciously remains faithful to contemporary Bollywood’s implicit ideological framework. As most analyses of Bollywood blockbusters in the post-liberalisation (post-1990) era have pointed out, the contemporary patriotic family romance is distinct from its earlier counterparts in its unquestioning embrace of neo-conservative consumerist ideology (Deshpande, 187; Virdi, 203). This enthusiastic celebration of globalisation in its most recent neo-imperial avatar is, interestingly, not seen to conflict with Bollywood’s explicit nationalist agenda; the two are reconciled through a discourse of cultural nationalism that happily co-exists with a globalisation-sponsored rampant consumerism, while studiously ignoring the latter’s neo-colonial implications. Bride and Prejudice, while self-consciously redefining certain elements of this cultural nationalism and, in the process, providing a token recognition of neo-imperial configurations, does not fundamentally question this implicit neo-conservative consumerism of the Bollywood patriotic family romance. This is most obvious in the film’s gender politics where it blindly mimics Bollywood conventions in embodying the nation as a woman (Lalita) who, however independent she may appear, not only requires male protection (Darcy is needed to physically rescue Lakhi from Wickham) but also remains an object of exchange between competing systems of capitalist patriarchy (Uberoi, 207). At the film’s climax, Lalita walks away from her family towards Darcy. But before Darcy embraces the very willing Lalita, his eyes seek out and receive permission from Mr Bakshi. Patriarchal authority is thus granted due recognition, and Lalita’s seemingly bold “independent” decision remains caught within the politics of patriarchal exchange. This particular configuration of gender politics is very much a part of Bollywood’s neo-conservative consumerist ideology wherein the Indian woman/nation is given enough agency to make choices, to act as a “voluntary” consumer, within a globalised marketplace that is, however, controlled by the interests of capitalist patriarchy. The narrative of Bride and Prejudice perfectly aligns this framework with Lalita’s project of cultural nationalism, which functions purely at the personal/familial level, but which is framed at both ends of the film by a visual conjoining of marriage and the marketplace, both of which are ultimately outside Lalita’s control. Chadha’s attempt to appropriate and transform British “Pride” through subversive postcolonial mimicry, thus, ultimately results only in replacing it with an Indian “Bride,” with a “star” product (Aishwarya Rai / Bride and Prejudice / India as Bollywood) in a splendid package, ready for exchange and consumption within the global marketplace. All glittering surface and little substance, Bride and Prejudice proves, once again, that postmodern pastiche cannot automatically double as politically enabling postcolonial hybridity (Sangari, 23-4).