If there is one thing Gurinder Chadha is clear about over a crackling cell-phone connection, it’s what Bride and Prejudice is not. “It’s not a Bollywood film,” she says in no uncertain terms. “It’s a British film made with a nod to Bollywood musicals and Hollywood. And it’s meant to introduce this new film language to suburban audiences the world over.”Actually, it sounds more like an arranged marriage between Bollywood and Hollywood. “Every element of the film had to be negotiated culturally and no one was right and no one was wrong,” says Chadha. But in the end it’s she who had to be the final arbiter of what was “too Bollywood” and what was “not Bollywood enough.”
This, after all, was no ordinary movie. This was the British Bollywood film Chadha had always wanted to make. The idea of taking a universal classic like Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice and re-creating it in a new globalized society came while she was washing dishes at her home in London. And then she and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges “unpicked” the story and had Bride and Prejudice pretty much sewn up in 10 minutes, says Chadha. The Bennets became the Bakshis, the English countryside became Amritsar and the story just flowed. “In Austen’s time women were not considered 100 percent complete until married into a family with status and money,” says Chadha. “That’s not so dissimilar to an Indian family whether in Diamond Bar or Amritsar with an unmarried daughter above the age of 27.”
But the real story of Bride and Prejudice starts way before those dirty dishes in the sink in the Chadha-Berges household. Wait a minute, says the nitpicking critic, doesn’t the acclaimed director of Bend it Like Beckham have a dishwasher? What was she doing seeking inspiration in the suds of her kitchen sink? But arre yaar, this is the movies. Suspend disbelief and let’s go to a flashback.
1960s-’70s London: Young Gurinder Chadha is growing up in the desi hoods of Southall watching Baiju BawraBaiju Bawra and Mother IndiaMother India and Raj Kapoor movies at home and The Sound of MusicThe Sound of Music andThoroughly Modern MillieThoroughly Modern Millie at the theater. Soon, all the theaters in Southall are showing Hindi films but, with the advent of video, one by one the theaters start closing down.
Chadha, who is in her Doc Martens-with-salwar kameez phase, is busy watching the rise of British bhangra. She admits she had little time for pirated Bollywood videos that were magic carpet rides into nostalgia for her parents. “I thought it was rubbish and kitsch,” she says frankly.
Then along came Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le JayengeDilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Chadha was so blown away by the film, she thought, “I wouldn’t mind making something like that.” In fact, when she had her first Bollywood screening and Aditya Chopra showed up along with Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bhaduri, and Karan Johar, Chadha told them, “If you don’t like this film, give Adi a big slap since he made Dilwale Dulhania Le JayengeDilwaleand that’s what inspired me.”
So what did Aditya Chopra think of Bride and Prejudice? Hang on, we have a few songs and some more plot twists to go through before that emotional moment.
After her landmark Bhaji on the BeachBhaji on the Beach, Chadha actually did take her first stab at making a British Bollywood film—Love in London— with the brothers Deol. But they had very different ideas of the film they were making. The Deols wanted a good old masala film; Chadha wanted a British Bollywood film. They soon parted ways.
Moral of the story: “Be very clear about who your audience is,” says Chadha. “Be very clear about what you want.”
NOW BACK TO PRESENT TIMES
And what she wanted after the huge success of Bend it like BeckhamBend it Like Beckham was a film that had a universal story (Austen), an Indian demigoddess (Aishwarya Rai) and an international cast (Martin Henderson, Naveen Andrews, Anupam Kher), kick-ass choreography (Saroj Khan), a cinematographer who could capture the essence of Bollywood (Santosh Sivan), and of course, songs (Anu Malik taking on a gospel choir). And she got what she wanted, even the hard-to-get-hold-of Aishwarya Rai.
Rai remembers in an interview with Miramax how she looked through the schedule to see which days were working days (W) and which days were holidays (H). “And I was desperately looking for that H, and there were no holidays again, so I was like I don’t get a single day off?” remembers Rai. “But it just zipped by. I mean we actually had fun along with the serious hard work.”
But it took a lot of work to make it appear like easy fun, says Chadha. “The biggest challenge for us was to capture the joyfulness of Bollywood and to celebrate its unique aesthetic without being too ‘cheesy’ for a Western audience,” says Paul Mayeda Berges, who co-wrote the script.
Chadha gives an example. Santosh Sivan wanted a long, lingering close-up of Rai and co-star Martin Henderson, whereas Chadha would want to go for a more Western-style functional close-up. “I’d say, ‘Too cheesy.’ He’d say, ‘Try it.’ So Martin would look at Ash longingly and I’d say cut. Then we’d look at the monitor and crack up. And Martin would joke, ‘Oh no, my career is over. No one will take me seriously after that.’”
Which leads to the million-rupee question: Who is crossing over here? Is this Martin Henderson crossing over to Bollywood or Aishwarya Rai crossing over to Hollywood?
“The ‘crossover’ term is an odd one for us because all of our films are made by people and for people from cultures all over the world. We’re crossing and criss-crossing all over the place,” says Berges. In fact, as Rai politely reminds her Miramax interviewer, though this is technically her first English film, she speaks English every day of her life. And if anyone was fazed by the Bollywood aspects it was Indian British Naveen Andrews when he saw the dance steps he would need to master. He said forget it, but after three weeks of rehearsals, he did it, says Chadha.
But if some reviews are to be believed, the balancing act, this crisscrossing, isn’t always successful.
CUT TO SONG
Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice has all the feminist clout of a giant blancmange … The results (Anu Malik’s efforts to cross-fertilize East and West) are like a parade of Eurovision tunes. Zoya Akhtar’s lyrics—She’s going to be wed/ It doesn’t mean she’s dead—add nothing to the sexual chemistry. —The Times of London
Of course, some get into it.
The sheer spectacle and energy of the first musical number is impossible to resist. —FilmFocus
But then you have the obligatory curry reference. (By the way, when was the last time, say traditional Sense and Sensibility was compared to Yorkshire pudding or mashed peas?)
Like a three-week-old bowl of egg vindaloo, Bride and Prejudice can be a little hard to digest … If you head along to watch it you should also brace yourself for some of the outright worst musical segments in celluloid history. —Movie Gazette
Hmmm, says Chadha, I always look at who is doing the criticizing. “Lyrics are a hard place to get it right,” she says. “What might sound right in Hindi might sound cheesy in English.”
Aishwarya Rai also knows that it’s hard for Westerners to really comprehend the place songs have in Indian films without dismissing them as gaudy, campy tacked-on glitter. Songs, says Rai, “are a perfect dream-world journey. And even today, when we travel overseas, a lot of people are connected to our film, to our culture, by our songs.”
What’s trickier, says Chadha, are critics who still fail to see her as a British filmmaker making British films just because the subject of the film isn’t Eurocentric. “The problem with race in Britain is a lot of people have an idea about what kind of films I should be making,” she says. “The fact is I do make films about race but I do it my own way.”
For example, in Bride and Prejudice, Lalita gives Darcy an earful about imperialism. In fact, Darcy is not British anymore. He’s turned into an American, which, Chadha says, “really fits into this new global hierarchy.” He’s a handsome American, as opposed to an ugly American, but he has enough attitude to need a good Colonialism/Imperialism 101 from Lalita. “I finally used my degree in third-world economics in my career,” chuckles Chadha. “I never thought I would make an entertaining movie with the word imperialism in it.”
HERE COMES THE LOVE STORY
But in the end, says the nitpicking critic of the South Asian Studies variety, is it ultimately still all about marriage? Lalita is smart, intelligent, lovely, anti-imperialist. Why do we have to spend 111 minutes wondering which man she will choose? Why is Rai, a business-minded woman who has risen to the top in a man’s world still playing a lovelorn princess whose life isn’t complete without Prince Charming? “Oh, no,” says Chadha. “Love is the ultimate goal as opposed to marriage.”
She remembers going to see East is EastEast is East and enjoying the humor until a couple of English girls sitting in front of her commented, “That is really disgusting what they do. They force them to marry these really backward ugly girls; it’s disgusting.” Chadha felt her world come crashing down as she realized how the rest of the world could perceive what she could take for granted and affectionately make fun of. So in the film, another character, a friend of the Bakshi girls is shown as falling in love after an arranged marriage. “In fact,” retorts Chadha, “what are they talking about? Didn’t Princess Diana have an arranged marriage too?”
Yes, yes, says Rai. “It’s really about the East and the West and you know, the love story where the twain shall eventually meet.”
THE END CREDITS
So what helps an intercontinental love story like this happen?
“Laughing, dancing, and eating fab food,” says Berges.
Rai remembers how the whole cast would memorize the song and on the last day jump in and shoot the whole song all over again. “So the song sequence becomes one big party at the end of it,” says Rai.
It sounds like one big party (especially if you stick around for the end credits). But Chadha says the core of the film is less about fun and more about affection.
“Some people in India are really embarrassed by Bollywood,” she says frankly. “I didn’t want people to think I was taking the mickey out of Bollywood. I was trying to be affectionate.”
And yes, that includes the not-to-be-missed Sridevi-style impress-the-suitor snake dance.
Oh, I almost forgot. So what did Aditya Chopra say? Chadha remembers the first 10 minutes of the screening were really quiet. Then everyone loosened up. “And Adi came up to me and said, ‘What fun, yaar. Most unpretentious film I’ve seen in my life.’”
She pauses, and you can hear her smiling over the cell phone. “That meant a lot,” she says.
Making Cinema out of Jhal Muri, a profile of Mira Nair
A Direction of One’s Own, profiles of Shonali Bose and Pratibha Parmar
Who Were Kaju’s Birth Parents?, a review of Shonali Bose’s Amu
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|