Jane Austen is right at home in Bollywood

Her issues and insights span time and cultures

Movies: On screen, DVD/ Video

February 24, 2005|By Steven Rea | Steven Rea,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Bride & Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood-ization of a certain 1813 novel by Jane Austen, opened on the same autumn day in Britain and India. Its first weekend out, the colorful adaptation -- replete with the ebullient song-and-dance numbers that are a staple of Indian cinema -- landed at the top of the box office in both lands.

"It was extremely satisfying," says Chadha, the British Indian filmmaker best known for the 2002 hit Bend It Like Beckham. "You know, it's not exclusively a Eurocentric movie ... and it's also not an Indocentric movie, it's a combination. And so that, for me, was satisfying -- that it was a film that encompassed at least two different cultures equally, and went to the top of the charts in both countries."

Like its 43-year-old director, the PG-13 film represents a new sort of global fusion. It's a theme that has run through all of Chadha's work, starting with her 1993 debut, Bhaji on the Beach.

About Bride & Prejudice -- with the stunning Indian star Aishwarya Rai as the headstrong heroine and Martin Henderson in the Will Darcy role -- Chadha says:

"I wanted to make a film that is what I call diasporic-centric. I live and breathe that international kind of world. My grandparents were from what was then India and is now Pakistan, I was born in Kenya, my parents were raised in Kenya, and then I was raised in England, and my husband is Japanese American.

"And I find there are a lot of people like me all over the world. Maybe not British Indian, but Greek Canadian, shall we say, or Korean American or whatever ... and it's those fusions and those combinations that make up most of our cities in the world today.

"And if you're not like that, then you certainly have colleagues who are from the diaspora, or friends, or even in-laws, maybe. So my films are part of that cultural paradigm. ... It's that sense of being something else that gives you much more of a global, international perspective, rather than nationalistic."

If a 200-year-old novel steeped in the customs and mores of long-gone Britain seems like an odd choice for a tale set in modern-day Amritsar, India, Chadha thinks otherwise.

"What was incredible was how closely, culturally, Austen's story just fitted contemporary India," Chadha says. "The world of women was still very much the same, in both cultures.

"You know, it was all about marriage: Unless you were married, you weren't considered whole. Through marriage you got status. A woman unmarried at a certain age had a terrible stigma to her. Women were supposed to be coy, and the mother was supposed to do the pushing, the introducing, the arranging. And all this stuff happens in India today."

With considerable humor, and lavish, Bollywood-style production numbers, Chadha examines gender roles, family expectations and East-West misperceptions.

For the non-initiate, Chadha has a short list of Bollywood films to recommend. These include Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (her translation: "The groom with the heart will carry off the bride"), a 1995 film by Aditya Chopra that inspired Chadha to want to make her own Bollywood spectacle, and Waqt (Time), by Yash Chopra.

Also, "Mother India is a must," says Chadha of the 1957 film that's often described as the Gone With the Wind of India. "Then I would say anything by Raj Kapoor, particularly one called Bobby."

Chadha, who lives in London with her husband/screenwriting partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, has two projects imminent: She is producing his directing debut, Mistress of Spices, which stars Bride & Prejudice's Rai. And she has been hired to direct Kate Hudson in I Dream of Jeannie, a remake of sorts of the '60s sitcom.

"It's more like an Arabian Nights adventure, because it's actually set in ancient Persia, initially. It does come to Cocoa Beach and Commander Nelson at some point, but it's Jeannie before she became the Jeannie that we know from the program. It's her back story."

Kind of Middle East-centric, with a Hollywood twist?

"It's normally the kind of movie that guys get to make," the bubbly Chadha explains. "But this one, obviously, has got a girl in the lead, and I get to play with all the toys. There's lots of, like, CGI [computer-generated imagery] involved, lots of magic, lots of action-adventure, fight scenes. I'm like a kid in the sweet shop, because it's all new stuff that I've never used before, either because I've never had the need to, or because I've never had the budget. ...

"I wanted to do a film in the studio system, something that wasn't personally driven, but something that I could make my own. There's no point in going in and making Bend It Like Beckham 2 within that system, only to be thwarted and have your ideas changed. So, I'm invested in Jeannie in a different way."

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