Bride & Prejudice

We Americans are only partially aware of India’s Bollywood films, the ones with the lavish costumes and random song-and-dance numbers that you see parodied or referenced here and there. So Gurinder Chadha, a Kenya-born, London-raised woman of Indian descent, has followed her modest hits “What’s Cooking?” and “Bend It Like Beckham” with “Bride & Prejudice,” a romantic comedy that combines Jane Austen and Bollywood musicals cutely, if not especially effectively.

It does not lack for color or energy, though, and all of the Indian cast members are instantly likable. (Curiously, all of the Western actors are flat, but more on that later.) It is set in the town of Amritsar, where the Bakshi family has four daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age and thus are the objects of Mom’s (Nadira Babbar) ceaseless matchmaking.

At a wedding party for some friends, the oldest girls, Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and Lalita (Aishwarya Rai), meet men who will soon change their lives. Jaya meets Balraj (Naveen Andrews), the groom’s best man and a well-to-do Indian; Lalita, meanwhile, meets and clashes with Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), a millionaire American whose family owns hotels around the world and who is considering buying a beach-front resort elsewhere in India.

Darcy is condescending toward India, finding it simple and provincial. Lalita, a smart, motivated woman who loves her traditional culture, bristles at Darcy’s implications, and thus are the two set on a path for love.

There can be, of course, few surprises in a film based on a Jane Austen novel that, if no one has actually read, has at least been internalized by people who have seen one of the movies based on it. Lalita and Darcy’s relationship will be on-again, off-again, and love will eventually be found by all parties. There is a brief interruption by Darcy’s nemesis Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), but that is dismissed almost as soon as it’s introduced, allowing us to get back on track quickly.

Along the way, Chadha (who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband and writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges) stages several delightful musical numbers, filled with lively dancing and rhythmic, drum-based accompaniment. Her weakness is with the non-musical scenes, which are pretty unremarkable. Martin Henderson plays Darcy not as aloof or cold, but simply dull, making his and Lalita’s story profoundly ineffective. In fact, nearly everyone’s dialogue is mediocre at best, with no particularly good exchanges, one-liners or scenes standing out as memorable.

Still, those musical numbers. The film is worth seeing just for their exuberance, whimsy and occasional silliness. If the movie were always as footloose and creative as it is during those moments, it would be brilliant, rather than pedestrian.

B- (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, a little vulgarity; looks like a PG to me.)