Jane Austen does not much speak of India, which she called the East Indies. In her books it is a faraway place where military men were stationed and desirable fabrics and shawls were obtained. Marianne Dashwood provides the only, rather glib description of the country:
” … the climate is hot, and the mosquitos are troublesome.”
Jane Austen was rather scrupulous in not describing places of which she had no knowledge, yet she lived in a time when a massive cultural exchange was taking place, and it worked both ways. England may have imposed its culture upon India, but it also brought a lot of India back home. The fashions of the day, in which dresses made of saris (and later on shawls) were all the rage, reflected the beginnings of an interchange that is continuing to this day.
Jane Austen did not speak much of India, but India has had a lot to say about Jane Austen. She is much beloved in that country. I have several Indian friends who adore Austen, also a few who don’t, but even the latter often demonstrate a far better knowledge of her work than the average American. We’ve discussed the universality of her appeal. As the main theme of Bollywood tends to be love and marriage, Austen is a natural topic for Indian cinema. It is really rather astounding that no more than three Indian film adaptations have been made of her works (the is a movie claiming to be the Indian version of Pride & Prejudice uploaded on YouTube, but I’m pretty sure this is either a mistake or a disturbing joke). Modern India is such a natural setting for Austen’s plots, where marriage is still very much a topic of discussion in the public sphere. In so many ways we have privatized marriage in the West. It is not a decision we allow our families, let alone the community at large, partake in.
I would like to share with you a few brief thoughts on each of the three Bollywood adaptations of Austen novels, all of which I have previously reviewed in full on my blog. I will begin with the most recent film and work chronologically backwards, as this happens to correspond with the order in which I favor the films, from least to most.
2010’s Aisha is a heavily Clueless influence version of Emma. While it is the only pure Bollywood production of the three, it is not characterized by the big musical numbers typical of Indian studios. Quite frankly, half the reason I watch Bollywood is for the musical numbers. The lavishness of these productions are on a scale of with the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals and quite unlike what we are likely to see out of Western cinema in the 21st century. Aisha is, in many ways, a consciously western production, both in style and morality. Sonam Kapoor’s portrayal of Aisha is convincing, but the film is almost totally lacking the comic elements of the novel. I have a hard time abiding Austen without the wit, but it is a cute film and worth watching.
2004’s Bride and Prejudice is more satisfying in both the comic regard and in elaborate dance numbers. It is a solid and fairy canon adaptation. The fact that it is in English makes it particularly accessible to western audiences, as do the many British actors in the cast. The magnificent Aishwarya Rai plays Lalita Bakshi, a feisty and indomitable homage to Austen’s Lizzy Bennet. Less convincing (at least for me) is Martin Henderson as William Darcy, an American hotel tycoon persevering through his first trip to India. I love the self-consciousness of this film: an East meets West collaboration with post-colonial themes driving the plot. It would have been so easy to use India’s cast system in place of Austen’s social stratifications, but by focusing on cultural imperialism instead, the story because unmistakably and very effectively modern. It is a phenomenal adaptation of Austen’s plot, but in terms of Bollywood, the film is only mediocre. I wish they didn’t sing so many of the songs in English, revealing just how miserable the lyrics are. It is strange to say, but I would enjoy this film a little more if I could understand it just a bit less.
Now I get to gush over the little known but truly fabulous Kondukondain Kondukondain, or I Have Found It (“it” being love – aw!), a 2000 Tamil adaptation of Sense & Sensibility. Also staring Aishwarya Rai (she is a megastar, after all), this film complete submerges Austen’s story into a modern political context, set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War. While not sticking as close to canon as the other two films, I think it a far better. Fully steeped in all the conventions of Bollywood, this movie is more of a challenge for the uninitiated, but if you can settle into this truly beautiful story, it will enrapt you. My biggest problem with this adaptation is that it places the Marianne character, Meenakshi, as the central heroine. Her story and hero are a bit more romantic, I concede, but I would have been more impressed had the film makers found a way to improve upon Edward (Manohar) instead of relegating both Eleanor (Sowmya) and him to the backseat. Oh – one last warning, should this movie prove your weekend entertainment: watch out for the Fanny Dashwood character. She’s even more vile than the original.
Have you seen any of these movies? Do you enjoy Bollywood? Did you make your Regency ball gown out of a sari? I want to hear about it (and see pictures)!
Happy weekend to you all,