Austen Does Bollywood

Austen Does Bollywood

Regency Era Dress made from a Kashmir Shawl



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.

Regency Era Dress made from a Sari

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.

aisha2010’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.

Read My Review of Aisha 

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.

Read My Review of Bride & Prejudice

kkNow 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.

Read My Review of Kondukondain Kondukondain  

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,

Alexa Adams

22 Responses to Austen Does Bollywood

  1. I discovered JA’s world and Pride & Préjudice thanks to Bride and Préjudice. I loved the movie and the songs! I watched the songs in hindi and the movie was in English but you found the movie in Hindi version as well :).
    Martin Henderson was to me, a very good Darcy. I liked also the subject of the modern arranged marriage that was mentionned.
    Translating hindi songs Is not a good idea, as the beautiful of the sont relies on the words and sounds, it is beautiful in the actual language but translated doesn’t the sense ot cultural background.
    I didnt Watch “Aisha” but I Will try.
    I love Bollywood movie, I almost Watch every new movie.

    • I wish more Bollywood films were available in English just so my 4 year old daughter would watch the with me! As it is, she makes me fast forward to the musical numbers. I have great hope for a future when she can read subtitles. Enjoy Aisha. It’s very cute.

  2. I have seen all three and had fun with them. I actually own B&P. For anyone looking for a unique twist on our dear Jane, they are a must see, atleast once. Great post!

  3. Thanks for such an interesting post, Alexa. Those two dresses are just gorgeous, aren’t they? I just love the colours and textures of the fabrics to be found in saris. About 25 miles from where I live is the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire. There is a large community of people from the Indian sub-continent and their descendants. There are also many clothing shops whose windows are full of those fantastic fabrics. It’s fascinating to window/shop as one passes by. I’ve never plucked up the courage to go in, though.

    Of the three films you mention, I’d never heard of Aisha, but will definitely keep an eye out for it in the future.

    I do own a copy of Bride and Prejudice and totally love it, especially the big song and dance numbers. And I don’t usually like musicals! I did a post for Meredith Esparza’s Austenesque Reviews Ardent Austenesque section recently and B&P was one of my Desert Island Five Austen film/TV adaptations. It never fails to cheer me up. Mr. Kohli is my favourite version of Mr. Collins, I think. Thanks for pointing out the Game of Thrones connection. We’ve just binge-watched our newly purchased Season 4 box set. I was racking my brain trying to think where I’d seen the actress who plays Ellaria Sand before!

    I’ve only recently come across references to “Kondukondain Kondukondain” and haven’t yet got around to looking out for a copy but it sounds interesting, to say the least.

  4. Hi Alexa, As an Austen Junkie I will watch just about anything JA related. I love the Sari dresses and have seen two out of your three recommended. What I like about Bollywood movies is that they leave you with such a “feel good” satisfaction at the end. Always that little dance where everyone is happy like in Slum Dog. Even thou these films are fanciful, and pretty far from AJ, we do get a closer look at the culture which is always fascinating. Would JA approve? Hmm… Thanks for sharing! ~Jen Red~

  5. Thank you for the lovely look at Austen from another culture. I have not seen any of these movies and confess that I probably will not (I do not care for musicals of Austens’ works) but I am grateful for your perspective. And, I appreciate the pics of the beautiful regency clothes made with Indian fabrics or influence.

    • You’re welcome, Brenda. Do you care for musicals in general? Is it just the idea of Austen set to music that turns you off? I know several people who do not care for musicals, and I admit to always trying to recommend that one special musical that will change their mind. No luck yet.

  6. This article was so interesting and lovely. I enjoyed it greatly and the dresses are unique and so attractive. To own one of those and wear it for an affair would be wonderful and eye-catching.

    • Wouldn’t you feel like a princess? In the sikh tradition, all women are considered princesses. The word princess, khalsa, is tacked onto all women’s names, and they dress the part, too! The entire concept for this post began with my declaration that I want a sari. Surely, a regency sari dress would do just as well.

  7. My wife and I often frequented Gaylords in San Francisco. The food was delicious and on one occasion the owner’s daughter was getting married.
    He asked us if we would like to see some of the wedding garments and of course we said yes. He asked the wedding party to walk in and give us a
    small preview. It was then and there that I learned the wonderful tastes of Indian food were also complimented by the colorful clothing. We love their food and of course my wife’s Indian research for her book Dr Darcy was very exhaustive. Ok yes I am now craving some raita, garlic naan and chicken tikka masala.

    • We eat a lot of Indian at my house too, Steve. I’m pretty much fascinated with all things Indian, an interest premised in eighteen years of yoga practice. My favorite meal – Paratha with bindi masala and a side of pekoras. Yummy!

  8. I am not much a fan of Bollywood. I just don’t enjoy it very much. I do love the colors and the materials that they use and the dresses from the shawl and sari are just gorgeous! I work with a lot of engineers from Asia and the Middle East and they have the most beautiful scarves and head wraps. One of the ladies is from Egypt and she keeps promising to bring me something back the next time she goes home.

    I do find it fascinating that Austen is still just as powerful a draw in Bollywood as it is here. She is truly larger than life!

    • Hi Stephanie. Bollywood is surely not for all. I adore musicals and elaborate choreography, plus I’m more than a little bit obsessed with India, so I am a rather natural fan. The clothing, however, is no small part of the appeal. If you want to take a stab at an Indian take on Austen, I would recommend Aisha. It really is devoid of the typical Bollywood trapping. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Wonderful review. Haven’t seen the first or last but did enjoy “Bride and Prejudice”. Will have to try out ” I Have Found It”. Thanks for a informational post.

    • My pleasure! I would love to hear your thoughts on I Have Found It! I have recommended this film to so many people, and yet I have never found anyone with whom to discuss it. I really love that movie. Need to buy a copy.

  10. Thank you for this interesting post. I have never seen any of the Bollywood productions and don’t own any Regency attire. If I had to choose between the 2 dresses above the royal blue made from the Sari is absolutely gorgeous.

    • Hi Debbie! Isn’t that blue gown fabulous? It is surprisingly hard to find images of authentic sari gowns. The shawl dresses are better represented in costume collections and portraits. I’d like to have one of each, quite frankly, though orange is not my color.

  11. I agree Bride and prejudice does have the feel of predictability right from the start. Entertaining though. I actually owe a copy. Have watched twice. Great, blog. Happy Friday!!!

  12. Alexa, Thank you for this fascinating article. On you mentioned, I was intrigued enough to stream Bride and Prejudice and enjoyed it immensely. It reminded me of a Disney princess movie for grownups. If you can tolerate the over-the-top dance numbers, it was true to the emotions in Pride and Prejudice. I felt the Liz and Darcy couple had loads of chemistry. It was light and funny and hit the spot. Thanks!

    • Hi Barbara! I have a huge tolerance for over the top dance numbers, hence the Bollywood love. And yes, so many of these films are like grown up Princess films. Great analogy! So glad you enjoyed the film. It really is a great bridge if you aren’t big on subtitles.

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