Bride and Prejudice is available to watch on BOB and Amazon Prime
Everyone knows that Brits and Americans are the absolute worst tourists. They’re loud and obnoxious, expect everyone to speak English, get embarrassingly sunburnt, and care more about the cocktails than the culture. This arrogance likely roots in imperialist attitudes; the disgusting Western ideology that every other country should tailor to their desires, and that Westerners have the ultimate right to go wherever they want and do whatever they please. With this in mind, Gurinder Chadha’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice translates the class tension between Darcy and Elizabeth into a tension about national identity and culture, and American attitudes towards India. The Bennet family become the Bakshi family from Amritsar, while Darcy is a wealthy, American tourist with an arrogance aptly attached to that stereotype. Behind the sparkle of the Bollywood numbers, the vibrant colours, and the light humour, Bride and Prejudice threads through a commentary on neo-imperialism, interrogating Western attitudes towards India today and considering how open the West is to change.
From the film’s opening, Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) is practically squirming in discomfort. As a white, wealthy man he’s used to a sense of control, of authority, yet as Darcy drives through the bustling streets of Amritsar with his friends Balraj and Kiran (Bingley and his sister, who are recast as British-Indian), he’s out of his depth – ‘Jesus Belraj, where the hell have you brought me?’, he exclaims plaintively. Chadha plays on Darcy’s discomfort to comic effect: he fears the food for its potential to cause ‘Delhi Belly’ and he complains petulantly about the hotel’s bad internet. Underlying the humour though is a deliberate critique of Darcy’s prejudice towards India. Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) questions his frustration about his hotel, highlighting that the usual price Darcy would spend on a night in a hotel is more than most people’s annual salaries in India. In response to Darcy’s defensive comment that ‘There’s nothing wrong with having standards is there?’, Lalita swiftly replies, ‘No, as long as you don’t impose them on others’. In this comment, Lalita strikes at the heart of the problem: all of Darcy’s criticisms about India spawn from an inherent belief that the Western alternatives are better. Darcy’s racist expectations are presented as naïve, that he is accustomed to a certain way of living and expects wherever he travels to adapt to his standards.
Darcy overcompensates for his discomfort with an arrogant dismissal of India culture, belittling his surroundings in an attempt to hoist himself back up to a superior position. While in evident awe of the dancing at the wedding reception, Darcy’s knowledge of his inability to participate due to lack of skill translates into a reductive attitude. He snarkily tells Lalita, ‘I’m a hopeless dancer but this looks like you’re just screwing a lightbulb with one hand and you pet the dog with the other. Will you teach me?’ Unsurprisingly, Lalita rejects such a proposal. Instead of trying to understand the dancing and acknowledging the talent it involves, Darcy diminishes it with painful Western ignorance.
Similarly, his attitudes towards marriage in India reveal a stubborn reliance on Western prejudice rather than educating himself. He reduces arranged marriages in India to a ‘simple’ yet ‘backwards’ way to find a wife. As Lalita later discovers, this attitude is all the more prejudiced as Darcy is blind to the similarity between his own mother’s matchmaking efforts and the concept of arranged marriage. Western preconceptions taint Darcy’s view of India, preventing him from seeing the country with any clarity. Bizarrely, however, the Guardian’s critical review of Bride and Prejudice at the time of its release commented that, ‘[Chadha] gave us the Bride. But where was the Prejudice?’, seeming to entirely miss the fact that Darcy’s prejudice against Indian culture is the dividing issue in his relationship with Lalita – an astonishing omission given it defines the majority of their interactions. It would be unfair to say that Chadha is at fault for not making this prejudice clear. This ignorant review is more revealing of Western attitudes towards Indian: it seems this reviewer, like Darcy, believes India to be the issue, not their own prejudice.
We must consider though that, like in the film’s source material, the prejudice in the relationship between Darcy and Lalita is two-way – Darcy against India and Lalita against Westerners in India. As scholar, Stephanie Jones, points out, ‘Unlike Lalita, we aren’t allowed to read [Darcy’s] discomforts as pride and his pride as racism. Racism would be too hard to redeem, so we always see that Lalita misunderstands him.’ Lalita is continually ready to jump down Darcy’s throat at any of his misguided comments but, given India’s colonisation and continued Western neo-imperialism, this is a somewhat blameless attitude to have. Nevertheless, her readiness for Darcy to make inappropriate and discriminatory comments means she twists his words to fit her expectations. For instance, when Darcy comments that an arranged marriage is a ‘simple’ way to organise nuptials, Lalita takes this as Darcy believing that ‘India is the place to go for simple women’. Undeniably Darcy is an ass and shows a prejudice against India but, given Lalita ends up with Darcy in the end, Chadha seemingly intends Darcy’s behaviour as erring towards naivety and ignorance rather than intentional racism, suggesting that he is open to change. As Chadha herself puts it, ‘He’s a bit of a ****** at the beginning and then gradually we grow to like him.’
Darcy importantly takes steps to rectify his behaviour, learning from Lalita’s criticisms. For instance, in his changed attitudes towards the tourist industry in India. While staying in a luxury hotel in Goa, Darcy tried to prove his positive opinion of India to Lalita by telling her that he is considering buying this hotel. This inflames Lalita as she slates Darcy for thinking that the Westernised hotel is the real India, saying ‘you want people to come to India, without having to deal with Indians…isn’t that what all tourists want here, five star comfort with a bit of culture thrown in?’ It’s a criticism that rings true with the way many Westerners approach their holidays, electing for familiar comfort in compounds and hotels above a realistic experience of their travel destination. Darcy argues that his work brings more investment and jobs; but, as Lalita questions, ‘who does it really benefit?’ Darcy’s sentiments echo the imperialist justification that colonialism improves opportunities and quality of life for those colonised when, in reality, colonialists only seek to benefit themselves. Darcy’s hotels are not principally developed to improve local workers’ lives, but to make profit for the benefit of himself and the US economy, falling into a wider issue of making India’s economy and job prospects dependent on the Western country in a strain of neo-colonial economics. Lalita’s damning remark that, ‘I don’t want you turning India into a theme park. I thought we got rid of imperialists like you’, clearly outlines Chadha’s message. Darcy’s redemption in part hinges on learning from Lalita’s comments. He changes in Lalita and the audience’s estimation when we discover that he decided not to buy the hotel as a result of their conversation, despite Darcy’s mother angrily noting that it was a decision which ‘lost us a fortune’. While Darcy’s other actions, like helping track down Wickham and Lakhi, also help improve Lalita’s perception of him, it is surely Darcy’s willingness to learn from his earlier ignorance that is key to his appeal.
In this vein, Lalita finally accepts her love for Darcy and their future together when he marks his respect for Indian culture. At the film’s end, we are treated to the somewhat bizarre sight of Darcy – still in a characteristic suit – joining in with Indian drumming, much to Lalita’s delight. It’s the closest the film ever actually gets to showing us a kiss before the couple swoop into a hug (got to love a PG film). We then see Lalita and Darcy, and Belraj and Jaya’s double wedding, with the two couples riding away on elephants adorned with ‘Just Married’ signs. While Darcy does seem to redeem himself, it doesn’t eradicate his earlier prejudice and the continued abhorrent views from the likes of his mother. Chadha’s adaptation reminds us that neo-colonialist attitudes and economics are still very persistent and need to be dismantled. Bride and Prejudice is a chick flick that’s playing its own small part in achieving that.
Featured Image Credit: Megan Shepherd