Jan Chats with Director and Screenwriter Grinder Chadha about New Film ‘Bride and Prejudice’

Jan Chats with Director and Screenwriter Grinder Chadha about New Film ‘Bride and Prejudice’

(First Posted in 2005)

‘Bride and Prejudice’, Gurinder Chadha’s new musical extravaganza, opened in Chicago on February 12th. Jan Lisa Huttner chatted with Gurinder two days before by phone. Jan was at her desk in Chicago. Gurinder was out and about, somewhere in another time zone.

JLH: Gurinder, ‘Bride and Prejudice’ takes aim at two sets of purists: the Austenites and the Bollywooders. How did you navigate between Scylla and Charybdis?

Gurinder Chadha: I always wanted to make a Bollywood-style movie, but I didn’t want to do a parody. And I didn’t want to do a pure Bollywood movie, because I can’t do anything “pure.” I am both English and Indian, and I’m married to a Californian who has a Japanese mother. Not only that, but I was born in Africa. So between us, Paul and I cover the world.

So I wanted to do a “Bollywood-style” movie, but combine it with the other film languages that I grew up with, namely Hollywood as well as the British cinema I saw on TV. One thing was clear to me: If I was going to do a “Bollywood” film, I had to be very clear about who my audience was. I don’t make films that are Eurocentric and I don’t make them so that they are Indocentric. I make films that are Diaspora-centered. I operate in global cultural paradigm, so that’s the kind of the movie I wanted to make.

Once I knew my audience, the Diasporic, cosmopolitan, global audience around the world, I then thought: Right, if I am going to take this alien film language to my audience, I need a story that they’re going to be familiar with and comfortable with. At that point, I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to take Jane Austen! What a cheeky idea – Bollywood and its antithesis, an English literary classic!

But the thing is, once I stopped patting myself on the back for that cheeky idea, it was incredible how well the novel fitted contemporary Indian society. The cultural mores were identical. Jane Austen was writing at a time when women were not considered “whole” unless they were married. It’s only through marriage that they gained status. They were supposed to be coy, and paint, and play musical instruments – but not use their brains.

And this is all stuff that’s relevant in small town India today, but also in other places all over the world. Many “Elizabeth Bennets” are alive and well in India today. I’ve met them. So the novel fit. The process was fluid.

JLH: Speaking as a woman whose best friend is a dues-paying member of the Jane Austen Society, what I loved most was the intricate mapping. You hit all the key plot points plus threw in all these elaborate dance numbers, and still kept it all under two hours; I thought it was a tour de force.

Gurinder Chadha: It was really hard work, continually balancing East and West! For example, instead of making Darcy just upper class, we made him American. So we made it about global conflict beyond class conflict. Darcy comes from what he perceives to be the premiere nation of the world, so he sees Lalita, our Elizabeth Bennet, as a little bit down-the-rung. She comes from a third world country. She, in turn, feels that India is far more civilized than America. And that’s the truth, that’s what people think in India.

JLH: Setting part of the film in America for Darcy’s sake gave you a lot more latitude when you turned Mr. Collins into Mr. Kholi, didn’t it?

Gurinder Chadha: In the novel, Mr. Collins is very happy that he’s managed to get a house on the estate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And he’s always going on about how lovely, how wonderful, even what great closet space her house has! So we adopted that in the film. Mr. Kholi carries a picture of his house, colonial style, 3.5 baths. When the Bakshis visit, he shows them the bathrooms! “Look at the closet,” he says. “It has all this space!” That was a direct reference. All the way through our screenplay, you’ll find direct references.

We went for the essential storyline elements – basically the love story, yes, but also how these two different societies deal with women. I never wanted anyone to think that we just took the novel and went off and made it our own, like Bridget Jones, which just took little elements. For me, the pleasure in watching this movie, if you know the novel, is seeing the novel unfold.

JLH: Right, about half-way through, as I settled into the mapping, I actually said to myself: “Gee, I wonder where Pemberley is going to be?” Since I knew you had to get Lalita to Pemberley, I got curious: Where in the world is Pemberley?

Gurinder Chadha: So you’re my perfect audience, Jan, that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted people to be continually aware of the novel, because I took a very alien film language, which is Bollywood, and I combined it with traditional English literature, and for me that’s the metaphor for integration. I want you to know side-by-side that you are looking at something that is 200 years old and English, and you’re also looking at something that’s very modern and Indian, and look how beautifully these two things can work together!

JLH: Real “Jane Austen people,” those of us who treasure her, will appreciate that, Gurinder. I bet we’ll all applaud your “cheeky” quality.

Gurinder Chadha: I have something to tell you: The Jane Austen Society of North America had a screening a few months back. I was a little nervous about it, but they wanted the print. They had a screening, and they all loved it so much that they’ve made me an Honorary Lifetime member!

JLH: So what about the Bollywood people?

Gurinder Chadha: We went to number one in India when we opened. We did terrific business there. We did more on ‘Bride’ than we did with ‘Bend It Like Beckham’. And we also went to number one in England, and that’s a first time that’s happened to the same movie in those two particular countries. We also did well in South Africa. But for some Indians, it might not be Bollywood enough, and you know, that’s fine, because for some Westerners, it might be too Bollywood.

Some Indians from India think in a very Indocentric way, so they don’t understand. So far, no true Bollywood films have been remotely successful in the West in the way this film has because they are too much geared toward the Indian audience. But ‘Bride’ is about me knowing my audience and knowing my market and actually being a part of it myself. I am as much a part of the West as I am Indian. Jane Austen is just as important a part of my life and my school time as Bollywood movies are. It’s the combination that makes me who I am.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (2/18/2005) – Special for Really Good Films. Reposted with Permission.

All photos courtesy of Miramax Films.

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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