There are as many Jane Austen adaptations as there are stars in the sky or planned Marvel spinoffs. Shows, books, fanfiction, movies…the woman is an entire cottage industry two hundred years after her death, and no one deserves it more.
I’ll watch anything Austen-related, but Pride and Prejudice is my jam. Austen herself called Elizabeth Bennet “as delightful a character as ever appeared in print,” and the success of any P&P adaptation rests on the actor playing Elizabeth. You can find a million conversations online arguing about the best Elizabeth, and generally it comes down to Keira Knightley vs. Jennifer Ehle, which is shockingly dismissive of Daphne Slater, who had to portray Elizabeth falling in love with a young Grand Moff Tarkin.
One of the best modern Elizabeths is played by Aishwarya Rai in the “Bollywood” Pride and Prejudice adaptation, Bride and Prejudice. No offense to Bridget Jones or Lizzie Bennet, but Rai’s Lalita Bakshi is a more interesting take on the character, precisely because she is a step removed from the Western world.
Set in India, focused on the traditional Bakshi family, the film manages to be modern while still keeping a foot in the sort of agricultural, small town world of Austen’s novel. A woman’s world in Regency England was narrow, defined primarily by her family. She was protected from any hint of sex or scandal, and never allowed to be alone with men outside the family. Director Gurinder Chadha’s lovely, funny musical translates that experience to the present-day life of a Punjabi farming family.
It’s hard to bring those more archaic aspects of Austen into a modern adaptation, mostly due to the inherent sexism we assume was at play in the creation of such social rules. Chadha handles it by having Lalita and her sisters openly discuss the issue–their own family’s traditional values mimic the protection of women’s chastity in Austen’s world. At the same time, they exist in the 21st century. Their new acquaintances (Balraj, his sister Kiran, and their friend Will Darcy) come from England and the U.S., bringing a Westernized vision of love and sex along with them. Chadha calls out the pros and cons of each philosophy–Lalita’s youngest sister, Lakhi, chafes at the rules of propriety that frown on her showing her midriff and flirting outrageously with Johnny Wickham, for instance. Meanwhile, Lalita and her older sister Jaya are comfortable within the structure, believing it keeps them safe from becoming attached to men who aren’t truly committed to them. Lalita doesn’t see it as sexism, and in fact is perfectly comfortable asserting herself in any situation that arises. She basically runs the family farm. Nobody could ever accuse her of being an unliberated woman. And we see that her refusal to give in and let herself make out with the extremely hot Wickham does protect her from being taken advantage of by a bad man.
Chadha turns the aristocratic snobbery of Pride and Prejudice into class structure tension between Indians whose families have moved to London and those who stayed behind in the smallish city of Amritsar. Those who left look down on the provincial ways of those who remained, but there’s a bigger question as to which values each character actually holds regardless of whether they’re British or Indian, and how important those values are to them as individuals. No one is put into a box, no one is forced to remain oppressed, as it were, by the traditional roles. It’s understood that lots of people are choosing to turn away from their old cultural norms. Lalita, however, doesn’t choose to. It’s surprisingly easy to support her choice, and I’m not sure it would be if she were a different modern Elizabeth like Bridget Jones.
While I love the focus on Bridget’s broadcasting career–it makes us wonder what the OG Elizabeth would’ve done if she’d been allowed to work–Bride and Prejudice goes a different way, one more in keeping with the novel. Lalita works on the family farm, and is invaluable to the business just as one would imagine a smart, perceptive woman would be. She’s her father’s right hand, not only intellectually as in the novel, but in business as well. She resents the insinuation that her family’s lifestyle is somehow backwards, that their relative poverty makes them less important as people, which the snobby Kiran and especially Will Darcy embody.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Bakshi/Bennet family circle is terrific, as always. Mrs. Bakshi is overbearing and embarrassing and focused on marrying off her daughters, an archetype that is sadly as relatable today as it was in the 19th century.
Mr. Darcy here is a ludicrously wealthy American hotel scion, with Lady Catherine recast as his terrible mother. He’s less haughty and arrogant than he is simply, well, a clueless, rude American. Their romance is more one of culture clash than bad first impressions, but it plays out the same way and works just as well, a testament to Austen’s story structure.
The standout among the group (if you don’t count the gorgeousness of Naveen Andrews and Indira Varma as the posh “Bingley” substitutes) is Nitin Ganatra as Mr. Kohli. It’s so easy to loathe Mr. Collins in his every iteration, but Ganatra finds the humanity in the man. By the end, we actually kind of like him. Unlike Balraj and Kiran’s family, he emigrated to America, and his sheer pride at his success there seems earned. He worked for that big tub with jacuzzi jets, and he’s damn proud of it. Plus, he’s super funny.
Lalita isn’t impressed by money or high culture, she cares about respect. Darcy finally scores some points with her when he gives her mother his first class seat on a 10-hour flight so she can be more comfortable. His hotel in California doesn’t matter; the fact that he takes her to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant in L.A. does. And when he drops everything to chase down Wickham and punch him out for running off with the innocent Lakhi, we know that he’s won Lalita’s heart.
For all the travel between India, London, and California, the film always reminds us where home is–and what it is. Home is the culture we choose, the traditions we decide to keep, and most importantly the people who share our values. Lalita is searching for a man who will respect her for who she is, and she never even thinks of settling. And that’s Elizabeth Bennet in a nutshell.