Meet the Bakshis -- Mr. and Mrs. -- a pleasingly plump, comfortably middle-class Indian couple with four impossibly beautiful daughters. The eldest, Jaya, has a relatively benign streak of independence. But Lalita, the next in line, is intelligent, sharp-tongued and strong-willed -- clearly, an Indian mama's raging nightmare.
Then, into their lives come three impossibly handsome men (plus an impossibly dorky one) with different backgrounds and personalities.
Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) is an impossibly rich young American hotelier who, like all Americans, seems cocky and arrogant at first blush, although of course he couldn't possibly really be like that. Balraj (Naveen Andrews) is a Brit of Indian descent, respectful of his culture but Western in his ways. Johnny -- the "y" gives him away -- is working-class, the son of Darcy's childhood London nanny. And Lakhi, the comic relief (i.e., the dork), is an Indian-born business whiz with a green card and a Hollywood mansion to attract an authentic hometown Indian bride.
Gurinder Chadha, who made the charming Bend It Like Beckham, tosses these ingredients into her tandoor, seasons them with a pinch of Jane Austen and a dash of Bollywood, and serves up an impossibly slight but tasty-enough masala that she calls Bride & Prejudice, with ample portions of both. In the first reel of her movie, Indians prejudge Americans (they're all rich snobs), Americans prejudge Indians (Darcy fears getting "Delhi belly" at a meal), parents misjudge children, suitors misjudge their intendeds, and everyone sings and dances. It takes them almost two hours to sort things out and to sing and dance some more.
Chadha doesn't so much deconstruct Bollywood films -- those lavish, endless Indian movies with musical numbers that have nothing to do with anything -- as she does simply appropriate the Bollywood style to entertain a Western audience that's never seen the real thing. The songs in Bride & Prejudice are briskly staged, from the big opening wedding ensemble to a pure-Broadway set piece where the four sisters warble about finding the perfect guy.
In the midst of all this, it's hard to take Chadha's film seriously as even a gentle critique of her ancestral culture (she's British actually, born in Kenya). When Lalita chides Darcy for not wanting to know "the real India," you can only speculate on what that reality might look like: Bride & Prejudice goes nowhere near the unwashed and continually reminds us that India is the most colorful nation on earth, and that absolutely nobody looks bad in Indian clothing.
Still, Chadha's movie is fun, and smartly acted by everyone except Henderson, who's something out of Michelangelo's studio (a beautiful, inanimate object). Andrews, best remembered from The English Patient (and now on TV's Lost), dances gloriously, and Aishwarya Rai as the brash Lalita shows flashes of passion that belie the formula into which she's being asked, almost impossibly, to breathe life.