Crossposted on Feminist Review.
The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)
Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.
The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.
This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.
Compulsion reminded me, in many ways, of Gurinder Chadha’s cinematic reworking of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who renamed it, innocuously enough, Bride and Prejudice. The change from ‘Pride’ to ‘Bride’ to me seems to suggest a stronger gravitation towards the subject of marriage than the already marriage-heavy Austen original. Here again we see a replay of a corseted, pre-feminist era transposed to the lives of a modern-day, middle-class Indian family. Unlike the updated reinvention of Emma in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, Bride and Prejudice saw no need for a contemporary take that reflected the relaxed attitudes to pre-marital relationships that exist amongst South-Asian families today simply because Indians are all perceived to be pretty Victorian anyway!
Now, the similarities between Compulsion and Bride and Prejudice illustrate the melodramatic consequences when Anglo-Indian relationships are attempted. To begin with, both are adapted from works and attitudes from a bygone era.* In Compulsion, Anjika’s White boyfriend is kept a secret from her father due to his initial disapproval, while her sexually-charged relationship with Flowers leads to her self-destruction. Bride and Prejudice’s Lalita and Darcy bicker over their cultural and racial differences, but are reconciled in romantic terms when they end a ‘forbidden’ interracial relationship between Lakhi and Wickham.
There’s also a sense that a middle-class happy ending prevails over a working class one. Although we know that Anjika is guilty as hell for keeping mum about her suitor’s murder, she’s seen at the end of the film on her wedding day with her White Cambridge-graduate husband, and not with the brutish family driver—the perfect happy ending. In Bride and Prejudice, servant’s son and scruffy backpacker Wickham is pursued and humiliated in public by both Lalita and Darcy for what only seemed to appear like an illicit outing with Lakhi on the London Eye and at the cinema.
This is where the film departs from the novel’s narrative. Not only do Darcy and Wickham fight to restore Lakhi’s honour, but they exchange blows in a cinema where a classic Bollywood film is being screened. What happens on screen mirrors their circumstances: an actress has her clothes ripped off by a villain; her honour is at stake just as Lakhi’s is. The hero suddenly comes into view and he and the baddie fight. Predictably, the heroes, on screen and off, win. The mirroring effect, though skilfully executed by Chadha, seems consciously symbolic. I can’t help feeling that this was her way of compensating for the lack of Indian or Bollywood heroes who by convention, rescue Bollywood damsels in distress. Further, politically-conscious Lalita had once accused Darcy of imperialism; so without classic Bollywood stand-ins it would be overly ironic if Mr. Imperialist alone ended up rescuing Lakhi from possible shame.
Interestingly, Darcy’s Whiteness would never arise as an issue in Bride and Prejudice despite Lalita’s mother remarking that “Pity he’s not Indian”. Also, he manages to redeem his capitalist/imperialist persona after bringing Lakhi home, and ultimately, his transformation from critic to lover of Indian culture is iconofied in his playing a kind of traditional drum at Jaya and Balraj’s wedding at the end of the film.
Asian fusion. East meets West. Orientalism. These are the cliched expressions that come to mind when films like Bride and Prejudice are repackaged to meet a growing demand for the easily consumable exotic. The end product becomes a strange hybrid of sorts, belonging neither in Hollywood nor in Bollywood. But one thing’s for sure, through such vehicles (Compulsion included), stereotypes thrive.
* Compulsion is adapted from a 17th-century play called The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley.
Hmmm… I had a different take on the Lakshi/Wyckham pairing, more that it was problematic because he was essentially an older man taking advantage of the much younger Lakshi (just as he had with Darcy’s sister). I remember feeling mild annoyance that it had to be Darcy doling out the damage in the cinema, rather than Lalita herself, but both girls got their licks in. Dramatic theatrics and all that.
Was Bride and Prejudice supposed to reflect British-Asian values of today though? I know some of the scenes were set in England, but I do think most of them were in India itself. It would be Orientalism if the movie didn’t represent current attitudes within India itself, but I felt the movie was pretty true to its Bollywood roots while still branching out to a wider audience.
I do agree that it’s problematic when diversity on-screen means somehow portraying the “diverse” as the Other that should be disapproved of. Apparently media-makers haven’t yet found a way to make a movie / tv show that doesn’t point to cultural / racial differences without elevating one above another.
You’re right about the Bakshi family being Indian, rather than British-Asian. I had Compulsion mostly in my head. Will correct it now.
It can be argued that arranged marriages are pretty common in India, and even in Britain for that matter, so you can say that Bride and Prejudice to some extent represents a certain realistic trend though sans glamour, song and dance. But when films are made to bridge different cultures together (Bride and Prejudice was premiered simultaneously in the US, UK, and India), boring themes like traditional attitudes towards relationships and marriage should be played down a little because they limit the roles of non-White actors/actresses in the media.
Due to the length of the film, Lakhi and Wyckham’s relationship wasn’t allowed to develop much. We only feel suspicious of him because he’s been a cad before, and not guilty of anything else other than whisking Lakhi away, unlike in the novel the couple gets into real trouble for eloping and end up living in a heap of debts.