Jane Austen must be the most prolific dead screenwriter. She’s got to be the most widely adapted novelist, as hardly a year goes by without a new adaptation of her principal novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. BBC seems to do the best all-around faithful-to-the-spirit productions, especially if you like Emma Thompson and Emma Woodhouse, but I like the Indian films.
Everybody’s heard of Bride and Prejudice, the adaptation by the director of Bend it Like Beckham starring Aishwarya Rai, one of the world’s great beauties. It’s a genuinely international production, filmed in Amritsar, London, and LA, and more approachable for the Western audience than genuine Bollywood fare on account of being in English and downplaying the singing and dancing. The whole young girl-looking-to-get-hitched thing is more relevant in modern India than it is in the West, but that never has seemed to be the main point of Austen. If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s worth a rental just to see Sayeed from Lost singing and dancing, and it’s good transition to real Bollywood**.
My favorite Austen so far is the Tamil* language (“Tollywood”) film Kandukondein, Kandukondein, loosely based on Sense and Sensibility. It features a young Aishwarya Rai (unfortunately dubbed, which is weird because she’s Kannadan or Telegudian), the great Mollywood star Mamooty, a Malayalee muslim hailing from Vaikom, and some other great studs and goddesses of Indian film. Tamil is close enough to Malayalam that most educated people (what, you didn’t study Malayalam, Hindi, and Sanskrit in college? Poor sap, I did) can understand a good part of the dialog, but there are helpful Inglish subtitles to fill in the gaps. The plot twists are completely implausible, the singing and dancing are outlandish, and the location shoots in Tamilian padi fields, a Scots castle, and at the Pyramids of Geza are over-the-top. Foreign locations aren’t green screen, they’re real, that’s the way they roll in India.
One of the great lines in cinema is uttered by the friend of a would-be director who’s lost his first job and fears he’s washed-up before he’s started: “Don’t worry, you can always do Malayalam or Telegu filems.” I’ll skip the Telegu for now, but I’m going to have to see some of that Mollywood action. The Bollywood stuff is a long way from Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder, but that spirit is supposed to be more or less alive in some of the Malu*** films, especially non-subtitled works with Mamooty such as Bhoothakkannadi. It takes a lot of nerve to make a film in a language spoken by fewer than 40 million people without subtitles.
*Note: Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, and Malayalam are South Indian languages, spoken more or less in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala respectively. The South is the more traditional part of India. Bangalore is in Karnataka, and Madras is in Tamil Nadu.
**Bollywood = Bombay (now renamed “Mumbai”)
Mollywood = Kerala
Tollywood = Madras (now “Chennai”)
***Malu = Malayalam speaker (Keralite)