I was first introduced to Jane Austen's iconic Elizabeth Bennett through Aishwarya Rai's Lalita Bakshi. One evening, it was just my mother and me at home, we were flipping through the channels and chanced upon Bride and Prejudice. My memory of that first viewing is hazy but it has always stayed with me. A couple of years later, I read Pride and Prejudice and instantly fell in love with the book, with the love story and, most importantly, with Lizzie Bennet. She was well-read (this was the peak of teenage years where my entire personality was books), funny, intelligent and outspoken.
But my enduring love for Bride and Prejudice has befuddled me. The film has components that in any other film would greatly irritate me. The over-the-top representation of India was clearly meant for a Western audience, the absolute lack of chemistry between Lalita/Elizabeth (Aishwarya Rai) and Darcy (Martin Henderson) was awkward, and Aishwarya Rai was terribly miscast: she was clearly a Jane. And yet the film became a guilty pleasure over the years, one that I share with all my close friends. If you are my friend and I love you then I have probably made you watch Bride and Prejudice.
The pandemic made me go back to some of my old literary favourites, like comfort food. While reading the book I realised that Austen's Lizzie was such a powerful character that she sparkled even in a shoddy adaptation. Lalita was probably the first woman I saw on screen who disagreed with convention. She was neither demure nor humble nor preachy. The pool scene where Lalita tells Darcy that his desire to open a hotel in India is nothing short of neo-colonialism has stayed in my mind since I saw it. The Hindi films of the '90s and early 2000s featured the feisty girl who would stand up to the man, like Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Rhea in Hum Tum. But the woman's feisty-ness had nothing to do with inherent qualities of her own; it was almost framed as a sort of annoyance for the man. Which of course disappeared as soon as she fell in love with the same man. Lalita gets to maintain an identity through the film and her romantic relationship is not hinged on her changing.
Lalita, like Lizzie, made intelligence look aspirational. Of course, neither character is perfect and my politics has evolved significantly since I first watched the film and read the book. But as a young girl, I am glad I came across Lalita – she led me to Lizzie and they both taught me to not be afraid of being intelligent.