Elevate Difference


Directed by Sarah Harding

Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-twentieth 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 by now he 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, which was renamed, innocuously enough, Bride and Prejudice. The change from ‘pride’ to ‘bride’ 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. (Compulsion is adapted from a seventeenth-century play called The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley.) 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, not with the brutish family driver—the perfect happy ending. In Bride and Prejudice, the 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, and 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, “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 iconified 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.

Written by: Alicia Izharuddin, May 18th 2009