In Old is Gold's Let's Make Pride and Prejudice in Hindi!, Bollyviewer picks heroes and heroines from the 1950s and the 1960s to play Darcy, Elizabeth, Bingley, Jane, Lydia, and the other major characters in P & P. Inspired by her delightful post, I thought I would make an attempt to cast a contemporary Bollywood version of my favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion.
Austen's novels have been adapted on film many times, but they would seem to be especially natural material for Bollywood. The novels, like many Bollywood movies, turn on uniting the right couple in marriage at the end. The heroine must overcome the obstacles of class differences, interfering friends and parental figures, romantic rivalries real and imagined, and her own or her hero's misunderstandings.
It's perfect romantic comedy/drama material, and so I'm only surprised that there haven't been more Bollywood versions of Austen's books. Recently, Bride and Prejudice (2004) featured Aishwarya Rai as a vivacious Elizabeth Bennet and Anupam Kher as a sympathetic Mr. Bennet, but was fatally handicapped by New Zealand actor Martin Henderson's lackluster Darcy and writer/director Gurinder Chadha's mediocre script.
Aishwarya also played Sense and Sensibility's headstrong Marianne Dashwood/Meenu in the excellent Tamil film Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It, 2000), with Tabu as her wise older sister Elinor/Sowmya. The movie's flaws are minor: it doesn't make as much of Aishwarya's superb dancing skills as it might have, and (as is the case with many Sense and Sensibility adaptations) it's not clear that Meenu and the much older Colonel Brandon character (Mammootty as the wounded Major Bala) are really meant for each other.
The flaw that no Austen adaptation can overcome, though, is having an unsympathetic heroine, and that's precisely the problem with Sonam Kapoor's title character in the 2010 film Aisha (based on Austen's Emma). Not only is Aisha a shallow and thoughtless character, she's played by an actress of limited emotional range and no dancing skills. Abhay Deol's Arjun/Mr. Knightley is the one bright spot in an adaptation that left me utterly indifferent as to whether any of the three main couples got together by the end of the film.
So Bollywood's mixed track record with Austen would not seem augur well for an adaptation of one of her most complex and emotionally compelling novels. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot has passed the first bloom of youth, and now must face regret and fading hope. Eight years before the opening of the novel Anne fell in love with the handsome but penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth, and he with her. But under pressure from her family and from her well-meaning friend Lady Russell, Anne broke off their engagement.
Now in her late twenties, Anne suddenly encounters Wentworth again. The spoils of the Napoleonic wars have made him a man of means, and he has returned to the area with the express purpose of getting married. Understandably, Wentworth attracts the attention of all the local young women, and in particular the pretty and flirtatious Musgrove sisters Henrietta and Louisa. Meanwhile, Anne herself begins to receive the attentions of her charming but unscrupulous cousin William—but does he have ulterior motives?
Persuasion was made into a superb BBC film in 1995, with the perfectly cast but unheralded Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciarán Hinds as Frederick Wentworth. I wrote about this wonderful film in my post The Complete Jane Austen: Unpersuasive. I'd love to see a well-done Bollywood version, and what follows are my choices for the cast:
Anne Elliot: One of Austen's wisest, most thoughtful, and most sensitive heroines, by Regency standards she is, at 27, approaching spinsterhood. The role requires an actress of a certain maturity, not to mention depth, emotional conviction, and beauty not dependent on obvious surgical intervention. Fortunately there are a number of actresses who would make splendid Annes:
Vidya Balan: She first came to my notice as the wronged Lalita in Parineeta (2005) (for which she won the Filmfare Best Debut award) and as Sanjay Dutt's charming love interest in Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006). In Paa (2009) she played a woman who, like Anne, unexpectedly meets up with a man she had loved years before. As I wrote of her role in No One Killed Jessica (2011), she "convincingly portrays a woman slowly emerging from emotional shell-shock and beginning to acknowledge the possibility of hope." I think she'd make a wonderful Anne, and by a narrow margin she'd be my first choice.
Vidya Balan in No One Killed Jessica (2011)
Konkona Sen Sharma: Konkona made her name in films like Page 3 (2005), Aaja Nachle (Come Dance With Me, 2007), Life in a...Metro (2007), Luck By Chance (2009) and Wake Up Sid (2009) playing young women who are slowly discovering what they want from life. Anne, who has had to go through the same painful process, would seem to be a perfect next step.
Konkona Sen Sharma in Omkara (2006)
Rani Mukherji: In whatever role she plays Rani can't help but be sympathetic, and she has already played at least two Anne-like characters. In Hum Tum (2004), Rani played Rhea, a woman who after the passage of time comes to realize the true depth of her feelings for Saif Ali Khan's Karan. In Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), she played a woman who reunites with her lover (Shah Rukh Khan) after a long separation.
Rani Mukherji in Kabhi Alivda Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye, 2005)
Kajol: The perfect Anne for my first-choice Wentworth (see below).
Kajol in We Are Family (2010)
Captain Frederick Wentworth: In my view, Wentworth is five to ten years older than Anne.* Wentworth is ruggedly masculine—he's a war-hardened veteran, after all—but at the same time sensitive and reticent. Representing all sides of this complex character is a tall order. I think three of the four superstar Khans could carry it off:
Shah Rukh Khan: "Reticent" is not a word that come immediately to mind when thinking of SRK, but in Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), Chak De! India (Come On! India, 2007), and Rab Ne Bana De Jodi (A Match Made In Heaven, 2009) he showed that he can play characters with a lot going on beneath the surface (whether that surface is antic (KHNH) or reserved (CDI, RNBDJ)). Now that his boyish good looks have become a bit weathered he'd be the perfect choice for Wentworth.
Saif Ali Khan: Saif's eyes can be remarkably eloquent, and in roles such as Rohit (Kal Ho Naa Ho), Rajveer (Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007)) and Ranbeer (Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (A Little Love, A Little Magic, 2008)) they suggest a deep inner pain. If SRK isn't available, Saif would be my second choice.
Aamir Khan: Speaking of boyish good looks, Aamir's might make it a bit of a stretch to imagine him as a battle-tested veteran. But as he showed in Fanaa (Destroyed By Love, 2006), he can play a character with hidden depths.
Lady Russell: I'm not sure that Austen specifies how old Lady Russell is; my guess is that she is still relatively youthful, despite her role as a surrogate mother to the motherless Anne. Lady Russell is calm, wise, and independent, but made a fateful lapse in judgement eight years ago which both Anne and Wentworth finds it difficult to forgive. The actresses I'd like to see in the role:
Juhi Chawla: Juhi has just the right sympathetic nature for Lady Russell.
Nandita Das: Talented, smart, progressive, and gorgeous, she was brilliant in Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) and 1947: Earth (1997). Come to think of it, Nandita should direct the film as well as portray Lady R.
Tabu: A thoughtful actress who was excellent in Kandukondain Kandukondain and such later films as The Namesake (2007).
Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove: The young, pretty, and high-spirited sisters-in-law of Mary Musgrove, Anne's younger sister. The names that immediately suggest themselves are Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma, but I'm open to other suggestions.
Admiral and Mrs. Croft: Admiral Croft is a large-hearted old salt, who has been accompanied on all his adventures by his loving and loyal wife Sophie (who is Wentworth's older sister). The Admiral has to be played by Anupam Kher, Alok Nath or Rishi Kapoor, which suggests that Mrs. Croft should be played by Kirron Kher, Seema Biswas or Dimple Kapadia.
Your alternative casts are welcome.
* I was a bit off here; he's only four years older. Austen mentions that he was 23 when he proposed to the 19-year-old Anne.