Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Bollywood Persuasion

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 find 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.


  1. "Bride and Prejudice ... was fatally handicapped by New Zealand actor Martin Henderson's lackluster Darcy" Have you seen the P&P version that stars Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy? The latter gives a whole new meaning to "lackluster" Darcy! :D

    Aisha was terrible not just because of Sonam Kapoor, but because the script turned her into one of those high-school-prom-queen type of character - Austen's Emma wasn't quite that shallow.

    I wonder why there are very few Persuasion remakes, even on British TV. I've only seen two - the one you mention and a second one starring Rupert Penry Jones as Wentworth and Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliott (if you haven't seen it already, don't bother - it is terrible!). I guess this is a story that requires a great script and a very good director. I hope Vishal Bhardwaj will think of doing Austen adaptations, once he's over his thing with Shakepeare tragedies.

    Vidya Balan would be my top pick for Anne, too. I can see Rani and Konkona doing it equally well, but Vidya is exactly how I see Anne! :)

    For Wentworth, I cannot see any of the Khans in the role. Saif is the only one I can buy as a romantic leading man (yup, SRK just doesn't do it for me!), and he has done so many immature, playboy type leads that I cannot really see him as Wentworth. How about Akshay Kumar? He looks battle weary, and surely a good director can cover the traces of his recent awful comedies?

    For Lady Russell, I think Juhi, Tabu and Nandita are waaaay too young. If their erstwhile leading men are young enough to play Wentworth, they themselves are young enough to play Anne! I'd go for Kiron Kher or Dimple Kapadia as Lady Russell and maybe Neetu Singh or Rati Agnihotri as Mrs Croft to Rishi Kapoor's Admiral Croft.

    Deepika is spot on for one of the Misses Musgroves, but how about Sonam Kapoor for the other? I do not find Anoushka annoying enough for the role! :D

    We must have a contemporary Bollywood Pride and Prejudice, too!

  2. Bollyviewer, many thanks for your choices! I couldn't agree more about Aisha's script, which turns a clueless heroine into a shallow and mean-spirited one; and Sonam Kapoor's dramatic inertness (she really does seem as shallow as the character) doesn't help matters.

    I agree with you about the 2005 P & P with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, both of whom seemed to me to be mis-cast. Also, perhaps in a misguided attempt to appeal to contemporary audiences, the film grafted modern social mores onto the Regency period.

    That was also a problem with the 2007 BBC Persuasion with Sally Hawkins as Anne and Rupert Penry-Jones as a bland Wentworth, which (as I wrote in The Complete Jane Austen: Unpersuasive) "fails on every level." Having Anne sprinting through the streets of Bath after Wentworth and then planting a big kiss on him at the finale was not only an impossible action for a woman of her place and time, it replaced the novel's beautiful and subtle letter scene—unforgivable. The 1995 Persusion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds contends with the 1995 P & P for my favorite Austen adaptation.

    More to come about your choices for the Bollywood Persuasion cast...

  3. Bollyviewer, your suggestion of Akshay for Wentworth is intriguing. If past roles are anything to go by, Akshay seems to me to be a heart-on-his-sleeve, what-you-see-is-what-you-get actor. Wentworth, though, is a complicated man: he has powerful feelings that he's trying his best to conceal. He's also seen unimaginable horrors—early 19th-century warfare was close-range and brutal, and medical care was primitive—but still has to find a way to function in polite society.

    Saif did (and does) feature in a lot of bad movies, but I think his work as an actor shifted into a different gear with Kal Ho Naa Ho. As Rohit he expressed sorrow, regret, and tenderness (all Wentworthian emotions) largely through his eyes. His performances were also the best things about the otherwise mediocre (or worse) Ta Ra Rum Pum and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. Plus, he and Vidya made a wonderful jodi in Parineeta. I'm beginning to think he might be my first choice for Wentworth...

    The only issue is that I've found that Wentworth is only four or five years older than Anne (Austen tells us that he was 23 when he proposed to Anne eight years previously), but all three of the Khans mentioned above can convincingly play characters younger than they are.

    I've always thought that Lady Russell wasn't that much older than Anne—perhaps ten years or so. Austen says that she is of "a steady age and character," which could mean anything older than about 30, and also tells us that Sir Walter is distressed by her crow's-feet, which could mean that she's anything older than about 35. Late 30s or perhaps 40 seems about right to me, and all my suggestions for Lady R. are older than that. But I very much like your alternatives for Mrs. Croft.

    Perhaps because I'm male, I don't find Deepika annoying, but then I don't think the Musgrove sisters are all that annoying. They're just young, flirtatious, and a bit silly. Perhaps Parineeti Chopra for Louisa and Deepika for Henrietta? And I'm thinking Ranbir Kapoor or Ranveer Singh as the superficially attractive but unprincipled William Elliot.

    Yes, I'd very much like to see your choices for a contemporary Bollywood P & P—care to give it a shot in "Let's Make Pride & Prejudice in Hindi!" part 2?