The Jane Austen adaptation is a genre in its own right. It started with stage, film, and television versions of the novels and then spread to newspaper columns, comic books, and board games. Next came the publication of prequels, sequels, and rewrites, in some of which Austen’s characters engage with zombies vampires, and time-travelers. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy have even escaped to the genre of murder mystery in the recently published novel Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James. The film appropriations have been particularly imaginative, finding contemporary equivalents to Austen’s social microcosms. For many, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) is the gold standard, perhaps tied with the film version of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). These two films translate, respectively, Emma to the Los Angeles high-school scene and Pride and Prejudice to the world of London’s singletons. Other updates include Pride and Prejudice (2003) by Andrew Black, peopled with Mormon college students from Brigham Young University, and From Prada to Nada (2011), directed by Angel Gracia, which casts Sense and Sensibility with Mexican-American protagonists. The oddest of the bunch is Lost in Austen (2008), a four-part serial directed by Dan Zeff, in which a modern-day Londoner changes places with Elizabeth Bennett, only to cause havoc in Austen’s plot. In addition to satirizing Austen’s world, it also goes after those who fantasize about living in the past, thinking it to be more civilized than the present.
Austen appropriations are not limited to England and the United States. Her plots and topics of family, class, marriage, and money translate effectively to Indian culture, too. In 2000, Rajiv Menon wrote and directed Kandukondain Kandukondain, a Tamil version of Sense and Sensibility shifted to modern-day Chennai. Gurinder Chadha directed Bride and Prejudice (2004), an Anglo-Indian English-language Bollywood musical adapted for an international audience. The most recent adaptation, Aisha (2010, dir. Rajshree Ojha), the principal focus of this review, is a Hindi reworking of Emma, and it works within the tradition of these films as well as against them. The mining of both novel and film for source material is part of the appropriation process. Kandukondain Kandukondain, for example, borrows more heavily from the Emma Thompson film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility from 1995 than from the Austen novel of 1811; in fact, its plot involves a film director who remakes Hollywood films into Bollywood ones. Lost in Austen is as much about Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice as it is about Austen’s. At one romantic moment, Amanda Price, a character from modern-day London who is addicted to the BBC adaptation, asks Mr. Darcy to dive into a lake so he can emerge from it, à la Colin Firth, dripping wet. Aisha is indebted to all the adaptations of Emma that precede it but particularly to Clueless, as the opening makes clear. It borrows the voice-over commentary by the protagonist, a shot of her ineptly driving a cute car, and the best friend with a silly name (Dionne in Clueless, Pinky in Aisha). It borrows the scene where the Emma character gets stranded in a remote neighborhood at night and the Mr. Knightly character drives out to rescue her, the makeover of the Harriet Smith character through exercise regimens and expensive shopping expeditions, and the glory of the protagonist’s clothes closet. Although Austen’s heroine is not fashion-conscious, the prominent placement in the opening credits of Aisha of the film’s official brand and make-up partners suggests that the title character may have more in common with Cher Horowitz than Emma Woodhouse.
Like Cher, Aisha (portrayed by Sonam Kapoor) wears a stunning assortment of fashionable dresses in her role as self-appointed events manager and matchmaker. She and Pinky spend a lot of screen time wearing designer clothing and applying L’Oréal cosmetics. In fact, the film serves as an extended advertisement for L’Oréal through product placement and the subsequent use of film clips in commercials for their “Aisha line” of cosmetics.1 Similarly, a press release from Christian Dior Couture announces that the film will feature sixty Dior dresses and accessories,2 accessories such as Aisha’s highly recognizable Lady Dior leather purse, definitely not the kind of reticule Miss Woodhouse would purchase from Ford’s. The end credits even detail which European and Indian designers were worn by each of the three principal women, should the viewer be interested in making a purchase. Aisha puts contemporary luxury goods front and center, which echoes another type of Austenian appropriation. Andrew Higson and Roger Sales have both identified BBC Austen serials of the twentieth century as “heritage” productions that lovingly display period clothing, rich furnishings, and elegant accessories from Regency England that play to our “cultural fantasies.”3 In this film, however, the heritage products are replaced by modern luxury goods that function the same way: viewers may immerse themselves vicariously in cultural fantasies, not of Regency England but of high-end European shopping malls.
The relocation of Austen’s story to moneyed Delhi also makes Austen’s setting more Mayfair than Highbury.4 The protagonists are posh Defence Colony residents who speak English, play polo, and shop and dine at DLF Emporio, the new luxury mall. The Mrs Weston character is no longer a former governess but a member of the exclusive Delhi Gymkhana, the private club where she met her husband (Aisha made them sit at the same bridge table, hence her claim to matchmaking). Aisha drives a foreign automobile and goes clubbing with her friends. The characters take an expensive white-water rafting holiday in Rishikesh, at the foot of the Himalayas, several steps up from an outing to Box Hill or Mr. Knightley’s strawberry beds. In such a glamorous world, the main character needs a strong material presence. While Austen’s Emma is a big fish in a provincial pond, a young woman able to shine on a small stage with minimal competition, Aisha is, in contrast, one of many in a glittering world of high life. In order to rise above those around her, she needs even finer shoes and clothes, even greater conspicuous consumption. She needs to control people, but she also needs to put on a display, lest she disappear into the crowd.
Like Clueless, the plot of Aisha loosely follows that of Austen’s novel. Aisha tries to match up her friends, particularly small-town-girl Shefali, who, on Aisha’s advice, falls in and out of love with a series of men. Aisha attends sparkling parties, receives an unwanted marriage proposal, and learns of a secret engagement between two of her friends. Old friend Arjun watches the antics of his youthful relation-by-marriage, frequently tries to talk sense into her, and eventually realizes that he is in love with her. One plot addition, however, is innovative and satisfying. In the novel, only Mr. Knightley takes Emma to task for her behavior. In Aisha, three characters do so. Arjun chides her often, on one key occasion asking her, “Have you ever taken anything in your life seriously?” Best friend Pinky is sharper in her criticism: “Little Miss Perfect, Aisha, who roams around with her ugly friends to make herself look better. The truth hurts, doesn’t it? At least I don’t control others’ lives to assert my rights on them.” Her blunt statement gets to the heart of the matter. Even meek Shefali bares her teeth in a way that Austen’s Harriet Smith never dreams of doing. When Aisha expresses shock at the thought of Arjun’s being in love with Shefali and argues that the two do not have enough in common, Shefali snaps, “You never considered me your friend. . . . I’m just a project. . . . You never considered me an equal to you.” There is probably a kernel of truth to this, too. As a result, Aisha does not get off as easily as Emma does; her friends are not as tolerant or blind. To redeem herself, Aisha needs to do public penance for her self-centeredness: near the end of the film, she undergo a scene of comic humiliation at a large party, when she takes microphone in hand and expresses sincere love for Arjun, not realizing that he is not in the crowded room. It is more than Austen made her Emma endure to gain an emotional education. Aisha is a pleasant film to watch since it is witty, cheerful, and visually attractive (especially if you like to look at beautiful women wearing Jimmy Choos and Dior), but it does run counter to the spirit of Austen’s novel, which leaves the shopping and makeovers (well, haircuts) to suspect characters like Frank Churchill. Emma Woodhouse may be handsome, clever, and rich, but she is not materialistic. Unlike other Austen characters, she does not obsess about clothes, houses, furniture, and forms of transport. That is the province of characters like Mrs. Allen, General Tilney, and Mrs. John Dashwood, those whom Austen satirizes for their too-great love for status items. The recent films, however, show that, in the modern world, conspicuous consumption is no longer the mark of the shallow, self-centered character. Earlier Indian films such as Kandukondain Kandudondain feared the corruption Western values posed to Indian identity and fought against them even as they appropriated their literary texts.5 In contrast, Aisha, like other recent film appropriations, shows a culture that has made its peace (perhaps more easily than Austen did in her day) with modernity, globalism, and capitalism.
1. L’Oréal advertisement, http://iheartmake-up.blogspot.com/2010/07/loreals-aisha-collection.html.
2. Quoted in “International Fashion Brands Tie-Up with the Bollywood Film Aisha,” http://www.bollynewz.com/news/international-fashion-brands-tie-up-with-the-bollywood-film-aisha/.
3. Andrew Higson, “The Heritage Film and British Cinema” in Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, ed. Higson, (New York: Continuum, 1996), 232-48; Roger Sales, Jane Austen
and Representations of Regency England (London: Routledge, 1996), 20.
4. Lauren Collins, “Five Star Delhi,” http://www.wmagazine.com/society/2011/04/delhi_india_travel.
5. Ariane Hudelet, “The Construction of a Myth: The ‘Cinematic Jane Austen’ as Cross-Cultural Icon,” in The Cinematic Jane Austen, ed. David Monaghan, Ariane Hudelet, and John Wiltshire (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009), 153-55.