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Why hasn't Hindi cinema made the most out of Jane Austen?

Nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen's novels have conquered Hollywood, so why is Hindi cinema still ignoring her?

Sonal Pandya

Jane Austen and Hindi cinema seems a match made in film heaven and yet, there haven't been many Indian filmmakers who have adapted her stories. Austen's sharp and astute take on the Victorian world around her, especially through the eyes of her female protagonists, have produced admiring readers around the globe.

Director Rajiv Menon, who has also shot a couple of Mani Ratnam's films, was the first in India to tackle an Austen novel with Sense and Sensibility, written under the pseudonym 'A Lady' in 1811. The Tamil feature, Kandukonkain Kandukonkain (2000) had an all star cast with Mammoothy, Ajith Kumar, Tabu, Aishwarya Rai and Abbas. The romantic entanglements of the two Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, have been given the big screen treatment by Hollywood and the BBC already. Director Ang Lee and screenwriter Emma Thompson's 1995 version was widely lauded and introduced a then 19-year-old Kate Winslet to audiences.

In the Tamil version, Tabu and Aishwarya played sisters Sowmya and Meenakshi, who find themselves starting life anew when they are forced to leave their ancestral home and move to Chennai. With harmonic music by A.R. Rahman that covered an assortment of genres, the film was commended for the characterization of its leads. The Guardian even called the film “an entertaining reinvention of the novel” in its review. Sadly, Menon hasn't directed another movie afterwards; he returned as cinematographer on Rathnam's Guru (2007) and Kadal (2013).

Gurinder Chadha wisely understood the potential that Austen's source material provided. She and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges adapted Pride and Prejudice, arguably Austen's most beloved novel written in 1813, into her 2004 feature film Bride & Prejudice. Dropping Darcy and the Bennets into the middle of a big fat Punjabi wedding, Chadha transformed Elizabeth into Lalita, the second daughter of the Bakshi family in Amritsar, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy into William Darcy, a wealthy American hotelier.

Aishwarya Rai, in her first English film, played Lalita as an accomplished young Indian woman who finds Will's outlook towards her culture and country as insufferable. A New Zealand actor, Martin Henderson played Darcy who eventually falls in love with Lalita after excursions in London and Los Angeles. Pride and Prejudice has been adapted many times onscreen, even the legendary Laurence Olivier stepped in as Mr. Darcy. But Colin Firth immortalized the character to heartthrob status with the 1995 BBC drama opposite Jennifer Ehle and again opposite Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001).

Bride & Prejudice (2004) went on to become a modest musical hit but it didn't have the crossover appeal initially imagined by the filmmakers. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote that the film made a “hash of a classic of literature and one of the world's leading film genres”. Gurinder and Aishwarya went to work again in her next film, The Mistress of Spices (2005), another book-to-film adaptation.

Another several years later, Austen was officially introduced into Hindi cinema with Aisha (2010). Anil Kapoor produced the film as a star vehicle for his daughter Sonam. Just as Amy Heckerling updated the story to coming-of-age tale in the image-obsessed culture of Beverly Hills, Aisha takes place in the high society houses of Delhi.

Sonam Kapoor is Aisha, a spoilt, naive fashionista who loves meddling in the lives of her friends and family. Directed by Rajshree Ojha and written by Devika Bhagat, the script included the woes of modern young India – love, marriage and class, all peppered up with situational song. The movie was only a modest hit, which is probably the reason why Austen was never revisited in Hindi films.

Matchmaking mothers, unrequited love and societal pressures, Austen's novels have provided enough fodder for film and television adaptations since the 1940s. It is truly surprising that more Indian filmmakers haven't mined the material to develop Austen's stories into feature films.