Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya troubled me like no film has in a while – and at least part of the reason was that I wasn’t expecting to be troubled. You watch a Raman Raghav 2.0, and you know a certain amount of mind-fucking is par for the course. But here, I was just expecting a rom-com. Boy meets girl. And Bollywood’s recent love for the man-child meets Bollywood’s eternal adoration of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
The man-child is Badrinath (Varun Dhawan). The titular dulhania (bride) is Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt). He’s from Jhansi – and for a reason. Irony. Despite the city’s legendary association with its warrior-queen, what prevails is patriarchy. We see it in Badrinath’s father, who won’t let his wife speak, or his daughter-in-law work. I’ll give you a minute to digest the fact that the daughter-in-law is played by Shweta Basu Prasad, the little girl from Makdee and Iqbal. Dharma Productions likes to shock us with reminders that time flies. I’ll give you a minute to recall that Sana Saeed, the little girl from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, reappeared as a sex symbol in Student of the Year.
Vaidehi, meanwhile, is from Kota – and for a reason. The city has a park with replicas of the seven wonders of the world. So her dreams of becoming a flight attendant – as she explains in an interview – aren’t about seeing the world. Been there, done that. Her reason is that she wants to free herself from her surroundings, she wants to fly away.
All I expected from this premise are some laughs, some chemistry, a lot of bright, happy colours, some foot-tapping music. The film fails us on the last count (the original songs are anaemic, the remixes are generic), but it delivers on the rest. Sahil Vaid is a hoot as Badrinath’s chaddi-buddy, and I liked the lightness with which Khaitan sets up the patriarchy he is out to puncture. A teacher informs us, using a blackboard, that a boy is an asset, a girl is a liability, and marriage is a form of audit.
And the leads are excellent – individually, and together. Varun has the best gallery-playing instincts since Govinda, and he manages to shed a couple of layers of his innately urban skin and embody a “small-town type.” Alia has fun with riffs on her real-life persona now preserved for eternity through that AIB video. You think she knows nothing? Wait till you see Vaidehi define “claustrophobia” and throw around terms like “simple interest” and “compound interest.” And to no one’s surprise, the actress aces the dramatic scenes. See her face register about a dozen things – guilt, sadness, trepidation, the resolve not to break down – when she calls home after running away. These two could sit down and read out the proverbial phone book, and you’d still have an entertaining movie. They’re the reason we keep watching, despite a padded-up second half that loses steam alarmingly and has to get the hero drunk in order to make him rebel.
Here’s the trouble I was talking about. The film wants to do more than entertain. It wants to make points about dowry, about the desire for a male child, about the validity of a woman’s career. It wants to push popcorn. It also wants to be progressive. I’m not saying the two aims are mutually exclusive. But the la-la-lands that the Dharma films are set in are more suited to matters of the heart than matters of the world. An Ae Dil Hai Mushkil works beautifully (at least till the bald heads make an appearance) because we’re in the realm of romance. Love is the only thing that matters. Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya seeks to situate itself in the realm of reality (though there’s no real sense of place), and this becomes a problem because Khaitan keeps bringing up icky situations, but he doesn’t want to really address the ickiness. He wants to be seen as progressive, but he also has an eye on popcorn sales. The result is a hotchpotch.
We get two backstories about failed romance. One of them involves Badrinath’s brother (Yash Sinha), who was forced by his father to leave the woman he loved and marry someone else. Early on, we see him moping on the terrace, downing a couple of drinks. But almost instantly, we’re told that he’s gotten over the past. There’s a hint of unresolved feelings, but the film isn’t interested in exploring them. Understandably, for he’s a secondary character. But what about Vaidehi? She loved a man, was duped by him. Surely some of this is going to colour her feelings as Badrinath chases her, wanting her to say ‘yes’! But her issues seem to have more to do with her wanting to work. This is too much emotional baggage to be brushed under the carpet. She has to learn to trust a man again, and she’s going to do this just because he has a cute smile?
Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya is a great example of how “cuteness” can change our perception of things, how it can transform a film from a social drama to a rom-com. Because had it been less cute, had it featured Anil Kapoor before he made friends with Anne French, we’d have got Benaam Badshah. In case you don’t remember that 1991 film, a remake of the Tamil hit Pudhiya Paadhai, here’s what happens. The hero rapes the heroine on the eve of her wedding. She takes it upon herself to reform him. This film doesn’t go that far, but you could still make the case that this hero, with his sweet-natured stalking, repeatedly violates the heroine’s personal space and, at one point, kidnaps her and throws her into the trunk of his car so he can teach her a lesson. And what does she do? With the forbearance of a saint, she puts up with his tantrums and nudges him along the road to enlightenment. At one point, we’re made to feel it’s her fault he’s so lost. She could have been firmer in saying no, no? She kept smiling at him, no? So he will take her ‘yes’ as a given, no?
Look, I’m not saying these scenarios should not be shown. Who are we to judge how people (even if these people are only in a movie) lead their lives? I’m just saying that these scenarios are too complex to be stuffed into a film that just wants to be a light-hearted entertainer. The odd placement of the Tamma tamma remix is a perfect metaphor for the film’s bipolarity. It follows a touching moment between Badrinath and Vaidehi, and it’s as if the song is shaking us by the shoulders and saying, “Hey, snap out of it. Don’t take any of this seriously!”
The film’s most stunning scene is a subversion of the rape scene we know from the heydays of Ranjeet. Badrinath is molested by gay thugs. (We’ve already had an acknowledgement of lesbianism when Vaidehi says, “Shaadi nahin karna chahti hoon. Na kisi ladke se. Na kisi ladki se.” She doesn’t want to get married, period. Not to a guy. Nor a girl.) Vaidehi becomes the “hero” of this scene, when she charges in with her pals and “rescues” Badrinath. When she notices his T-shirt is torn, exposing his chest, she lends him her dupatta so he can cover himself. The scene is treated like a joke, but I wasn’t sure if I should laugh along. Yes, free speech means rape jokes should be okay. But how can you not squirm when a film trivialises such a horrific scenario?
It’s much easier to enjoy the subversion of the DDLJ climax. We get the train. We get the girl. We also get a fuck-you to the conservative father. There are terrific scenes with the leads, like the one inside a moving bus that captures exactly what such a conversation would be like, or the one where a singer accepts a non-singer as his spouse because her inability to sing doesn’t make him love her any less. At the “leave your brains at home” level, Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya is undeniably fun. Only, it doesn’t want you to leave your brains at home. It wants you to think about the things it’s doing. That’s the trouble.
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