Director: Shashank Khaitan
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Sahil Vaid, Rituraj Singh
Early on in Badrinath ki Dulhania, after a mandatory spunky factory-line wedding song intro, we see Vaidehi Trivedi (Alia Bhatt) in her natural environment. She looks pensive, almost humbled. Gone is the previous night's pluck. She answers a question during a college lecture: what is claustrophobia? Bhatt thrives on such moments, where her blank face is supposed to convey the storm brewing within. One can sense her character's default mode; she ends up explaining this sensitive term robotically, not yet aware that she is aching for somebody to recognize this 'condition' of hers. This is a fleeting establishing scene, in her hometown of Kota – the Rajasthani city (in)famous for its IIT coaching institutes.
As soon as she steps out, she is to be relentlessly pursued by Badrinath Bansal (Varun Dhawan), an illiterate lovelorn brat who drives five hours from Jhansi every morning to
ask for her hand 'integrate' her into his prestigious family. Basically, her life becomes a script – a hero-oriented film – the second she engages with the shackled hearts from her universe. She doesn't want this. She belongs elsewhere, yes, but isn't as dramatic and showy as you'd expect a frustrated, coming-of-age 'heroine' to be. To writer-director Shashank Khaitan's credit, he refrains from turning her into a quintessential I-don't-belong-here millennial flake. Perhaps his choice of geography is crucial here.
As is evident, women aren't conditioned to even consider the possibility of being unstable or jittery in such parts of the country. They aren't urban enough to throw an existential fit, yet just about rural enough to panic, elope, disappear and deflect. Either way, it makes for curious viewing.
Kota and Jhansi, like Ahmedabad and a few others, are some of India's bigger towns that insist on being identified within the 'smaller city' bracket instead. Most of them mistake economic and physical development to be signs of growth – urban babies of 2017, as it were – but it is in fact the inhabitants that, with their 1950s mindsets and ancient ideals, continually demote their actual status to that of rural adults. We're told right in the beginning, through an oddball-montage (in Dhawan's sarcastic voice, the kind that hints that he is reflecting – as a happy future self – on his silly history), that boys are 'assets' and girls are 'liabilities' in a family's balance-sheet, and that Indian fathers develop mysterious heart problems when faced with rebellious children.
It's natural to wonder why someone as discreetly 'modern' like Vaidehi would even consider an ignorant, misogynistic, ill-mannered twit like Badri. Or why she perpetually feels sympathetic instead of threatened by his caveman ways
For the first hour, Khaitan goes on to paint a claustrophobic, unsettling, infuriating yet oddly entertaining portrait of big-town life. Entertaining, charming even, in a "Wow, such people still exist?" sort of way. Both the families are built on the unshakable foundation of dowry-loving patriarchy; they consist of in-house sanskaari heroes (Yash Sinha, as Badrinath's brother) and villains (Rituraj Singh, as his father) and hero's friends (a thoroughly confident Sahil Vaid), yet the deafening silence cast by the supporting actresses (Shweta Basu Prasad, as his sister-in-law) runs the plot. In true rom-com fashion, Vaidehi convinces Badri to find a groom for her older sister if he wants to attain her. She puts to rest her dreams of becoming an air-hostess, yet one tiny shot of mehndi on her hands and a box of chapatis in a kitchen signifies far more than many of this film's redundant songs do.
It's natural to wonder why someone as discreetly 'modern' like Vaidehi would even consider an ignorant, misogynistic, ill-mannered twit like Badri. Or why she perpetually feels sympathetic instead of threatened by his caveman ways. Or why, through a meandering Singapore-based second half, she tolerates all his dangerously violent tantrums. Why can't she just get rid of him once and for all? Yet, as a man watching a film about another man struggling to understand the woman he wants, I found myself wondering why Badri is the one so hopelessly obsessed with a girl far beyond his reach. I found myself labeling her a cold-hearted villain for simply wanting to break free. For a fair bit, the title – much like in the case of Wake Up Sid – misled me to judge their equation through his eyes, instead of merely viewing it through hers.
"I haven't abused or hurt you, I won't kill you, so why can't you marry me?" he pleads at one point, inadvertently signifying how perhaps the amount of pain inflicted is the only measuring scale of a woman's importance in his world. Dhawan's face exhibits the kind of juvenile angst that makes you believe it isn't Badri's fault for being born into his family. Her undying patience with him demonstrates not a penchant for inherent submissiveness, but a maturity and reading of his small, hapless mind – one that needs a certain kind of Ranbir Kapoor-ish passion and heartbreak and stubbornness and tears to evolve.
The new-age feminist gaze is an interesting thing. I expect an avalanche of disapproving think pieces and raging op-eds about how a film preaching progressive values uses regressive devices like stalking, kidnapping, threatening and physical intimidation to drive home its point
This isn't a film that tries to tell us how men should behave. In fact, it tells us, at the cost of inviting the wrath of over-politicized moral rants, how some – some being the operative word – can behave, leaving it to us to decide how outraged or enlightened we choose to be. Rather, this is a well-conceived song-and-dance story that tries to prove the futility of the verb 'behave' in context of a woman's existence.
There is a minor Alia monologue, too, but not about how she has suffered and survived; this time, it's directed at her, about her, so that a girl like her doesn't have to keep reiterating how brave and independent she is. Vaidehi's victory is in the change she advocates, without really advocating anything; her weakness doesn't lie in the punches she takes, or the penalties she fails to mete out. The core of her arguably controversial spirit assumes the same human reasoning that promotes rehabilitation over capital punishment, or correction over elimination. And most notably, respect over romance.
The new-age feminist gaze is an interesting thing. I expect an avalanche of disapproving think pieces and raging op-eds about how a film preaching progressive values uses regressive devices like stalking, kidnapping, threatening and physical intimidation to drive home its point. A similar epidemic broke loose with Raanjhana a few years ago. I still believe, though, that a film has complete independence to depict what it chooses to depict – be it rape, violence, vices and self-abuse – as long as it remains valid and relevant in context of the culture it inhabits.
When Badrinath throws her to the ground and spouts venom at her, it's because of who he is – not who Varun Dhawan is, or who we are. When his bitter father swears to hang a girl from his porch, he isn't propagating a manner of thinking. He is merely being loyal to the indoor principles of ugly patriarchy. If he wins, perhaps that would be a major problem. But in a mainstream movie that pivots on its passion, unlike a Rajkumar Hirani tale that uses its love story as a backdrop to preach change through awareness, there is always only one winner.
As I walked out from a matinee show, a young, college-bunking couple in front of me made for a telling picture. He insisted on carrying her bag, so that she could speak on her phone. She began discussing remuneration for her new internship. This world is divided into two kinds of people: the ones that believe she can multitask and doesn't need a man to carry her bag. And the ones that find his gesture sweet and agenda-less: a couple-y moment of mutual cooperation. Badrinath ki Dulhania – or Vaidehi ka Dulha, depending on where you stand – seesaws between impersonating these two types of people. And, ever so rarely, finds a confused, immensely watchable middle ground. Which, in a way, despite a bloated second hour, makes it an uncomfortably strong film.