Badrinath ki Dulhania Movie Review

What happens when the feisty girl stays feisty? Love meets feminism for a new kind of rom-com.

When feminism is the war cry of a generation, commercial cinema must pull its head out of the sand, brush itself up, and pay its respects to the new hero: the heroine.

It’s been done before. Queen, English Vinglish, Pink, Highway and Dear Zindagi all show the woman rising, fighting her battles, and emerging triumphant.

It’s a healthy, growing list. Director Shashank Khaitan’s second film in the …ki Dulhania series, Badrinath, manages to join their ranks with something clever and commendable.

First, he uses the title to remind everyone of his previous film, Humpty Sharma… (2014), a commercial success and a romantic comedy. And then – and this is the clever part – he uses the rom-com as a vehicle to deliver a message of women’s empowerment.

He also takes the feminist out of the urban setting, and puts her in Tier-2 India. The choice of locations seems apt: Jhansi (UP) and Kota (Rajasthan). Both states have unflattering histories of patriarchy and skewed sex ratios. Dowry is still a dominant practice.

Badrinath opens with a sharp little narrative satire. The birth of a boy is seen as an asset, and a girl child a liability. And marriage is an occasion to levy a ‘one-time dahej price’.

It sets the premise, showing that both men and women suffer within the status quo.

Badri (Varun Dhawan) is born into a wealthy, orthodox zamindar family where the autocratic father’s word is final, and where an elder brother was forced into an arranged marriage for money.

Dhawan makes for a convincing small-town lout. He rides a Royal Enfield (a cliché unto itself), has barely scraped through school, and uses his family name to intimidate people. When he fancies a girl at a wedding (Alia Bhatt, as Vaidehi Trivedi), he goes into aggressive flirt mode. Life imitates ’90s cinema as stalking substitutes for romance.

Vaidehi’s narrative is little more predictable. She is one of two daughters whom an ageing, middle-class father is desperate to marry off. She’s educated, and wants to earn for herself. Why, then, after turning every romantic cliché on its head (she humiliates the stalking boy by making fun of his education; shows no interest in being wooed at all), she agrees to a marriage is a little hard to understand. But it sets the platform for her eventual defiance. And for a chauvinist man’s crash course in gender equality.

It’s all well-intentioned and earnest. But in parts it’s too earnest. The love-versus-respect dialogue gets preachy. And while larger evils such as honour killing are hinted at, they’re banished to an alternate reality, one that’s still a no-go for our mainstream movies.

Two particularly troubling instances are glossed over. Vaidehi shelters Badri right after he kidnaps her, out of some old-fashioned sense of guilt. And a disconnected male molestation incident is used as a reversal, but veers completely off the mark by being passed off as humour.

Badrinath... is a move in the right direction. It lacks the realism of hard-hitting indie cinema, but still takes a pertinent subject to a wide audience. In Badri’s goofy humour, and in Vaidehi’s courage, one hopes that people will see a bit of themselves.

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