Sunday, 2 April 2017

Movie Review: Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017)



Long-time readers will have noticed, among many other writing quirks that I should probably do away with, I am far less confident when talking about issues that don’t pertain strictly to cinema. Even when I try and make statements about my stone cold beliefs in certain areas, it’s always been with my general willingness to admit to complete ignorance behind it. Despite how I may come across, anything and everything written here is posted under the impression that there are several thousand people out there who could correct me on every little thing. So, with all that said, it really says something when I’m continuing with my journey into Bollywood and I have found an old issue that brings a certain discomfort when it comes to the prospect of talking about it. Of course, my self-admitted amateurism also comes with a general lack of caring about what people think of my thoughts as well; I’m an idiot, but then again, so is the rest of the world when you get right down to it. Anyway, before this navel-gazing goes any further, let’s get started with today’s film. This is Badrinath Ki Dulhania.

The plot: Debt collector and amateur match-maker Badri (Varun Dhawan), on a chance encounter, becomes enamoured with student Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt). However, no matter how he may try, Vaidehi refuses to hear him out and go out with him. After a series of events involving trying to find a husband for Vaidehi’s sister, Vaidehi eventually relents and agrees to marry Badri. However, when it comes time for the wedding, Vaidehi’s need for independence may outweigh her want to help her family.

If my pre-emptive sort-of warning at the start of this review seemed a bit indulgent or unnecessary, which it likely is, then know it’s mainly as a reaction to how this film started out. Before the film proper, there’s a narrative spiel about how the scenes depicted concerning marriages, dowrys and other such topics are not being done to offend people. Honestly, I can see why they would start out on that note because this is a pretty complex film in terms of themes. It’s basically a feminist retooling of Taming Of The Shrew, with the plot about two sisters being pressured to marry and one of them, our female lead, being vehemently against it. I specify “feminist” here not as a means to thrash the movie, given how lamentably it has become an insult and/or punchline, but to highlight how this film genuinely has female empowerment on its mind. Vaidehi’s attitudes are quite refreshing, even as a Western viewer, and her choices and motivations are framed as someone worth applauding rather than scorning. Compare this to Badri, who is equal parts chauvinist and violent moron (rather redundant, but still) and as the film pushes forward, it’s quite clear that we’re meant to be laughing at him.

I’ve talked before about characters who are intentionally written to be hated, and how I hate the mindset behind it in turn, but I can honestly see a deeper purpose behind it here. Namely, with how the film properly opens. The way this film views marriage isn’t as a showing of love or even a transference of power, but as a business. And sure enough, with the scenes where prospective partners are interviewed like they’re applying for a job and the emphasis on wealth changing hands as a result of couplings, you definitely get that impression. Again, Western viewer, but it still manages to break through the culture barrier and make sense within its own context. As a result, the film may appear on the surface to be along the same lines as Shrew, in that the woman must learn the error of her ways, but it’s actually celebrating the agency of the Indian woman. Even considering the fact that similarly-themed OK Jannu came out rather recently, this is quite refreshing, especially considering how much War Room has burned itself into my memory with its sickeningly sexist views and this film out-and-out refutes it in many ways.

And yet, I still find myself somewhat reluctant to entirely endorse this movie. I could bring up how it pulls a third-wave feminist trick in downgrading the man in exchange for building up the woman, up to and including the main cast laughing off an incident where Badri gets violently and sexually assaulted in the street by a gang of Chinese thugs. But since I’ve seen too many instances of people getting lynched for daring to bring up such hypocrisies, I’ll instead focus on everything else that feels off with this film. While the core message is quite commendable, the way it is delivered isn’t always in the right place. This becomes more apparent once the mid-film tonal shift occurs, which ends up turning Badri’s father from a chauvinist into an out-and-out monster by all accounts. In the wake of this, Badri’s character goes into complete flux as he just shifts almost at random in terms of mindset and intentions. This isn’t helped by how, with the jarring shift into a darker mood, it can be difficult to properly discern whether his ravings about how his feelings are all Vaidehi’s fault and she should be accountable for them should be listened to or not. Then there’s the pile of small moments that add up before too long, from the tonal issues to the not-sure-if-intentional sexual tension between Badri and Somdev to an honest-to-god Mannequin Challenge scene in the middle of a musical sequence. That last one makes me really want to hate this film because, and I really shouldn’t need to write this, shit like this does not belong on the big screen in any fashion. At all.

All in all, while this has quite a bit holding it back for me, there’s just as much to like about it too. Through a worthy cast and steadfastly feminist-tinged writing, this look at the importance that Indian culture places on marriage and how it views the transaction is quite fascinating even as a Western viewer. It may be too ambiguous for all of its commentary to stick, but when it does stick, it makes for some quite poignant moments. It’s better than Hidden Figures, as what’s holding this film back is rather subjective instead of the quite obvious… well, obviousness of that film’s writing quirks. However, as an overall experience, it falls short of the Matthew McConaughey-conducted ride into American ambition that is Gold.

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