Bollywood filmmakers, backed by big production houses, setting their films in small-town India often run into roadblocks. And that’s so because these films are marked by disconnect: between the real and make-believe, between life and cinema. The small towns of these films, more often than not, are less real, more imagined. These films are shot on locations, so the geographical spaces are real, but the people dealing with them—directors, writers, production designers, even actors—belong to the world of movies or, as it were, certain upscale parts of Mumbai. As a result, they’re less interested in recreating a space, more in appropriating it, or cherry picking bits that look visually appealing and cinematic. You can either make your film pretty and escapist or regular and real. The best of both worlds approach doesn’t usually work.
It certainly doesn’t, for the most part, in Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania. The film opens in Jhansi, home to the eponymous Badrinath (Varun Dhawan), the son of a rich contractor, who has only studied till 10th grade. Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt), on the other hand, lives in Kota and aspires to be an airhostess. A guy like Badri—uneducated and unsophisticated, rich and privileged—typifies a certain kind of India, where economic affluence has raced ahead of social consciousness. Most of the times, it’s not considered a big deal, because money (and what it can afford: cars, properties, clothes) is visible, ideologies are not. People like Badri also have a tricky time negotiating the gender politics, because their sexism is a result of their upbringing and ignorance. They aren’t necessarily vicious misogynists, for they’re ready to engage in a dialogue, accept their mistakes, and, if possible, rectify them. Badri’s a fascinating character, in theory, but Dhawan—whose on-screen roles, till now, have belonged to young, sophisticated, and rich India (and who is himself not different in real life)—struggles to live up to his part. The small-town “Hum”, replacing the big city “Main”, doesn’t ring true when he speaks it. A good actor is, of course, supposed to transcend his own social milieu and, instead, effortlessly slip into his character, but Dhawan hasn’t attained that level of artistic talent.
Vaidehi, however, is much more believable, and it’s not surprising, given that she’s played by Bhatt, an actor known for setting high standards for herself. But there’s much in Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya’s first half that doesn’t work. The way Jhansi and Kota look, for instance. Khaitan’s Kota is devoid of the sweat and desperation and din of IIT aspirants. Instead, it looks like any other Indian small town, whose defining marker is a public recreational space. In this case, a small park called Seven Wonders, pretty enough to look pretty on screen, where Khaitan shoots two outdoor scenes. The other is shot near a temple adjoining a lake, where Badri is on a speedboat. Jhansi, similarly, is seen through Badri’s palatial haveli (which looks plush and imposing), and multiple top-down shots of the town’s square. Even Badri and Vaidehi’s houses—with strategically placed lamps and carefully drawn curtains—look less like real places, more like shooting locations. Which is the case with Badri, too: He’s someone who’s been carefully corrected to appear pleasant enough. These modifications in the movie, albeit not a deal breaker, do irk. Because for all its attempts to show an unglamorous and true India, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, like many similar Bollywood films, is only willing to go as far, selectively showing the real, without engaging with it, without understanding where it’s coming from.
Having said that, the film’s first half is not entirely without its merits. It’s refreshing to know that Khaitan doesn’t do the writing for us—not at all times at least. There’s a small scene between Vaidehi and her sister, who is about to get married, where the latter hints about a compromise—that she knows that her husband-to-be isn’t remarkable in anyway, and that’s fine, because, well, that’s all she’s got. A few scenes later, we see a love song between Badri and Vaidehi, which is quite ingeniously placed, as the heroine is not in love with the hero at this point. No one has (overtly) forced her to get married, either, but, as the film implies, does she even have a choice? Badrinath Ki Dulhania is also smartly structured, upending the arc of a conventional romantic drama.
Besides, Khaitan looks much more at ease, in the second half, when the film shifts to locations he’s comfortable in: Mumbai for a brief bit and, then, Singapore. As evidenced in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Khaitan is a fairly smart filmmaker who has a knack for small moments. Badrinath Ki Dulhania, too (barring its needless franchise-like title), is alert to small scenes, where we understand its characters better. A major plot turn in the film, without delving into flashback or overwriting, seems credible. Its gender politics, even though straightforward (and a bit on the nose), is, at most times, progressive.
And yet, this is a highly uneven film—mainly because it’s marred by a constant tussle between real-life and cinema. Not just in the exploration of small-town India, but also elsewhere. There are quite a few scenes injecting needless drama and comedy, which stretch this film, making its 140-minute runtime unnecessary. Even its final scene—reinforcing the status quo, contradicting the film’s central thesis—is problematic.
A film like Badrinath Ki Dulhania doesn’t just want to be a regular entertainer; it also wants to be socially conscious and meaningful. So it packs in ideas—about gender equality, choices, freedom—but ideas alone don’t make for a good film; their skillful execution does.
Originally published in The Wire