“Dear dad, it’s 2017,” Badrinath (Varun Dhawan) informs his father, who prevented the elder brother from marrying his true love and is now set to repeat the feat with the younger son. The movie that follows Badrinath’s journey from lovestruck boy to responsible man sometimes forgets this.
Shashank Khaitan’s second film is set in the la la land that has been carved out between old-fashioned Bollywood sentimentality and the contemporary preference for dark matter and realism. Badrinath Ki Dulhania occupies this middle ground with confidence and good cheer. If Khaitan’s screenplay is unable to deal with the malcontents that crawl out of the Pandora’s box that he insists on opening, it’s because his treatment isn’t as grown up and complex as the issues he sets out to tackle.
The movie shares its highs and lows with Khaitan’s charming debut Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014) – it has an excellent lead pair whose mutual sparks can set water on fire, brilliantly written conversational humour, and an unmistakable feel for the throbs and tugs of young love. When together, Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt can recite the English alphabet and it will not matter.
Both films also have distended second halves and fall back on formulaic escape routes when the plot gets too knotty for its own good. At least the first movie was more progressive in sexual matters. In Badrinath ki Dulhania, the romance is strictly vegetarian. Foreplay is rewarded with little more than a tame peck on the forehead.
Jhansi dweller Badrinath is smitten by Kota resident Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt). He is especially turned on by her refusal to reciprocate his feelings or agree to his wedding proposal. He chases her relentlessly, but because his pursuit is conducted with humour, and Dhawan is at his goofy charming best, his behaviour cannot be described as stalking.
Vaidehi has two reasons to swat away Badrinath – she has been jilted before, and she wants to pursue a career as an air hostess. Badrinath, portrayed as a barely educated type who speaks in an approximation of Jhansi Hindi, is slow in understanding her ambitions. There is also the problem of Vaidehi’s big-city manner and bearing, but since we are admirers of Bhatt’s ease of doing business, we will ignore her decidedly unprovincial ways.
It’s only when Badrinath moves into Vaidehi’s world that he begins to see the smallness of his own. The training that Vaidehi undergoes for her profession is also a crash course for Badrinath – and the audience – in accepting Vaidehi’s dreams.
The 139-minute movie is perfectly on course till the interval point, after which it steadily collapses under the weight of its ambitions. For all its forward values – Khaitan champions working women and takes a stand against sex selection, the practice of dowry and gender discrimination – Badrinath ki Dulhania is too careful to seriously challenge the small-town public that the plot setting is targetting. The villain here is broadly defined toxic masculinity, rather than the respective fathers, who have matching oxygen tanks in the event of a heart attack brought on by their fidgety progeny (one of the movie’s best jokes).
Like Badrinath’s not-quite-stalking, Khaitan gets away with his not-really-condescending depiction of small-town India as a small-minded place by writing strong and nicely timed scenes.
The spirit of accommodation between modern values and tradition is beautifully explored in the conversation between Vaidehi’s sister Kritika and her prospective groom, who is a religious singer. Kritika sings, so could she join his troupe too? When she auditions by breaking out into a popular film song, the groom says, “I think we should get another female singer”. He neither rejects her nor disrespects her musical tastes.
The participants in the real battle between modernity and conservatism, which has been playing out in Hindi films since the 1990s, have old-fashioned names and a sort-of-progressive outlook. The conflict plays out better in Badrinath, who has greater complexity and character progression than Vaidehi’s assertive, sharp, independent and ultimately superficial self.
Vaidehi proves that she can get by without Badrinath very easily. Khaitan contrives a way to bring the couple together – since it would be a shame to let the chemistry to go to waste – but their shared dream comes at the cost of Vaidehi’s ambitions. Vaidehi’s capitulation is ladled out with the same goodness that animates the movie’s first half. It’s not quite defeat, since the prize is a well-proportioned and loving husband¸ but there is no mistaking who the real winner is.
Don’t call yourself my bride, Badrinath tells Vaidehi, I am the one who is your groom. Since the movie isn’t called actually Vaidehi Ka Dulha, that’s that.