Opening across North America at the beginning of Holi weekend in India, a release from Dharma Productions—whose films are almost notorious at this point for their vibrant set pieces, high-voltage entertainment value, and penchant for glitzy romance— seems as apt a way as any to kick off a festival centered on celebration, colors, and love. Fortunately, while “Badrinath Ki Dulhania” leaves plenty of room for eye candy, it also isn’t all style without substance.
Writer-director Shashank Khaitan takes down the flashiness a notch in exchange for an attempt at some well-meaning social commentary. The results are mixed, but make for a more thought-provoking experience than your run-of-the-mill Bollywood romcom.
The film makes its progressive intentions clear right away, as leading man Badrinath—aka Badri—Bhansal (Varun Dhawan) introduces us via voiceover to his household. It’s one of the most well-to-do in the city of Jhansi, but a submissive bunch, ruled with an iron fist by a patriarch (Rituraj Singh). He subscribes wholeheartedly to the age-old notion of sons as family assets, daughters as liabilities, and dowries as down payments for marriage. A big-hearted yet somewhat bumbling man-child who barely passed tenth grade, Badrinath is ambivalent toward his father’s antiquated beliefs, until he meets and immediately falls for the college-educated, forward-thinking Vaidehi Trivedi (Alia Bhatt). But after being stung by a suitor once before, it’s anything but love at first sight for Vaidehi, whose ambitions have more to do with finding a job and escaping the oppressive mindset of her community than landing a husband her middle-class parents can’t afford.
At first glance, the plot has all the ingredients of the usual boy-meet-girl setup. But despite its predictable ending—this is definitely one of those familiar stories in which the outcome is obvious in the first 15 minutes—“Badrinath” turns some seemingly cliché beats inside out, including the classic (and highly disturbing) Bollywood trope of a lovesick boy shamelessly chasing his object of affection. Badri does pursue Vaidehi to stalker extremes, but Vaidehi firmly maintains the reigns of the relationship, dismissing his advances with vague amusement. Even when she appears to give in to him, her ulterior motives confirm that she, not Badri, retains control over her choices. And in a refreshing tonal shift from the usual Bollywood routein in which the heroine eventually realizes her mistake in turning down the male hero, much of this story focuses on Badri’s arc as — while watching Vaidehi’s live her life on her own terms — it dawns on him that being with her would be more his good fortune than hers.
But for all his noble motivations, Khaitan takes on a tricky challenge here: promoting alternative ideas about gender roles and social norms while still appealing to the more traditionally-minded masses that form a bulk of his audience. In his attempt to satisfy both objectives, Khaitan often takes a convoluted and contradictory path toward a well-intentioned message. Several characters deliver monologues that critique India’s misogynistic customs, but are often too contrived to be truly impactful. Jarring moments, in which Badri is physically aggressive towards Vaidehi, are too quickly and too easily forgiven as Vaidehi herself justifies them as the result of her rejection of him. And while humor is mostly used to great effect, there are instances in which Khaitan seems to employ it as a tool to dilute some of the film’s more radical or potentially uncomfortable moments; these include a scene that addresses male rape, which is brushed off as laughable after Vaidehi emerges as a bigger hero than Badri. While Khaitan’s dilemma is understandable, scenes like these may raise questions about his commitment to film’s underlying themes.
But even when the screenplay stumbles into clunky and off-color territory—especially in a drawn-out and tangent-filled second half—the actors steer it into a place that saves “Badrinath” from succumbing entirely to its shortcomings. Dhawan and Bhatt, who together lit up the screen in Khaitan’s first installment of the “Dulhania” films (“Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania”) are equally electric together here.
Bhatt, in yet another effortless performance, keeps Vaidehi’s feisty spirit rooted in confidence and practicality; Dhawan, for all his hammed-up antics designed to embody entitlement, is exceptionally authentic as he transforms into a man who learns that love is incomplete without mutual respect.
Together, they give Badri and Vaidehi a chemistry that’s at once relatable and aspirational, and it’s easy to see why the two have become one of India’s favorite on-screen pairings. “Badrinath Ki Dulhania” may hit several faulty notes as a flag-bearer for feminism, but as delivered by this endearing duo, it’s bound to touch more than a few hearts.
“Badrinath Ki Dulhania” is now in theaters.