Well, here it is, after midnight, and I have my sun lamp on to try to trick myself into thinking it isn’t after midnight. I just want to go to bed! But no! First, I must give all you nice people an indication of whether Badrinath is worth rushing out to see.
I sincerely think that Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania is one of the most important films of the past few years (which is why I wrote two posts about it). It showed that you could make a rom-com based on characters and relationships and a natural bond between a couple. And it could be fun and romantic and serious and comic all at the same time. And, as is the job of a really really good rom-com, it could also stand as a marker for the current state of gender relations in Indian society and where it is going from here.
Badrinath is a worthy heir to Humpty. Not a replacement, and not an improvement, but not an embarrassment. In some indefinable way, I found Alia and Varun a little less complicated together as a couple, their chemistry slightly less vibrant. And the social message felt a WHOLE LOT more obvious this time around.
Mostly I think it’s just that it is the second one. Alia and Varun didn’t have to work as hard as actors to sell their chemistry, and the script didn’t have to work as hard to make us believe in them, because we’d already seen them together in another film. And the few other rough spots (notably, the ending) could be explained just by the fact that Shashank Khaitan had his whole life to come up with and perfect Humpty Sharma, and he only had 2 and a half years to perfect this movie.
(Look at them together! So much more, I don’t know what, but there was more of it!)
The social message went way way more front and center in this one than in the last one. I am of the mindset that every good romantic movie is in its essence a feminist movie. Because part of what makes a good romantic movie is that the man and woman meet in the middle as equals, which is pretty much exactly what feminism is about. The last one was a really really good romantic movie, which meant by the end it had about 16 different angles through a whole variety of characters and scenes on what it meant to be a woman, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a friend, a son, a brother, basically every possibly relationship. And there was no big obvious point to them all, it was just making us confront our own issues, our assumptions, our prejudices. Everything from what we think about a boy who flirts with everyone, to a man who wants his daughter to have an arranged marriage, even to what makes someone gay or straight.
But this one just had one social point: Dowry.
That’s not a spoiler, the whole film opens with a big disclaimer that dowry is illegal, and wrong. And not only is it displayed on screen, there is an English voice over for it too, to make sure you really really can’t miss it.
And it really does go over dowry in a million different ways. From the bride and groom’s family’s side, of course. But also the groom who is kept unmarried older and older because his father refuses to lower their “price”. The bride who doesn’t want dowry given with her but cannot stop her father from doing it. Even the moneylender whose payoff relies on the groom receiving the dowry he is planning on.
I’d knew before about the whole “sweets for a boy, nothing to celebrate a girl” phenomenon. But I hadn’t put it together until this movie how closely that is related to dowry, at least in the dowry heavy areas. The minute the baby is born, a good father of a daughter would start saving up for her dowry. Every spare penny over years of deprivation set aside in the hopes that, 18-20-22 years later, it would make a payout grand enough to ensure her happiness.
(Have I mentioned that Breakthough has THE BEST youtube videos?)
And, in contrast, the father of a son lives the good life. Money goes in, and immediately goes out again. Not only do they not need to save for dowry, they don’t need to save for retirement, the son will always take care of them. Better yet, they can start planning their business and personal finances around receiving a major cash payment in about 22-24-25 years. That moment at the wedding or the first meeting when there is a dramatic declaration by the bride or groom about dowry, that’s not the moment when the change has to happen. It has to happen way way way way way back when the baby is born. The father of the son has to start saving up his own nest egg, so his son isn’t responsible for earning it (either through labor, or marriage). And the father of a daughter has to start relaxing a little, spending that money on education, on treats, on creating a pleasant childhood for their child, instead of showing by daily deprivation how a daughter is a burden to them.
All of that was done very very well. Showing how this dowry system is at the root of every moment of a boy and girl’s life, not just the moment when engagements first start to be talked of. The boys are lazy, uneducated, with no real skills, because their parents feel no need to make them do anything but simply be boys. And the girls are over-educated, over ready for the world, and yet never allowed to be in the world, their value only recognized in that brief moment when the other family looks at their bio-data.
It was a fascinating case study, but it made for an itty-bitty bit of a less interesting film. Still a really good movie, don’t get me wrong. And it’s probably too much to expect another Humpty, where the message and characters and story are inter-mingled so perfectly. But this one, sometimes it felt like maybe the destiny of the characters was being controlled more by the message than by their internal sensibilities.
Immediately post interval, there are some very hard to watch scenes, and hard to get past. The movie makes it work, at least for me, and I still believe in the romance. But I could also see how those scenes could be too difficult for other audience members, who just couldn’t get past them. Which is a big risk the filmmakers took. And what I had the hardest time with was how out of character they felt, based on everything we previously knew. It is just barely within the range of what I could believe this particular character to do, at the far far range. But I would have preferred it the film went a different way, both to avoid these difficult scenes and because it would have felt more true to the character. Only then the message would not have been so blatant to the audience, so the character had to bow to message.
Blech, I sound like one of those terrible people who are always saying “I just don’t see why I have to have a message shoved in my face, why can’t they just cast white people on TV shows?” Honestly, I don’t mind the message! I’m happy with it. If this couldn’t be a totally brilliant film, then I would rather it be a less-than-brilliant film with a really great message.
I wonder if that was a conscious decision? If at some point in the production process they saw that it would be easier to build this movie around a central message than around central characters? I kind of hope it was.
Because if this film succeeds (and early reports are good). And if that means it turns into a franchise with a different couple in a different region every few years. Then I want the regions to be not just about an accent or a costume, but about really digging into the central problems of the area. Why not use that as a jumping off point for the story? Why not make the next film about, say, an interreligious couple in Kashmir? Or a Communist falling for the daughter of a Congress politician in Kerala? Why not really deal with every aspect and area of India and make the medicine go down with some nice shirtless scenes and pretty lehengas?
(Seriously, 1 minute into his introductory scene, and Varun is ripping his shirt off for no reason at all)