I’m back! After I scribbled off my No Spoilers Review in the middle of the night, I am now awake (sort of) and am ready for my SPOILERS review! And in this case, I am going to say that you should read this whether or not you have seen the movie. There are already various think pieces going around that critique the film by taking elements in isolation, I want to critique it by taking everything in context.
Entire plot in one paragraph: Varun is the son of wealthy money-lender in Jhansi. He meets Alia at a wedding, but knows a traditional elopement or romance won’t work with his father, so he immediately starts working towards getting her family to propose a traditional marriage, complete with dowry. His older brother advises him that this is a good plan, but it will only work if Alia is ready to agree, so he should talk to her. Alia’s father is desperate to get his daughters married. Alia doesn’t want to be married ever, and her big sister only wants to marry a groom she picks out and approves herself. Alia finally agrees to consider Varun’s proposal if he will help her get her sister married. Varun finally succeeds in finding the perfect groom, but when the question of dowry is raised, it looks like the marriage will fall apart. Varun, with the help of his brother and sister-in-law, steals the money from their family business to cover the dowry and tricks both Alia’s family and the groom’s family, and Varun’s own father, into thinking the dowry came from Alia’s family. There is a brief engagement period during which Varun and Alia grow closer and Varun is ecstatically happy. But, at the ceremony itself, Alia disappears. INTERVAL Months later, Varun is miserable and angry and Alia has finished her flight attendant training course in Bombay and gotten a job in Singapore. She calls home to tell them the news and her parents tell Varun’s parents that she is in Bombay. Varun’s Dad sends him there to kill her. Varun tracks her from Bombay to Singapore, where he attacks her and kidnaps her. But, minutes later, regrets his actions lets her go. He stays in Singapore, following her around, and is eventually arrested. Alia helps him get bail, because she feels guilty for destroying his life. She also lets him sleep on her floor while he waits for his case to be resolved and his passport returned. With the power dynamic completely changed, they become even closer, Varun learns to respect her accomplishments and ambitions, and she learns to respect his respect. And his kindness and courtesy to her. In the end, he leaves Singapore after one final night when they almost kiss, returns home and lies about finding her, then gets drunk and gives a big speech at a family event about how dowry is wrong, these women are amazing and we expect them to marry and just sit there, and Alia was right to run away, she would have been miserable with him. And just then, Alia shows up to declare that she is in love with him too and will only marry him. And epilogue, for two years he stayed at home and they skyped and emailed while she was working in Singapore. Then she came home and opened a flight training school in Bihar and they were finally married
(And end credits song!)
Let me start by talking about what feminist film criticism is about. It’s not about finding a particular scene or line “offensive”, or related to some political movement, or looking for a reason to get angry. It’s about saying that film is a powerful tool for providing and reinforcing hegemonic social norms. And we need to be aware of that by unpacking the hidden messages in the narrative. If you are doing racial film criticism, you are looking for those messages specifically related to race, class criticism would be looking for messages related to class, age would be related to age, and finally feminist is related to gender.
The thing about the forces of social hegemony is that they are invisible and all-inclusive. One scene might break through them, but it takes more than one scene to enforce them. So, a movie that is mostly a big stupid action film which also includes one scene in which our hero rescues an abused wife and beats up her husband and advises her to get a divorce, that one scene is a moment of resistance against the hegemony. But the reverse of that, one scene in which our hero hits his wife, may or may not support the hegemony depending on a whole variety of other factors.
Think of it like this: you have a room which is entirely painted yellow. You have one spot that is darker yellow than the rest of it. You would notice that one darker spot and comment on it, but you could still just accept as normal that the entire room yellow. But if one spot is blue, not only do you notice that one spot, it makes the yellow around it seem brighter and more obvious.
If you look at films this way, then the dangerous one is the one that is all a nice consistent pale yellow of patriarchy. Because no one talks about that one, no dissects how yellow it is, and when you walk out of the theater into the world, that “yellow” feels kind of normal to you. To put it in class instead of gender terms, this is what is often criticized about Karan Johar films, that they don’t even seem aware of the majority of Indian society that isn’t wealthy and global and educated. And that they help to brainwash the audience into just not seeing those problems any more.
(I love Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but this song is pretty ridiculous, for how Shahrukh travels throughout india and only sees hippies and middle-class types)
Moving back to Badrinath Ki Dulhania, what bothers me about the criticisms I have read is that they focus on those splotches of dark dark yellow, and ignore all the blue that balances them. That, in fact, the big bad scenes are just there to help make the blue “pop”, to make sure the audience sees it.
I’ve already given the quick summary of the whole movie, now I want to zero in on the three scenes that I have scene criticized (there may be more scenes that are picked out, but these are the ones I’ve seen mentioned so far):
First thing people are complaining about: Honor Killing. Varun’s father orders him to bring Alia back to Jhansi so they can hang her in the town square, and Varun agrees. He tracks her to Singapore, and throws her in the trunk of his car. Then lets her out, only to almost strangle her and say that he should take her back to Jhansi, but he can’t bring himself to do it.
This is the worst thing our “hero” does in the whole movie. And it is really really bad. He is participating in an honor killing. Or, is he? When his father first gives the order and tells Varun to go, he doesn’t respond right away. Not until his father says that if Varun won’t do it, they will just find someone else. Varun and his brother kind of exchange glances at that. And his brother and sister-in-law kind of check with him again when he is leaving, asking if he is sure he wants to do this.
This is one man trapped in a corrupt system. I don’t think Varun is thinking “I will track her down and scare her but not hurt her and then lie to my father about it so he won’t send anyone else.” I think he isn’t thinking anything at all. All he knows in the moment is that he doesn’t want someone else to kill her. But I think from that little exchange of glances, we are meant to see that his brother and sister-in-law don’t think he will be able to kill her either, that he doesn’t really have it in him.
This is how evil replicates. His father is evil. His brother is weak. Varun is confused and hurt. Evil can try to turn Varun and “good” (his brother) is too weak to fight back for his soul. If we hadn’t had this sequence, where Varun briefly gives in to evil, the message of the film wouldn’t have been as strong. We have to see how a young innocent can be turned in one direction or the other by stronger powers above him.
And when Varun actually tracks down Alia, we need to see him go all the way! We need to see him actually grab her and put her in the trunk of his car. And then immediately regret it. To have him just ignore his father’s instructions, or find her and tell her to run, that would not have been true to how evil operates. You can’t change the beliefs of a lifetime in that kind of reasoned making-a-plan way. It was reasoning and planning that built him into this, learning to accept the male-female gender roles, and blind obedience to his father, without question. And no amount of good-hearted NGO workers or anti-dowry laws are going to stop this reasoning. You have to attack using a different method, going straight to natural human instinct. And that is why Varun almost immediately lets her go. Once he is confronted with Alia as a person, not an abstraction, he cannot bring himself to act. But we need to see how close he came, how strong his programming is.
Second thing that people are complaining about: Stalking. When Varun first falls in love, he stalks Alia. Well, sort of. He sees her at a wedding and they talk. Then, he uses his friend to help find her name and where she goes to school. He shows up at her school to talk to her. She isn’t interested. He comes back to talk to her again, this time on her bus, ready to propose. She still isn’t interested. He sends someone to talk to her parents about a marriage, she is furious and sends him a message tearing up the marriage card. Finally, she asks to meet him, because her father spoke to her and now she wants his help and the help of his friend in getting her sister married.
I just don’t see how this is stalking exactly? She is never afraid, and Varun never threatens her or even really gets mad at her. He gets angry about the situation, sure, but he’s not saying “give in or I’ll kill you”. Meeting at a wedding-fine! They have mutual acquaintances, they enjoy dancing together, he doesn’t manage to get her contact info, but then how could he? It’s not a kind of society where you can just go up to a girl and ask for her phone number and she can say yes without thinking about it. That’s kind of the whole point of this movie, that outside of the dowry system, men and women really aren’t allowed to be together. Varun’s options were either to try really hard to find a way to talk to her directly, or to go straight to her parents. There is no in between. Or, I suppose, he could have forgotten about her entirely. But then he would be giving in to the dowry system which makes his marriage a matter of selling himself to a stranger, and a strange woman being forced to marry him.
(And he’s not stalking her here at the original wedding either, she’s giving as good as she gets)
That is the whole point of the movie, a hero who looks at the dowry system and says “No!” Not because he already has a girlfriend, or is passionately in love. But because he thinks he has the right to at least pick the girl himself. And he thinks she has the right to know what she would be buying.
Stalking is an easy thing to complain about in films. And it is bad, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a symptom of a greater evil. As many many think pieces have pointed out. Men and women aren’t allowed to spend time together. There is no training, from either side, on how to interact. Which means women get terrified if a classmate so much as asks to borrow a pencil. And man don’t know how to start a casual conversation and get to know someone besides an abrupt declaration of love.
And that reminds me, you know how I know this isn’t “stalking”? Because Alia is never afraid! It’s the same argument I made back when I was talking about SRKajol’s first meeting in DDLJ. She was angry and snapping, which meant she wasn’t scared. Which meant he was irritating, but not threatening to begin with. And that he wasn’t really “wrong” to keep bothering her. If she had been legitimately afraid, he would have backed off. As we saw later in DDLJ, whenever Kajol was genuinely upset, he dropped the teasing. We don’t really get to see that backing off moment from Varun, but we certainly see that Varun keeps pushing and Alia is mad at him, but not scared.
And the end resolution isn’t her “giving in”, or calling the police on him, it’s her calling him up and asking for help on her terms. And then getting to know him and enjoy spending time with him. And, finally, thanks to pressure from her father more than Varun, agreeing to marry him.
Third thing people are complaining about: Villainization of Alia: After Varun tracks her down and almost strangles her, she lies to the police that he was a friend and wasn’t hurting her. She cries and stays awake nights, seeing him following her. When he tries to break into her work, she comes out to talk to him and calm him down, even offers to go back with him. Finally, when he is arrested for making a scene outside her building, she pays his bail and even lets him stay at her place while he waits for his case to be decided. And when her friend asks why she is doing all of this, she says it is because she did a terrible thing to Varun and ruined his life. So, not only does the film say it is okay for Varun to be mad at her, it is also saying that Alia thinks it is okay, that she agrees she deserves to be punished, maybe even die, for running out on her wedding.
Again, it’s a systemic thing! I would have found it less powerful and believable if Alia HADN’T felt guilty. Think of it like leaving a cult. You don’t just wake up one day ready to leave. Your doubts slowly grow and grow until, finally, you come up with a plan and leave. But after you leave, you still have those moments of confusion and unhappiness and wondering if your new beliefs are wrong. And in the same way, I just can’t believe that Alia could so easily throw off a lifetime of conditioning and believe that she had the right to make one totally selfish decision. This is also why the “well, why don’t women just stand up to their fathers and refuse to be married?” argument doesn’t work. Even if your father is kind and understanding, you still feel that internalized pressure to obey.
What we see in the first half of the film, is her slowly fighting towards this decision. She spends a lot of time listening in that half. Listening to her father talking about how all he wants is to see his daughters married. Listening to her sister talking about how she is happy with her groom and her future and doesn’t want anything else. Listening to Varun’s mother and sister-in-law talk about their household. Listening to Varun be so in love and so contented with his future life. And it all comes together on her wedding day with a desperate flight to Bombay and a different future.
(The song is in the movie twice, focus on the first half of this video to see the bit I am talking about now)
What makes me think it was a decision that came slowly, not a plan all along, is the henna shot. There is this great image of her bridal henna on her hand holding the handle of the suitcase. She got all the way to putting on the henna, and she couldn’t bring herself to scrap it off (it’s the dried henna, not the stain, that we see). We also saw the moment days earlier when she applied to the Bombay program. But then she put on the henna after that. Through out this whole pre-wedding sequence, we keep seeing moments like that, she will smile at something Varun says or does, and then look away. She likes Varun, she could see herself married to him. But she also keeps seeing these other things and she can’t decide which way to go until it is suddenly clear the day of the wedding.
The first half doesn’t end with her laughing in triumph and joy, it ends with her still conflicted. She has escaped, but not really. That’s why she needs Varun. Or someone! She needs someone representing that old life and old mindset to help her work through her issues, to absolve her guilt. It could have been Varun, or her father, or even another friend from home, any male who knew the whole history and was from the same place, she just needed them to say “it’s okay, you did the right thing, I understand.”
Fourth thing people are complaining about: Minimization of Male Rape: For me, this is the silliest complaint! Because it so totally misses the point. It’s not making fun of male rape, it’s making fun of how rape in generally is usually shown in Indian films. That’s why we laugh, at the silly idea of the foreign gang that always just wants to rape the heroine (heck, we just saw that in Dilwale! Random Hungarian gang who was harassing Kajol for no reason at all). And at the silly way Varun’s shirt is torn but still modest. And at clutching at the dupatta for modesty. The whole thing! It’s exactly what we see over and over again in other films, the rape that makes us angry but not afraid, only here they are making it obvious to us, so we can see how silly it is all those other times, just by flipping the gender. It’s exactly the same as my favorite scene from Ohm Shaanti Oshaana.
Now, here’s the thing that I am complaining about that I haven’t seen anyone else complain about! Not to say no one has, I just haven’t seen it.
Thing that I am complaining about: Forgiveness of the source of evil: Both fathers are completely absolutely totally in the wrong. And is their wrongness which has lead to this entire series of other wrongs. And this is never really resolved.
It feels like it is about to be. Varun returns home a changed man. After his time in Singapore, seeing a society in which women are truly equal to men, he has been confronted with his own inferiority to Alia. He is less educated, less capable, less brave, less intelligent, less everything. He tells her she was right to leave him, and before that, shows her in a million was that he really believes it, by taking care of her and supporting her career goals and everything else.
(Notice how much she takes the lead in this song? This is the grand ending to their time in Singapore, when Varun is happy to follow behind)
He returns to India and, with his eyes now open, starts to see how wrong it is not just for Alia to have to marry him, but for his sister-in-law to be trapped as a decoration in the home instead of being able to use her brain, for his mother never to feel able to open her own mouth in her own home, for Alia’s family to feel ashamed just because she isn’t married instead of proud of all her other accomplishments.
And this is what leads him to give a big speech at a family function, a religious ceremony with the purpose of having a boy. His father, the representation of all the patriarchy which has destroyed their life, is at his worst. And Varun starts a speech about how wrong all this is, and his father slaps him. And Varun just laughs and says “I’m not a child, that doesn’t hurt me any more.”
And THAT should have been the ending. Or at least the beginning of the ending. Varun was redeemable, he had more power within the patriarchy than Alia did, but he wasn’t the most powerful. The way to end this system is by knocking down the dominoes one by one. Alia rebels, which convinces Varun to rebel as well. Varun almost has managed to convince his older brother. And in this speech, he has convinced Alia’s father. But his father, he doesn’t need to be “convinced”, because he is the final domino. There is no one higher for him to turn on and attack. No, he just needs to be destroyed, his power taken completely away from him.
Which is what Varun does. His father’s power comes from fear. Once Varun realizes he has no fear of him, that there is nothing to fear, that power is gone. And now he should take the next step, he should walk away from the patriarchy entirely, taking his fellow rebels with him. There is nothing to redeem here.
But this is an Indian movie. The old dumb brutal father is a necessity. Mothers can die left and right, young lovers can be separated, even children can die or be lost. But lose your cruel and pointless father-that can NEVER HAPPEN! It’s like the “save the cat” rule in America film. Only cats are more sympathetic than authoritarian fathers (and I say that as someone who hates cats).
Really, what was the point? What is the point of this whole movie with all of it’s insightful discussion of how the patriarchy reproduces itself and social systems affect emotional health and how power dynamics can destroy relationships, if in the end we are going to say that old rich men should always be forgiven and respected?
It’s so shocking, it kind of feels like a last minute re-write. Like there was another ending in which Varun and his family walked away from his father, and Varun and his brother stayed home and took care of their children while their highly qualified and talented wives ran the family business. That’s where it feels like it is going, the whole second half flips the dynamic, making Alia primary in the relationship and Varun her support. The natural ending would be for Alia to show up and take him away from his wedding, and for them to lead a happy life together independent of any support from Varun’s father.
I can see the argument that it isn’t “realistic”, but that’s exactly the argument the film needs to make! That this is something you CAN do! It is something people have done, many many people! And been happy. If your parent is wrong, so extremely wrong as to order an honor killing, than you will lead a happier life without them in your life. There is no reason to forgive them, to try to “move past it”. Just cut them out like a cancer before they inevitably start to destroy you again. Fathers (at least this kind of father) aren’t really necessary.
It’s this failure to cut out the cancer that keeps leading it to replicate. Now this evil old man is playing with his grandchildren. Even if their parents keep his actions under control, and take away his power, his grandchildren will still get the message that people who think like this and act like this are acceptable as a part of their lives. They will grow up and hear about a dowry or an honor killing and say “well, that’s how people of that generation were, I remember my grandfather….” Instead of saying “that is shocking and evil and we should hang him in the town square.”
And then there’s the internal part of it. Alia’s father wasn’t a “bad” man. He wasn’t one where I would say “cut him out like a cancer!” But he did look at a girl child and instinctively feel sad. He saw his daughters as burdens, not blessings. He loved them, he never hurt them or wished them ill. He never wished ill to anyone. But he still raised them so that Alia was all twisted up and miserable inside. Sure, keep someone like that in your life, but in a carefully restricted part of it. Make sure he never lets your children feel the same way, that he never lets you feel the same way again either. It’s the only way to keep this misery from continuing to another generation. And it’s the best way to keep it from continuing throughout society, by taking responsibility for your own relatives and their own prejudices, and making an effort to change them.
But, no! Instead we get one half of a speech, and then suddenly Varun stops talking, and hugs his father? And switches from a discussion of society to how much he loves Alia? And then she shows up out of nowhere to say she loves him too? And they go off together into the sunset? And then there is an epilogue, and the murderous sociopath is playing with his grandchildren?
Like I said, it feels like a re-write. Like they left in half the tradition breaking speech, and then decided the audience couldn’t handle blaming an old man because oooooh no! Our minds would EXPLODE and society descend into anarchy if an old high-caste man is ever confronted with his wrongs! And so instead they swung back to the old boring romantic ending, and a completely unbelievable happy family scene in the future.