Stalking is so common in Hindi cinema that our filmmakers have developed a tacit grammar of good stalking versus bad. The former usually takes place in the film’s first hour, is performed with non-threatening charm by the male lead, and is borne by the female lead with exasperated good humour. The latter occurs after the interval, and is usually a prelude to the male lead discovering the error of his ways.
Badrinath Ki Dulhania has good and bad stalking, and both are presented as part of the mating ritual. Jhansi boy Badri (Varun Dhawan) blithely pursues the uninterested but amused Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt) through the streets of Kota. She says “no”, he hears “try harder” —a sequence of events that’s stubbornly lodged in the DNA of Hindi cinema. If the pass the film grants him is morally dodgy, the sequence that arrives a little after the interval is indefensible. Badri, along with a friend, abducts Vaidehi off the streets at night, throws her in the trunk of his car, and drives off. You’d think this would wreck their relationship forever—not to mention result in some sort of legal action—but no. Vaidehi’s mad for 20 seconds, and then the focus shifts to Badri’s hurt feelings.
Like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), to which this is a sequel in spirit, Shashank Khaitan’s film examines how the emotional reverberations of failed and thwarted marriages are felt by the entire family over time. Badri’s brother was prevented by his class-obsessed conservative cliché of a father from marrying the woman he loves. Vaidehi was conned by her fiancée, resulting in a loss of money and, perhaps more crucially, agency; when Badri proposes marriage as part of a pretty package that’ll see her sister married as well, and her father saved of a dowry payment he can’t afford, she agrees, even though her mind is set on becoming an air hostess.
Badrinath Ki Dulhania is a tricky film to unequivocally praise or damn. There’s a frankness to its discussions of dowry and the diminishing of women’s rights after marriage that’s heartening to see in a mainstream film. On the other hand, there isn’t enough dramatic heft in it to justify the kidnapping-as-plot-device sequence or the threats of honour killing that issue from Badri’s father. Khaitan would probably argue that this is how things are in real life in Uttar Pradesh (and pretty much everywhere else in India). Yet, if it were real life we were talking about, Vaidehi probably wouldn’t have emerged from that trunk alive.
Khaitan’s writing, with its UP inflections and inexact translations (“turbulence” becomes “maansik santulan”), is quick and funny, words that might also be used to describe Dhawan and Bhatt and Sahil Vaid as Badri’s best friend. The first hour has some of the fast-talking charm of screwball comedy, but when the film swaps Jhansi for Singapore, the writing loses its specificity and bite. The first half has the tang of real life; the second, the sterile good cheer of a film that’s literally on foreign ground. Frankfinn is promoted throughout the film, though the ending is sponsored by Good Intentions.