REVIEW: Bollywood’s “Badrinath Ki Dulhania”
WHEN AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE MATCH comes for Vaidehi Trivedis’ elder sister, the groom-to-be’s family asks for a large sum for the dowry before the wedding preparations may proceed, but the sum is too large for the Trivedis to provide. Vaidehi, in a chance encounter, meets Badrinath, the youngest of two sons of a rich family living in Jhansi. Enchanted by Vaidehi’s bubbly and confident personality, he falls in love with her and secretly manages to take care of both Vaidehi’s dowry and her older sister’s. A double wedding is planned.
However, while the elder sister gets married, Vaidehi runs away from the wedding and India that night. Angry and humiliated, Badrinath’s father commands him to bring her back so that they may hang her in public as a warning to women. Hurt and confused, Badri  takes a friend with him and tracks her down in Singapore. After spending some time with her, however, Badri understands that Vaidehi actually made the best choice for herself by running away and working towards her dreams. In an unusually feminist turn for a Bollywood film, he returns home without her and stands up to his family, admonishing their outdated principles and treatment of women as objects. Eventually, Badri and Vaidehi are married, after which point she continues her air hostess job for two years before opening up her air hostess training school in Jhansi.
Badrinath ki Dulhania (Badrinath’s Bride) appears to be a feminist movie or, at the very least, a movie sincerely attempting to push through traditional roles and expectations levelled at women raised in South Asian culture, particularly in India. While the movie has some success in its bid to showcase female empowerment and the need for eradication of antiquated beliefs, it also falls short in many areas. In the midst of the current climate as people across the world are struggling for equality, analyzing such pushes towards broader understanding is important. Action is being taken, but are these the right actions and what messages are being sent towards women across the world?
While Badrinath ki Dulhania focuses on two main families, the narrative mostly revolves around Vaidehi Trivedi, the youngest of two daughters. However, it is through Vaidehi’s somewhat feminist character that the film undermines itself as it attempts to contest India’s sexist gender roles. The movie has several laudable moments in which it attempts to ostracize and eradicate outdated ideals and accepted gender roles. Although it may falter in its feminist mission upon closer scrutiny, the film’s efforts need to be considered, and particular scenes lauded for the work they do to bring awareness to the issue of Indian social and cultural norms as related to women’s expected roles. The last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film models for younger generations how to check and stand up to their parents and elders on their outdated actions and beliefs. The climactic scene in which Badri stands up to his parents– especially his father– is one such scene. Badri’s words are powerful. He berates his father, who’s proud of his daughter-in-law for having a Master’s degree yet willing to politely stay at home like nice Indian girl should. He also blasts Vaidehi’s parents for being ashamed of their daughter, even though she is successful in Singapore now and makes a lot of money. He instead tells them they should be proud of her. When his furious father blames Vaidehi for this change in him, Badri proudly proclaims that yes, she is responsible for making him a real man and teaching him how to respect women. Perhaps the most effective part of his speech is as follows: “Father, this is 2017. And this city, this is Jhansi . A queen made this city famous, not a king. When will you understand this, father?” (translation from Hindi, mine.)
However, Badri’s refreshing act of defiance reveals one of the film’s gravest flaw. Despite Vaidehi’s efforts throughout the entire movie to convince her parents’ of her success, Vaidehi’s mother dismisses her as foolish and her father refuses to even to speak with her. Not until Badri says that she is making them proud do they finally believe that she is. Badri is clearly drunk when he’s giving this speech, yet his words still have more import than his female counterpart’s, even with her own parents. The man’s voice is given power while the woman has to run away in order to claim hers.
Vaidehi eventually returns and stands up to her family, but mentions nothing about her success, discussing instead only why she did not want to marry Badri then but why she has decided to marry him now. Basically, she’s fallen right back into her expected role. When she tells both their families that she now wishes to be Badrinath ki dulhania,  Badri interrupts her, stating that instead, he will actually be Vaidehi’s dulha . He then adds, “And she will work in Singapore, and I am with her (I support her)” (translation mine).
While touching, this scene also sets up Badri to be the knight in shining armor to save the damsel in distress. This makes no sense because Vaidehi has already saved herself. When she ran away to Singapore, she managed every aspect of her life through her hard work and commitment to her dreams. Badri’s words sound like he is giving her permission to do what she has 1) already done and 2) clearly does not need anyone’s permission to do. Why does the movie feel the need to set him up as a savior, as an unnecessary Prince Charming of modern times? Maybe they don’t want to push outside of traditional boundaries too far and alienate their audience? After all, this movie is a commercial one and thus needs to make money.
This reasoning may also explain the inexplicable title: “Badrinath ki Dulhania.” The movie sets up Badri’s proclamation of him being Vaidehi’s dulha as a dramatic moment in which a previously patriarchal-minded male has become modern and feminist. Vaidehi seems touched; most likely, a majority of the audience was, too. Yet, the movie never directly admonishes Badri for his problematic behavior, which the characters and, most upsettingly, Vaidehi seems to have not only forgiven but entirely forgotten. Instead, the movie needs to punish Badri or, at the very least, address his violent physical and undermining emotional assaults on Vaidehi, though they do occur briefly in the course of the movie. The metaphorical sweeping of his actions under the rug threatens to undermine any feminist value the film may seem to have.
Upon finding Vaidehi in Singapore, he grabs her violently, drags her into his trunk, and then almost chokes her–not to mention that he nearly gets her fired, among other horrendous behavior. Yet, Vaidehi continues to apologize to him for running out on their wedding and instead takes care of him, simply out of guilt over his broken heart. It veers far too close to domestic abuse and that emotional manipulation which causes the victim to stay. Yet, in the film, the entire circumstance is normalized and accepted. Yes, Badri changes for the better when he not only stands up for her to both their families but also eventually apologies for his behavior; with best wishes for her future and without asking her to marry him or to return to India with him, he peacefully leaves her in Singapore so that she may pursue her dreams. However, most men don’t change, and Vaidehi should never have to apologize, especially after she repeatedly tells him at the beginning of the movie that she does not wish to get married or be valued like an object .
So why the choice then to name the movie Badrinath ki Dulhania? Why not Vaidehi ka Dulha? Why not empower the female character right there on the title? Why not go the Hollywood Wonder Woman route? The only answer that I can come up with is that they are afraid of being too feminist, as if such a thing may exist. Across the globe, South Asian culture and the people immersed in it, regardless of gender, are changing their viewpoints as identity politics continue to shift. They now expect and desire women to be emotionally and mentally strong and well-educated. Yet, a stigma still exists that a woman should not cross lines, particularly the lines of being stronger, more well-educated, and more financially secure than a man. For some reason, an underlying fear seems to pervade our South Asian culture, and whether we live in South Asia, Europe, the United States, or anywhere in the world, there exists this toxic notion that the presence of a powerful woman calls for the male’s loss of power so that her strength will lead to their weakness. Perhaps this is the appalling reason why, in regard to the film, Badri’s voice is given far more weight in the end than Vaidehi’s, despite the fact that she is the more successful partner who is stronger emotionally, financially, and mentally. By the end of Badrinath ki Dulhania, the man retains the upper hand and the status quo disappointingly continues forward despite the best efforts of the film.
Despite the above mentioned issues, viewers should not disregard the movie’s efforts to chip away at old customs, traditions, and outlooks on life and marriage in India. However, much more work still needs to be done here. It is possible that perhaps too much deviation from the norm would result in a movie that never hits theaters, but in today’s shifting filmscape, it’s hard to say that stories of true and pure female empowerment will never be produced or disseminated throughout the masses. We can only hope that strides continue to be made and support, promote, and demand that all genders, races, and traditions be respected within the cinematic world, finding space to include the full female narrative, identity, status, and form.
Short for Badrinath.
The famous Lakshmibai was a Queen of Jhansi. While the area also had several male rules, her rule is often credited for making the city well known.
In reference to dowry, which is still prevalent in India, despite being outlawed through the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961.