By Ila Ananya
There is a scene towards the end of the movie where Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt) is sitting with Badrinath (Varun Dhawan) on the terrace of a really tall building in Singapore after a night of clubbing. By this scene, Vaidehi has quickly forgiven Badrinath for all his unbelievably abusive behaviour, because apparently kidnapping and throwing her into his car trunk, stalking, and turning up at her house drunk out of his mind are not that big a deal. After all, she was the one who ran away from their wedding. And because they are having drunk heart-to-heart conversations on top of the building, Vaidehi turns to Badrinath and tells him she has always wished that she was born a boy.
This is when Badrinath delivers the punch-line of this scene (he is always delivering these punch lines, even at the end of the movie). “I used to think anyone who marries me will have their life set. But actually anyone who marries you will have their life set,” he says. Then he assures her that she has accomplished a lot as a woman. What is beyond me is why Vaidehi had to say that she wished she was born a boy—especially after she had run from her wedding, travelled to Mumbai, passed an interview to become a flight attendant, and had moved to Singapore for job training, all on her own. And why did the man who abused her get to assure her otherwise?
We know Bhatt is a good actor, and her position in the industry does mean that she can get good solid roles in a decent script. But instead of the Bhatt we remember from her most recent Dear Zindagi, in Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania, we are given a Bhatt who doesn’t do quite as much as we have come to expect her to do.
When I think of Alia Bhatt, I usually try not to remember her in Shaandaar because the terrible movie made me feel like director Vikas Bahl thought I was an idiot and that he could sell just anything. I can barely remember Student of the Year either, so instead, I usually think of Bhatt in Highway, or Dear Zindagi. Of course, there’s also Udta Punjab, but in almost every other movie, Bhatt has always played the role of a woman with a difficult childhood. In Kapoor and Sons she grew up without parents; in Shaandaar she was adopted, and so she was expected to be sad; in Highway she was sexually abused by her uncle as a child; in Dear Zindagi we heard Shah Rukh Khan tell her she didn’t have to forgive her parents or confront them for abandoning her.
Badrinath Ki Dulhania is different, in that it has Bhatt playing the role of a girl who has as difficult a childhood as any girl who has grown up in a lower middle class family in Uttar Pradesh. There is a constant pressure on Vaidehi and her sister to get married, but what she really wants is to become a flight attendant.
The biggest difficulty Vaidehi is shown to be dealing with is betrayal — a man she loved had run away with all the money she had planned to invest in a business she wanted to start. It’s also what makes her feel like she has betrayed Badrinath when she runs away from her marriage. And it’s why she keeps forgiving him despite his abuse.
If in Dear Zindagi Kaira (Bhatt) steadily eats a green chilli when she hears that her lover has got engaged to someone else before she goes back to her studio to work, in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Vaidehi needs to wait for Badrinath to encourage her to talk to her sister after she runs away from home. She says she is too scared to do it herself.
There is also an extremely unsettling scene where Badrinath tells Vaidehi to run when they get attacked by a gang of masked men in Singapore. We see the gang molesting Badrinath (it’s supposed to be funny), but when Vaidehi comes back with her friends to scare the men away, they all burst out laughing when they see his shirt is torn. Vaidehi removes her dupatta and covers Badrinath’s chest with it as she laughs. Perhaps it is asking for too much, but I find it hard to believe that any of Bhatt’s other characters would ever have done this. Or laughed.
Vaidehi is perfectly capable of asserting herself time and again—she just isn’t given the space to, except when she is yelling at her father that 50 lakhs is too much dowry money. (That’s one more thing about the movie — everyone is talking about reducing the dowry amount, but it’s never explicitly called bad). But Vaidehi is never fully her independent self, because Khaitan seemed desperate to make the movie about Badrinath. Incidentally, Badrinath reminds me of the meme a friend recently showed me, “A male feminist walks into a bar, because it was set so low”.
Do you remember Bhatt at the end of Highway? As Veera, she is standing in front of the uncle who sexually abused her as a child and yells at him, and as her mother tries to pull her back, she screams. She keeps screaming, again and again, because she is tired of keeping quiet. It is as though the whole movie—with Veera’s own surprise at beginning to like the freedom that being kidnapped has given her—has built up to cement itself at this point, when she can finally leave her family. And she does. But in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Bhatt, who for once hasn’t had a complicated childhood in the way that she usually does, isn’t given the chance to be the loud, demanding character Vaidehi is.
Co-published with Firstpost.