Saturday, March 11, 2017

masculinity so fragile, patriarchy so toxic: Badrinath Ki Dulhania

Things the hero of Badrinath Ki Dulhania does that are beyond even Bollywood's typical sense of "stalking=love" (recording her image without her knowledge or consent and following her to school on the bus hardly registering in this heap of ick):
  • He never, ever, ever understands that no means no.
  • He wordlessly observes the heroine (/love interest) at her home and job after she has told him to go away.
  • He creates so much disruption outside her home that onlookers call the police.
  • He beats up some guy he's never seen before simply because he thinks the guy might be linked to his love interest. And of course this guy forgives him and becomes his friend later, because disliking, or even just being neutral about, the hero is just too inconceivable?
  • He instigates a complicated lie in order to get his love interest to marry him (ohai DDLJ).
  • He physically grabs his love interest multiple times, sometimes while saying "I'm a good boy. I've never even grabbed you like this."
  • He follow his father's orders to be an accomplice to an honor killing. He chases his love interest to a different city and then country with the intent to abduct her and bring her back to Jhansi for his father's stated purpose of murdering her in public as revenge for jilting the hero and teaching others what happens when you don't know your place.
  • HE ABDUCTS THE HEROINE AT NIGHT OVER HER MULTIPLE VERBAL PROTESTATIONS, SHOVES HER IN THE TRUNK OF A CAR, DRIVES HER AWAY FROM HOME, THEN THREATENS TO CHOKE HER IN THE MIDDLE OF AN EMPTY ROAD. 

Things Badrinath Ki Dulhania does that are in other ways problematic: 
  • In his "job" as the collector in the family money-lending business, the hero beats up some guy who owes his company money, even though we have seen not one trace of him using his muscles in this job before this moment (or seen him work at all).
  • He also beats up his best friend when he tries to point out that hero is having some issues.
  • Taking a cue from Kaabil, the heroine is much more concerned about the hero's anguish at his legal punishment for assaulting her than her own well-being as a victim of his stalking and assault. 
  • A female police officer—who is an official in and of a foreign country—talks about said assault to the heroine as though heroine is responsible for hero's behavior AND has this conversation about what happened with them both present, ignoring the fact that a victim would probably feel safer discussing an assault without the attacker present. She then lets the victim leave the police station utterly alone and at the same time as the attacker. (I'd like to say this is wry commentary on how women are often implicit in our own oppression, but given the rest of this film, I doubt it.)
  • A man being sexually assaulted by a group of men is played for laughs, which manages to be simultaneously homophobic (with a side dash of racism, as the attackers are non-Indian) and horrendous to victims.
  • Overall, the film treats very serious issues with lightness and little discussion, with only the hero doing much condemning of harmful values and actions, and then only in the standard "hero preaches to the gathered cast" in the finale that's been happening since at least the 70s.
[SPOILERS]
To borrow the imagery from the film's final big scene, to me the weight of the film's script feels still on the WTF side of the scale between "show bad things" and "address them." When Vaidehi—whom, as Anna Veticad points out, the movie has established as ethically flawed herself, thus providing a handy opening for the audience to figure she deserves Badri's abuse, and who is not given the space she deserves, argues Ila Ananya in Ladies Finger—decides to marry Badri despite allllllllll of this, my heart broke. On what planet is it acceptable to show a woman not only returning but committing to a man with an established pattern of physical violence? I had to clamp my hand over my mouth to stop from screaming at the screen. What happened to the girl who wound up doing so much emotional caretaking for a doofus she once dismissed with the best-ever line "I'm done trying to reform India"? And why are the conservative, ├╝ber-manipulative fathers, one of them a downright villain, allowed to get exactly what they want in a film that tries here and there to be progressive? 
[/SPOILERS]

There is a "however" coming. Unfortunately, at least for me, the leads are so good and their chemistry so enjoyable that it's very easy to forget at least a few of these sins because Alia and Varun are just so charming, her especially, with that amazingly expressive face and voice and an ability to express nimbleness underlaid by so much resolve. I went into this film with considerable good will because I like Humpty Sharma so much, as well as the leads individually. I even felt bad for Badri—he's got a terrible father, a useless mother, and a checked-out older brother, and he's just a tough who rides a motorcycle in love with a trained professional who will traverse the skies—at least until I realized that the script is setting up easy excuses for his aggressive, violent, and short-sighted behavior. 

I do appreciate that Badri articulates one really important insight gained from his own finally quiet observations: he's so impressed with Vaidehi's professional commitment and competencies (that too in a field he could never comprehend) and realizes the extent to which his sister-in-law is similarly impressive and should get to shine and contribute. (Befikre's hypocritical slut-shaming hero had a similarly satisfying arc of learning and apologizing among the trainwreck of that script.) What I like about this is that the hero actually applies the concept of his romantic interest being awesome to a woman who isn't "his." Yes, she's part of his family, but her skills and success don't really reflect on or benefit him directly. And both Badri and Vaidehi both suffer in families scarred and scared by past disappointments (a scenario handled a lot more compellingly in Humpty Sharma) and grow as humans once they're out of their hometowns, even if only one of them made that voyage with that purpose. 

Overall this feels like a gender-equality exploitation film, indulging with shallowness and glee in violations against its purported goals. It feels so 90s to me, as though modern times have been shoehorned into a violent, macho world. "It's 2017, dad!" Badri reminds his patriarchal nightmare father at the end of the film, and it feels more like a slap on the wrist than progress because the film concludes so soon after that there's no room for any depiction of thoughtful change. Dad is the type who only conceives of women as humans when one is born into his family...which I guess is better than nothing but is still facile and shallow. The film's attempts to address other social ills are similarly half-assed, not given enough space to develop or feel like genuine change but present enough to be ticked off a checklist. 
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