(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Here is how the review of Shashank Khaitan’s debut film, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, began on these pages – “Like most of us 90s kids, Shashank Khaitan is enamored by the 90s Bollywood. For better or worse. You grow up with it and it is ingrained in your system.” Little did we know how much it is ingrained in Khaitan. It is like a tattoo that he wears with pride, showing it off to his friends at the drop of a hat. He’s made a spiritual sequel to Humpty Sharma, solidifying the Dulhania franchise. Christened Badrinath Ki Dulhania, it has the same leads,the same sidekick and for half of its run, it is the same energizer bunny that runs on the kind of repartee championed by Badrinath Bansal (Varun Dhawan) and Vaidehi Trivedi (Alia Bhatt). While Humpty Sharma had its tongue firmly in its cheek when it harked back to that era of cinema and especially, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Badrinath tries to unsettle the philosophy of that cinema offering some corrections and revisions along the way. Now that the franchise is two films old, it seems like Khaitan’s job was half done just by getting the casting right.
Alia Bhatt? Now it is only news when Bhatt gives a disappointing performance. What is even an Alia Bhatt disappointing performance? Nobody knows. But more than the level of performance, is there anyone in the industry who can effortlessly balance the sensibilities of today’s Hindi cinema and also that of 90s? Parineeti Chopra can probably do that era just as well but can she do both? Only Bhatt can be that temple going small town girl (Khaitan’s are those now rare breed of Hindi films that have heroines going to temples and young women wanting sanskaari husbands) and also the firecracker that cautions the titular hero from taking another step towards her, all in the same film. We don’t know what the brief to her was but she is Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi of the 90s rolled into one – at least in this film – and she wears that Patakha Guddi tag like a badge of honor.
Varun Dhawan? We know from Badlapur that Dhawan can act but like the aforementioned Parineeti Chopra, there is a problem in telling when Dhawan is playing a character and when he is playing himself. From various off-screen appearances and sheer weight of his pedigree, the man is a 90s and trashy Bollywood tragic. He feels at home when his brother accuses him of playing Hum Aapke Hain Kaun with a girl at a wedding. He feels at home (maybe at times literally) when he channels Govinda in a song like Aashiq Surrender Hua, that seems to have specially composed to revive that era. The dandiya type beats, the mandolins and trumpets – one wonders if the makers missed a trick by not inserting a Govinda guest appearance. One also wonders that if an original can be created, good enough to transport us to that time, why remix Tamma Tamma? That debate is for another day.
Now for the man of the moment – or should it be past moments? – Shashank Khaitan. It’s a masterstroke how Khaitan situates his films, not in the cities like many of Dharma or YRF productions but in the small towns where he can evoke that nostalgia and still keep things current. It was Ambala in Humpty Sharma and here, Kota and Jhansi take over. Jhansi for Jhansi Ki Rani where Badri is from. Kota, famous for coaching classes that mint IIT engineers, the profession more important than life for so many Indian men as means to achieve almost every end possible in life. Khaitan isn’t an empty filmmaker who only lives by throwbacks and references. When we see Vaidehi in a classroom, she is giving the definition of claustrophobia and almost immediately she’s filmed from outside a grill as the caged woman. Interestingly, her aspiration is to fly, become an air hostess and this is at odds with what everyone around her wants. The first half is a lot of fun even if it makes us retire to the thought that this is Humpty Sharma all over again. And then Khaitan pulls the rug from under our feet by using a twist that yet again is a ghost of a different era. Kota and Jhansi give way not to an Indian metropolis but to Singapore. Khaitan feels compelled that a man like Badri, at once agreeable and terrible, surrounded by men worse than him (except maybe for his brother), needs that dissonance to hit him hard. All of a sudden, the kinetic energy of the first half gives way to a much darker film. Some of it is troubling, problematic and painful to watch, especially the kind of moping Badri does and Vaidehi is subjected to. Why would a woman hang on to this problem child? Khaitan admirably hasn’t picked up a sledgehammer to drive his point home. He’s done something far more gutsy – he’s tried to tell a story of an extremely flawed individual. The preachy tone permeates only in the last portions. Badrinath Ki Dulhania is not entirely a misfire. It works to a great extent and its ideas and attempts are noble even if the film as a whole is flawed. Khaitan either forgets to or in the interest of happy endings of the era he is so in one with, decides not to liberate the 90s heroine even if he is successful in emasculating the 90s hero.