Understand a film's language before pointing a finger

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The Karan Johar–produced Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya is as guilty of glorifying stalking and kidnapping as Aamir Khan was the hero in 1947 Earth.

To judge a film, we must examine its gaze, its context and the picture it attempts to capture. | PTI

Every time there’s a film out with a scene or two depicting socially unacceptable behaviour, the outrage brigade works overtime to churn out armchair-think pieces. The latest example of this surrounds Karan Johar–produced Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya, which was called out for "glorifying stalking and kidnapping" in the aftermath of his comments on Kangana Ranaut's light-hearted attack on him during her appearance on his show Koffee With Karan.

While Karan might be guilty of over-reacting, the Varun Dhawan–Alia Bhatt starrer has borne the brunt of the ire.

Since this sort of outrage happens way too often these days, here’s a ready reckoner to check if the content calls for outrage or not.

  • How is the filmmaker depicting the action (the controversial behaviour) within the framework of the film’s central conflict and in what sociopolitical context?

  • Does this action have a consequence? Whose gaze are we seeing the action with?

  • Who/what is the problem and who/what is the solution? Is the narrative depicted countered within the universe of the film? Is that counter-narrative strong enough? Who has agency? Is the film using satirical elements? Is it subverting for impact? Having considered all this, does such representation actually translate to endorsement? Or does it pick a side in the debate?

Since there’s a lot of social studies jargon in there, let’s break it down further using the Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya as an exercise.

 

Representation can be studied through the broad framework of form, content, technology, social relations and context. Critics choose their own framework depending on the nature of the film but for the sake of this exercise, let’s do a comprehensive examination.

Form

In this case, the art form is Bollywood, which has a syntax and grammar of its own. It's a larger-than-life escapist musical entertainer where boy gets girl after overcoming the big hurdle — mutual lack of respect. The film does use larger-than-life devices including song, dance and farcical metaphors (the oxygen cylinders carried by the manipulative fathers, for example).

Content

The content, however, deviates from the traditional Bollywood narrative of the title it is a play on. While Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge centered around winning approval from patriarchy, the modern-day update is about the patriarchy-rejecting dulhaniya (bride) of the big-town chauvinistic lout called Badrinath.

Right from the title, we know that the film is about the bride — like its predecessor Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya — where Alia Bhatt channeled her inner Shah Rukh Khan and took the groom away.

Hence, the intended hero of the franchise is the heroine. Since intent does not always translate, let’s continue with the analysis of representation.

Technology

What role does technology have to play in the film’s central conflict? Technology in Badrinath... empowers the girl to get a job in Singapore and be financially independent. It protects the girl when she is kidnapped as dictated by the patriarch who has raised the boy blind to the issue of the girl’s independent identity. The cops are quick to swoop down on the boy and arrest him in a CCTV-patrolled city. He’s a criminal in the civilised world.

Social relations

The film captures the dynamics of gender in the patriarchy-dominated world of Jhansi. The father is the man of the house imposing age-old practices including dowry. The mother is a mute spectator. The brother nurses the angst of lost love by drinking alone every night. His wife makes the best of the worst situation by offering him financial advice on investments. The titular Badri is so smitten by the feisty girl (from the town of IIT-toppers, Kota) that he is willing to cheat his way through the patriarchal system… until the girl makes him grow a spine. Barring the mothers, all the girls of today depicted in the movie have agency.

What is agency? Agency is the person through which power is exerted or an end is achieved. If the girl's sister has the power to choose her groom, the boy's brother's wife secretly calls the shots in the family business, the girl herself has power to walk away from a future she does not want, has agency to say NO to the guy even if she is falling for him and, later, chooses to rescue him from patriarchy.

She shows up at his door the moment he stands up against the father.

Context

The film begins by revealing the dated mindsets of young men in big towns who consider themselves God's gift to women and ends with them taking cognisance of the fact that they are not worthy. The boy’s mindset is the conflict and her true liberation the solution. The behaviour depicted in the film is true to the cultural reality of the region.

Though the film is not afraid to sing and dance with larger-than-life choreography and costumes, it does not employ the artistic licence of the constructed reality to provide quick-fix solutions. The patriarch does not change overnight, as the voice-over at the end informs us. Nor is his approval relevant anymore.

Vikramaditya Motwane in his gritty debut portrays a similar scenario towards the end of the realistic Udaan where the father hits the son who has come of age when he finally decides to stand up for himself. The son slaps him back.

This is not that kind of a movie. Here, director Khaitan makes the son ask to be slapped again because he's not going to change his mind no matter how many times he's slapped. The lack of grittiness here in no way reduces the impact of the outcome because this seems more real to this world.

Gaze and power dynamics

Whose gaze does the film play itself out through? Whose point of view are we seeing?

How does this point of view change in the course of the film?

The film narrated by the hero Badrinath is the journey of a lout. We see the world through his eyes. His family; his world-view; his journey of falling in love; chasing the girl, stalking her and doing everything she wants only to realise she can still reject him; being unable to cope with rejection; resorting to kidnapping out of rage but soon wanting answers out of confusion; understanding the other side; feeling ashamed of himself; realising he is no match for her and letting go; confronting the reality of how the woman of the house is treated; making amends with alcohol for courage; developing a spine; finding the girl of his dreams waiting to give him another chance when he had zero hopes.

Anand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa begins with the gaze of a child who grows up in love with his childhood friend. The girl may have left town, but the child grows up with the same gaze. Even in Raanjhanaa, the girl has the agency to tell him he is wrong to stalk.

There is a scene in Badrinath... where the boy makes his way into a public transport bus to talk to the girl only to be reminded by a male passenger that he is harassing her. Moments into the scene, the girl puts the boy in his place, forcing the boy to complain to the passenger: She's the one harassing me and why aren't you saying anything now?

The filmmaker empowers the heroine by giving her a strong voice — a fitting counter-response to his narrative.

In most films down-South, filmmakers show the hero stalk a girl into submission, offering her no counter-response, voice or agency. That would be representation as endorsement of such behaviour.

But which narrative is the filmmaker endorsing here?

Counter-Narrative

A film usually plays out as a journey of the protagonist who needs to fight his antagonist / for what he stands for. Given that this feminist franchise is all about the heroine as indicated by the title, the story is told from the point of view of the antagonist. The boy is the embodiment of everything wrong with patriarchal upbringing. He stalks, harasses and even kidnaps a girl because he does not know any better. Interpreting him as a hero and thereby accusing the filmmaker of glorifying his action would be as ridiculous as assuming Aamir Khan was the hero in 1947 Earth. Just like how we wouldn't think he is glorifying rape, it’s important to understand the depicted villainy of the antagonist here. His narrative is adequately countered by the heroine's powerful, persuasive counter-response.

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle initially faced similar criticism from a section of critics for making a film where a rape victim chooses to sleep with her rapist. While this might seem ridiculous when examined out of context, the film is about a series of choices the heroine makes when she has agency, even if she didn't one unfortunate night. Even the choice of revenge and the timing for it is hers to make.

Nancy Meyers was in for similar-founded criticism when she made her feminist heroine forgive her cheating partner at the end of The Intern. But we have all seen strong women exercise their right to forgive because it's their choice.

These parameters for studying political communication aren't only to analyse gender conflicts and could also be used to deconstruct representation of religious identity (say, in films like Bombay, Baby or Raees), race (in films such as The Hateful Eight, Hidden Figures or Crash) or sexual identity (the Matrix films, for example).

Studying political communication in films is all about stripping it down to arguments and counter-arguments. And being able to understand how these arguments are resolved. The conflict in the film exists because the likes of Badrinath exist. To tone down his behaviour for political correctness would have not helped address the mindset the film is fighting.

Badrinath... might be plagued with pacing, tonal inconsistencies and staging issues in the second half. But to dismiss it with a “but how can boy get girl” argument is not only reductionist but also symptomatic of a patriarchal mindset on the part of the interpreter — one that undermines the agency the girl has and also unwittingly subscribes to the dated notion of girl as conquest.

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