The storylines of South Indian masala movies have some fairly consistent elements. One is a main, ‘action-y’ plot centered on the hero. Another is a comedic side-plot featuring at least one member, but more often several, of a stable of comedians. Then there is the romantic sub-plot, featuring the heroine. Sometimes the romantic sub-plot is tightly intertwined with the action-y main plot. Other times it is simply there as an excuse for the fourth consistent element of South Indian masala movies – the songs. This formula is given an intriguing twist in the 2011 Telugu film Badrinath starring Allu Arjun and Tamannaah.
In the film Arjun plays Badri, a temple guard assigned to protect the Badrinath temple in the Himalayas. Tamannah plays Alakananda, a young woman who hates God, who is brought to the temple by her grandfather to perform some rites for her deceased parents. When Badri, despite Alakananda’s bratty behaviour toward him, aids in the completion of these rites, Alakananda falls in love with him. Badri, on the other hand, as an extremely pious temple guard, never explicitly returns her affection. The romance is totally one-sided, and accordingly the songs, with one exception, are entirely from Alakananda’s ‘point of view.’ As a result the filmmakers have (unintentionally, I assume) made a movie that privileges female desire.
As is usual, the first song is the ‘hero’s introduction song’ in which Arjun, along with a cast of thousands, sings the praises of the Badrinath temple, and by extension his character, also called Badri. However, the second song comes after Alakananda has gotten wet under a waterfall that, we have been informed, only falls on those who believe in God. Wanting to prove that her love for Badri is true (and the resumption of her belief in God which has accompanied it) Alakananda approaches the waterfall, only to have it retract … then suddenly change course and fall down on her. What follows is, in an astonishing display of mixing the sacred with the profane, one of the most overtly sexual song picturizations in recent memory.
The sacred and profane are contrasted again just before the Interval, when Badri’s guru Bhishma Narayan (played by Prakash Raj) fervently wishes on the Badrinath temple that Badri will succeed him as the (celibate) trainer of the temple guards, at the same time as Alakananda fervently wishes on the Badrinath temple that Badri will become her husband. But before that happens there is the movie’s third song, which begins after Alakananda, picking lotus flowers on a snowy mountain, pretends to slip so Badri will catch her in his arms.
Post-Interval, the songs occur when Alakananda, fearing that Badri has been killed, learns that he is in fact alive, and reverently kisses his bracelet (which she acquired when pretending to slip while picking flowers) …
… when Badri responds to Alakananda’s frantic letter by sending her a bag of dirt from the holy Narayana mountain …
… and finally when Alakananda and Badri are on the train back to Badrinath after Badri has soundly defeated some goons belonging to Alakananda’s uncle.
Of the five songs, Arjun isn’t even physically present in the scenes preceding three of them. So if we accept one of the standard ‘explanations’ for the songs in Indian cinema – that they are an extension of what the characters are feeling at that moment – the songs in Badrinath are clearly about Alakananda’s love of and desire for Badri. Not only that, but the heroine’s desire for the hero wins in the end. When Bhishma Narayan witnesses Alakananda’s passion for Badri, and her threat that if she doesn’t get her wish it will undermine every pilgrim’s faith in God, he gives up his wish to see Badri succeed him, and instead orders Badri to save Alakananda from her criminal Aunt and Uncle once and for all. All Bhishma Narayan asks in return is … their first-born son (I’m not even kidding).
Unfortunately Badrinath did not do well either with movie reviewers or at the box office, which I think is a shame. Although the ‘comedy’ subplot is cringe-worthy, the main plot is the kind of fun, ridiculous story the denizens of Andra seem particularly adept at concocting. And, more than anything, it’s fun to watch a movie that, however unintentionally, privileges female desire, and in which the heroine gets exactly what she wants in the end.