Synopsis – It tells the story of a man who is balding prematurely and how he copes up with the situation.
My Take – I think we all can agree that Ayushmann Khurrana is on roll, hence there is no denying of the fact that his latest was also keenly awaited, especially considering it got him paired with director Amar Kaushik who delivered a massive hit last year in the form of the horror comedy, Stree.
While this latest venture has been generating heavy buzz due to its promising trailer and exciting soundtrack, it also found itself in controversy due to its clashing release date with a similarly themed yet comparatively smaller film, Ujda Chaman, which released last week to mixed results.
While naysayers predicted that due the familiarity of theme, Ayushmann‘s success story would finally hit a roadblock, now, having seen both the film, I would like to contest otherwise. Mainly as the film is a much better take on the sensitive topic, and all the while manages to keep its emotions and content at the right place. Here, director Kaushik who despite walking a tight rope along topics like complex gender, class and issues of colorism, exudes a familiarity and a warmth, and channels it to bring forth the country’s obsession with perfection.
Sure, the film has its flaws, but unlike Ujda Chaman, it uses writer Niren Bhatt‘s clever and subversive screenplay to stir around such issues by focusing on its much needed social message about accepting oneself.
The story follows Balmukund Shukla aka Bala (Ayushmann Khurrana), who used to be a popular kid in his school days, mainly due to his mimicry skills, good looks and silky hair. Bala was so proud of his personality that he never hesitated to make fun of his bald teacher and his dark-complexioned classmate, Latika Trivedi (Bhumi Pednekar), in front of the entire school.
However, by his twenties, mainly due to suffering from premature balding, his self-confidence is crushed. His girlfriend of 15 years has left him and he has even been demoted in his marketing job of selling fairness cream, as they are looking for more presentable personality for their products. While his family and friends encourage and support him in experimenting with every orthodox method available, he eventually gives in to wearing a wig, gifted by his father (Saurabh Shukla), who Bala blames for his faulty genes.
With a newer look, Bala gains a certain relief and confidence which eventually leads him into approaching Pari Mishra (Yami Gautam), a drop dead gorgeous TikTok sensation, who immediately falls in love with him, but remains concealed to the truth about his hair patch.
Weirdly like Ayushmann‘s other release this year, Dream Girl, this film too is deliberately peppered with Bollywood tropes, Hindi film references, exaggerated and melodramatic Hindi film dialogues and an ending that subverts the Bollywood template to set bold new ground rules. From using TikTok as a device to show a 90s style romance between Bala and Pari to invoking Amitabh Bachchan during a serious life crisis, this is a Bollywood film that adores Bollywood but also quietly critiques it.
However, the film’s biggest strength is its writing, which is sharp, intelligent and contemporary. Filled with joyous, wonderful one-liners and a loud and eccentric universe, the film recognizes the differences and focuses on the specifics of the Kanpur-Lucknow slang and while it has no room for subtlety, it paints a wildly entertaining portrait of small-town India.
However, the best thing about the film is that it never makes the content look smaller than the entertainment. From the societal standards of beauty to gender stereotypes, the film fights several taboo topics and that too without compromising on the laughter. The makers have made the film with the empathy it requires to deal with such topics sans being awkward and hurting anyone’s sentiments.
With powerful scenes such as when Bala’s friend Bachchan (Jaaved Jaaferi) points out to that India is a patriarchal society where the flaws of a man are ignored but women are taunted for their shortcomings their entire life. Here, director Kaushik also draws parallels between the difficulties faced by balding men and dark-complexioned women in India.
It’s not the most equal of comparisons, but the film does well to show the straightforward cruelty and discrimination that society sanctions in both cases. For example, Latika is a tough-minded lawyer and has been hearing jibes about her skin color, since she was a child, and has been limiting her marriage prospects now. But Latika remains strong-willed and comfortable in her skin and fiercely dismissive of efforts to hurt her self-esteem.
What’s most enjoyable here is the autonomy given to both the female leads. They are not forced to comply with the societal norms and come out as individuals who have their brains and know what they want from their lives. The unconventional climax adds to the film’s appeal, which otherwise straddles between familiar and unfamiliar.
There is no doubt that this one is quite enjoyable, but it does come with a major flaw. That being especially how the film handled the character of Latika, which is basically Bhumi Pednekar with a blackface. Even though, Pednekar gives in yet another compelling performance, turning her, a fair-skinned girl into a dark-skinned one turned ought to be a weirdly self-defeating move for a film to say all skin tones are beautiful and then casts an actor who everyone knows is significantly fairer than what she’s shown to be. The makers should have opted for an actress whose complexion matched the character requirement.
Performance wise, Ayushmann Khurrana, who continues to be one of the few Hindi actors willing to play unlikable losers, portrays the insecurity of the protagonist with aplomb. He is fantastic in every frame whether it is emotional or a comedy sequence. Yami Gautam too is excellent here, and takes it a notch up with her comic timing and makes her character’s straightforward shallowness into something appealing.
In supporting roles, Saurabh Shukla, Seema Pahwa, Javed Jaffrey and Abhishek Banerjee are as always fantastic. On the whole, ‘Bala’ is an enjoyable social drama, turned up a notch due to its relevant message, situational humor and delightful performances.
Directed – Amar Kaushik
Rated – PG
Run Time – 133 minutes