Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Bala: Review

Ayushmann Khurrana has steadily been making his way up the body in his efforts to expose the frailties of the modern Indian male. He started below the waist with Vicky Donor, reached the heart in Meri Pyaari Bindu and Bareilly Ki Barfi, down again for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, before heading back up, all the way to the vocal chords, in Dream Girl. Now, with Bala, he’s reached the northernmost bastion of male insecurity.

Hair – in particular, its absence – is the unusual subject of Amar Kaushik’s film. Khurrana plays Balmukund Shukla, a fairness products sales agent in Kanpur, whose fortunes in the follicle department have taken a tragic turn. Once he had floppy, wavy hair that made him a school favourite. At 25, it’s down to a few wispy strands and Bala is desperate for a solution, his litany of home remedies starting with herbal oil massages and getting progressively disgusting from there.

When it all fails, Bala takes the extreme step of wearing a wig. This turns him from an irritable nebbish into a confident charmer – a funny transformation, though without the comic punch of Rajkummar Rao breaking bad, under Khurrana’s tutelage, in Bareilly Ki Barfi. He uses his talent for movie star mimicry to win the affections of Tik-Tok star Pari (Yami Gautam). Soon, they’re talking about getting married, even as he wonders how he’ll tell his supermodel fiancĂ©e the truth.

Kaushik draws parallels between the difficulties faced by balding men and dark-complexioned women in India. It’s not the most equal of comparisons – there are, after all, solutions to hair loss, even if they don’t work for Bala – but the film does well to show the straightforward cruelty and discrimination that society sanctions in both cases. Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), a tough-minded lawyer, has been hearing jibes about her skin colour (from classmate Bala as well) since she was a child. It’s limiting her marriage prospects now (not that she cares), just as Bala’s baldness is hampering his.

Latika is a strong-willed person, comfortable in her skin and fiercely dismissive of efforts to hurt her self-esteem. The problem, though, is that Pednekar is playing her practically in blackface. It’s a weirdly self-defeating move for a film to say all skin tones are beautiful and then cast an actor who everyone knows is significantly fairer than what she's shown to be. It’s the perennial Hindi film problem: they want the issue, not the actual representation. The cherry on top: in 2012, Yami Gautam featured in a fairness cream ad.

Gautam is excellent, though, turning her character’s straightforward shallowness into something appealing. Pari places a huge premium of outward appearances – my looks are all I have, she tells Bala – which is why it’s such a huge betrayal when her husband’s true face is laid bare before her. Gautam’s reaction in that moment is masterful, a mixture of comic incomprehension, creeping horror, hurt and anger.

Khurrana continues to be one of the few Hindi actors willing to play unlikable losers. He mixes that up with wig-wearing hero here, but it’s Bala's insecurities that make for the best scenes, like when he explodes at his father (a tremendous Saurabh Shukla) for passing on baldness and diabetes to him. It’s a pity his films are turning preachy – he has a knack for moral confusion and weakness that’s at odds with the bland certitude expected of movie leads.

In his first film as director, last year’s surprise hit Stree, Kaushik showed he had an ear for sonorous writing and the rhythms of life in Tier II towns. His delight in language continues here – ‘lolup’ gives him such a kick it turns up again in the next line (the screenplay is by Niren Bhatt). Like Stree, this is a strong comic ensemble, Khurrana and Gautam supported by Shukla, Seema Pawha (sporting a moustache for some reason), Abhishek Banerjee (so adept he almost slips the breathtakingly racist “Malinga cut" line past you), and Javed Jaffrey, coming out tops in a scene with duelling Bachchan imitations. But whenever Pednekar is onscreen, things fall apart. The central quandary is that Bala would have seemed skewed and farcical with only male baldness to concentrate on. It needs the skin colour scenes – but it really didn’t need the blackface.

This review appeared in Mint.

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