Director: Amar Kaushik
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Yami Gautam
The Ayushmann Khurrana social message movie is now a bonafide Bollywood sub-genre. In film after film, the actor, usually playing a middle-class, small-town character, tackles subjects that are considered risky and risqué for the traditionally wholesome world of Hindi cinema. He started with sperm donation in Vicky Donor and seems to be working through all types of societal issues. Bala is about lookism, defined as prejudice or discrimination based on physical appearance.
Bala is a balding 25-year-old living in Kanpur. He was named Balmukund because of his hair but now, the lustrous locks are transforming into a receding hairline. He is, as he puts it, going from Shah Rukh Khan to Anupam Kher. Anyone who has woken up with hair on the pillow will relate to Bala’s hyperventilating anguish. As his strands decrease, his attempts to hold on to them become even more desperate. We get a hilarious, nicely crafted sequence in which Bala explores every remedy – from hair transplants to a mixture of cow dung and semen. His hapless brother has the job of applying these concoctions. Dheerendra Kumar Gautam who plays him is bang on. As are Saurabh Shukla and Sunita Rajwar as Bala’s parents.
Director Amar Kaushik gets these details exactly right – Bala’s affectionate but argumentative family, the comically contentious relationship between his father and his maternal grandfather whose house they live in, the obsession with Bollywood and Tik Tok, the narrow streets in which a wedding band plays ‘Tequila’, and the accents, aspirations and mannerisms of small-town India. Writer Niren Bhatt mines the material for both emotion and humor. His stand-out creation is Pari, Lucknow’s Tik Tok queen, played with empathy and insight by the lovely Yami Gautam. In one of the film’s best scenes, Pari explains to Bala why good looks have always been her priority because her sense of self is based on likes and comments on social media. Her words hit hard. Because in varying degrees, all our lives have been hollowed out by the same endless projection. Pari and Bala’s relationship is played out on Tik Tok – in a memorable montage, they redo 90s chartbusters.
There is enough to enjoy here and yet Bala doesn’t land with the sophistication and satisfaction of Amar’s first film – Stree. Largely because the writing doesn’t have that subversion and cleverness. Stree also grappled with important issues but the film didn’t hit you on the head with it. Bala is more simplistic and on-the-nose. A running voiceover by Vijay Raaz explains to us what we are seeing. His addition to any film makes me happy but did we really need someone to say: Kismat hi sulabh shauchaalya jaisi hai.
Ayushmann isn’t afraid to look foolish and unheroic. We laugh both at Bala and with him. But I do wonder if after so many films, the act of being different has also become somewhat formulaic
Bala also tries to do too much – Bhumi Pednekar, painted many shades darker, is Bala’s childhood friend Latika. Latika is Kanpur’s woke activist. She’s in the film to teach us why our obsession with fair skin is a terrible thing. Ironically, the color on Bhumi’s face is so distracting that this moral gets lost. I think filmmakers should have the freedom to cast who they want but here Bhumi’s talent is misplaced. Moreover, her track is half-baked – it seems to be stitched in only so her character could deliver the messaging.
Ayushmann, as always, is affable and relatable as Bala. With a refreshing lack of vanity, he nails the extreme insecurity and trauma of balding. Ayushmann isn’t afraid to look foolish and unheroic. We laugh both at Bala and with him. But I do wonder if after so many films, the act of being different has also become somewhat formulaic. Seema Pahwa and Abhishek Banerjee are similarly dependable but their characters feel familiar. There just isn’t enough surprise here.
Bala is an aspiring stand-up comic. He entertains people by mimicking Bollywood stars, especially Shah Rukh Khan. This film is like his act – fun in places, flat in others and not enough sticks.