Amar Kaushik is having sleepless nights. It's not nervousness, but the sound mixing of his latest, the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Bala, that's been keeping him up for the past week. "My sound designer only likes working at night," he explains. The film sees Khurrana attempt to navigate his thorny love life while simultaneously dealing with the stigma of premature balding. Ahead of its release on November 8, Kaushik spoke about combining comedy with a message, the clash with Ujda Chaman and controversy over Bhumi Pednekar's skin tone in the film:
A film exploring what a balding man is going through is a novel idea but there's suddenly been this glut of bald guy movies. Gone Kesh came out this year, Ujda Chaman just released. What is your headspace when you think about this competition?
There's a 2011 Bollywood movie called Hair is Falling, which I just found out about a few days ago. There's a 2017 Kannada film (Ondu Motteya Kathe) that the Ujda Chaman team got the rights of. Before the shoot of Bala started, (Ujda Chaman producer) Kumar Pathak met us and said he had the rights and that we could make the movie together. I watched the original Kannada film and realized it was completely different to what I wanted to make. So we proceeded with the shoot, returned and then found out that that team had started shooting their film 20 days later. We knew from the first day that our films were very different. The only similarity is that both have a bald character. So it wasn't a problem.
Suddenly, they announced the poster and their trailer dropped on the same day. This was a week before ours released. So there was a moment of 'arre yeh kya ho gaya'. But it's alright, the pictures were different. This is (Ujda Chaman director) Abhishek Pathak's debut film. We'd keep messaging each other during the shoot. He'd congratulate me. I felt bad when they said that we'd copied them. How could we copy it when we shot it first? They said it's a South film. But that is so different from what we made. In Bala, we're not only talking about a bald man. The story starts with him but goes much beyond. Everyone has something they're insecure about. The story is about self-love. Like, 'Come fall in love with yourself.'
I started concentrating on the film and giving it finishing touches. The producers were figuring out dates.
When the trailer released, Bhumi Pednekar's artificially darkened skin became a subject of criticism. I know the point of the film is to sensitize audiences to the experiences of dark-skinned people, but don't you think the criticism is justified?
As a filmmaker, I don't cast actors based on their looks. It's not, 'Oh they look like this, let me take them.' It's more, 'Who can play this role superbly?' If that was not the case, then why is Ayushmann in the film and not someone who is actually balding? No one has said that. If I had taken someone who is dark-skinned, people would have said, 'Oh you only took her because the role is of a dark-skinned woman. Otherwise you wouldn't have.' So it's endless. People can say anything, anytime. Bhumi put on so much weight for her first movie and people could've said, 'Why not take someone fat?' But while watching the film, if the actor works, it works. Why would actors be actors otherwise? Just play the people you look like right? Isn't that worse? I look at who suits the role. People criticized Bhumi for (playing a 60-year-old in) Saand Ki Aankh also. But by doing this, you're limiting actors to what they can and can't do.
Aamir Khan did a Coke ad in which he played a Nepali. People could've said, 'Why not take a Nepali instead?' I think actors should act. Everything else comes secondary. Someone can't tell me, 'You're from Kanpur so you should only direct films based in Kanpur.' or 'You've made one comedy so now you can't make a thriller.' That's discriminatory. It's about picking the strongest actor who liked your script. And here, this was Bhumi. We'd put alcohol-based makeup on her twice a day for the part. But when you watch it, you won't think about all this.
Ayushmann's been having a great streak at the movies, especially this year with Article 15 and Dream Girl. Is there added pressure to make sure this streak continues when you're working on a film with him?
That didn't come to mind until you said it – his streak. When we were casting for Bala, Ayushmann fit it perfectly. There was no pressure. I didn't see Ayushmann at all, I just saw Bala. He's great but as long as he's in my movie, he's Bala.
The film is funny but is also trying to sensitize people about premature balding. How do you walk that fine line?
It's like Stree. Stree had comedy but it was also talking about women empowerment. We've tried the same thing here. You can't just label something 'social cause' and try to make the film. In Bala, you'll have fun, see a different setting, get the flavour of Kanpur, but at the same time you'll take away a message.