Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Writer: Amit Joshi
Cast: Tamannaah Bhatia, Sahil Vaid, Saurabh Shukla
There’s something in the air of Asola-Fatehpur Beri, on the outskirts of Delhi. These twin urban villages are known for being the birthplace of bouncers, but that’s not the point of concern. In director Madhur Bhandarkar’s film Babli Bouncer, the residents of Asola-Fatehpur Beri are all suffering from mass delusion. When they look at Babli — a pink-cheeked, bright-eyed Tamannaah Bhatia — they declare she’s unmarriageable because she’s not womanly enough when in fact, Bhatia is the epitome of north Indian, feminine beauty. The only difference between Babli and Bhatia’s other on-screen appearances is that Babli looks healthy, rather than petite. Apparently, that’s all it takes for a woman to be knocked off the pedestal of desirable femininity. Also burping. (Fun fact: Babli is the only person we hear burp in the entire film. Even though her burps are presented as proof of her masculinity — irritable bowel syndrome would have been more convincing — not one man in Babli Bouncer expels gas audibly.)
This is only the first of an entire plot full of missteps. Over two hours, Bhandarkar subjects us to a story that see-saws between dull and offensive. Babli Bouncer has been touted as a film that celebrates an independent, strong woman. It’s actually about a woman who needs men to show her what to do with her life. You know that saying about a woman being behind every successful man? In Babli’s case, it’s four men. Her father (Saurabh Shukla) supports all her decisions, defending Babli against everyone from his wife to the entire village. Kukku (Sahil Vaid), who has a crush on her, finds her a job as a bouncer when she decides she wants a career. And why does Babli want a career? She doesn’t really. She just wants a legitimate excuse to go to the capital because she met a dude from Delhi at a wedding, and fell for him.
As a one-liner, it’s easy to see why Babli Bouncer would seem exciting because it does have the potential. However, writer Amit Joshi fails to build on that premise and Bhandarkar’s directorial vision can only be described as myopic. It’s mystifying that anyone read this script and thought it had the makings of an enjoyable comedy. Practically all of what passes as humour in Babli Bouncer is at the heroine’s expense and Joshi’s jokes are classic examples of punching down. Joshi’s script makes fun of Babli as the village belle by mocking her dress sense (even though her wardrobe looks fine), highlighting her ignorance of foreign food, and playing her vernacular accent as a punchline. These are stale jokes that have been played on the loop for more than four decades in Bollywood. It doesn’t help that they’re terribly written. When she hears someone order edamame rice at a restaurant, Babli asks, “Kiski mummy?” An example of her ‘earthy’ awesomeness is that when she’s accompanying a man who’s had a heart attack to the hospital, she tells him an entirely forgettable story about her buffalo. Allegedly, it kept him awake. The same can’t be said for the story Bhandarkar and Joshi tell in Babli Bouncer.
Bhandarkar is known for setting films in interesting worlds, only to strip the story of complexities and present it as a simplistic morality tale. The world according to Bhandarkar is one drawn in broad strokes and it invariably offers the reassurance that your worst, unfounded suspicions are true. Babli Bouncer sticks to this formula. The village is the site of virtuous goodness while the city is the centre of all vices. This is a hilarious reimagining when you consider the violently conservative misogyny that characterises real-life, rural Haryana. The freedom that the city offers women is depicted as a corrupting factor. Although our heroine has the moral spine to resist temptation, we’re shown others who embody urbane vice. Middle-aged women go to bars and make a scene to avoid paying their bill, confident they can get away with such stunts because their femininity will act as armour. Young women in shiny clothes lose their common sense when they’re tipsy. Sleazy men with eye-popping stares go around sharing joints in a smoking room, unperturbed by the bouncers in the bar. Cocaine also works on city women much like gripe water did on babies back in the day. Accuracy and realism should not be expected from a film that has obviously taken its cue from Nineties’ Bollywood, but there’s an alarming eagerness to pander to stereotypes in Babli Bouncer. In a film that’s almost two hours long, there’s not one insight. Instead, it’s packed with tired clichés.
Babli is neither the conscience of this decadent world, as Konkona Sen Sharma’s Madhvi was in Page 3 (2005), nor is she its prey the way the models were in Fashion (2008). She’s the lens through which we glimpse Bhandarkar’s vision of Delhi nightlife, but there’s no conflict to anchor Babli to the story. She gets whatever she needs, whenever she needs it. Whether it’s a job in Delhi or a few men to beat up, the universe serves it to her on a platter. The only obstacle in her life is that she can’t make round rotis and — spoiler alert — by the end of the film, Babli’s rotis are shaped like a perfect zero.
It’s difficult to fault Bhatia for not making Babli feel more interesting when the role is written so poorly. However, even though her character goes on a journey — literally and figuratively — Bhatia fails to depict any changes in Babli. From her body language to her wardrobe, everything remains the same throughout the film. Ultimately, Kukku is more memorable than Babli because Vaid highlights the learning curve that his character has. From a man who’s confident that he can get whatever he wants — thanks, patriarchy — Kukku learns to accept reversals. He discovers friendship, he solves situations with his wits rather than his muscles, and even manages to seem charming despite the abysmally-lazy writing. By the end of the film, the script is so disinterested in the story it is telling that we don’t even find out how a climactic fight between Babli and four men actually ended. One moment, Babli’s fainting because she’s been whacked on her head. The next moment, she wakes up in a bed and says she’s hungry, having seemingly forgotten all about the night before.
To be fair, that’s about as memorable as Babli Bouncer is too.
Babli Bouncer is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.