Bawaal Movie Review: Trivializes An Unimaginable Horror

Bawaal Movie Review: Trivializes An Unimaginable Horror

Director: Nitesh Tiwari

Writers: Nitesh Tiwari, Piyush Gupta, Nikhil Mehrotra, Shreyas Jain, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Janhvi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Anjuman Saxena, Mukesh Tiwari, Gunjan Joshi

Runtime: 136 minutes

Available on: Prime Video

Twice in Bawaal, Varun Dhawan playing a Lucknow school teacher named Ajay, tells other characters – idea thoda krantikari hai, thoda open mind se sun na. I suspect he is a stand-in for director Nitesh Tiwari instructing us viewers. Because this film, based on a story by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and written by Nitesh, Ashwiny, Piyush Gupta, Nikhil Mehrotra and Shreyas Jain, definitely needs an open mind.

Warning: this review comes with spoilers

Bawaal is about the coming-of-age of Ajay, lovingly called Ajju Bhaiya, via World War II. This is the krantikari idea. Ajju bhaiya is a puffed-up peacock whose deep insecurities, gargantuan frustrations and largely mundane life is camouflaged by a larger-than-life image. He shops more than his paycheck allows, rides his Bullet with the swag of Shah Rukh Khan making his entry on the Marine Drive flyover in Deewana, and tells outrageous lies to sustain his persona. Ajay’s motto is: mahaul aisa banao ki logon ko mahaul yaad rahe, result nahi. Even when Ajay marries, he chooses a bride with an eye on the optics. When Nisha tells him that she suffers from epileptic fits, he overlooks it because she ticks all the right boxes – she’s pretty, smart and her father is a businessman.

But the marriage sours early on because Ajay discovers that he has no ability to actually deal with Nisha’s condition – he is in fact ashamed that his wife is, as he puts it, a defective piece. In short, Ajay is a supreme A-hole. And yet, Nisha sticks around. A voice-over tells us that before this arranged marriage, Nisha was independent and outgoing. But we see little evidence of that. For nine months, she meekly tries to get Ajay to like her. He’s selfish, rude, emotionally abusive. But she keeps hoping he will come around. When her mother suggests divorce, she says she still has hope she can make this marriage work. Why? I have no clue but this isn’t the biggest mystery in Bawaal.

A Bizarre Journey through World War II Europe

What happens next is even more bizarre. A contrived chain of events lead to Ajay and Nisha traveling through Europe together. They go to some of the key locations of World War II – starting in Paris and ending in Auschwitz. Ajay is using this tour to teach his students online as a way to save his job. He is a history teacher who is so inept that at the beginning of the film, he asks a student – Hitler ne kya kiya tha? But he hasn’t embarked on this tour to fix these glaring gaps in knowledge. Instead, this entire World War II Europe trip is to make a mahaul and keep the image intact. But as Ajay comes to understand the enormity of human suffering and confront the horrors of Nazi Germany, he re-evaluates his entire life and becomes a better human being.

Bawaal Requires a Giant Suspension of Disbelief

Bawaal doesn’t just need an open mind. It also requires a giant suspension of disbelief, enormous patience and faith that Nitesh, the filmmaker who gave us Dangal, will find a way to make this preposterous material work. But even he can’t do it. Bawaal is an epic misfire. Nitesh’s superpower is his writing skills – consider his work in Dangal, Chhichhore and Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly ki Barfi, both of which Ashwiny directed. But here he and his four co-writers stumble badly. Which also proves my pet thesis that the more writers there are on a film, the more of a mess it is. This inherently flawed narrative is sabotaged further with lame humor – there is a running joke involving a group of Gujarati men who Nisha and Ajay keep running into as though Europe is in fact a large Mumbai suburb. Of course, khakra and dhokla feature.
But the deepest fault line is the Hitler thread. Hitler’s anti-Semitism and his diabolical ‘Final Solution’ was responsible for the death of approximately six million Jews. His terrifying ideology about ethnic purity and the supremacy of the Aryan race devastated humanity.

Bawaal Trivializes an Unimaginable Horror

Bawaal uses this monstrous historical figure to teach us basic lessons about human greed, and the importance of being truthful and resetting priorities. At one point, Nisha says: Hum sab bhi toh tohde bhaut Hitler jaise ha na? Jo apne paas hai usse khush nahi hain. Joh doosre ke paas has woh chahiye. Bawaal is essentially a Hallmark greeting card featuring Hitler. Nitesh, perhaps inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, stages, in black and white, key scenes from World War 2 and at one point, Ajay and Nisha are re-imagined as prisoners in Auschwitz. This looks and feels wrong on so many levels and then we get this line – har relationship apne, apne Auschwitz se guzarta hai. Tab jaake hume uss rishte ki ahimayat samajh mein aati hai. Over a million people were murdered in Auschwitz. Bawaal trivializes this unimaginable horror. The Holocaust is conflated with strife in a relationship. Honestly, it’s dumbfounding.

Props to Varun for taking on an unlikeable character who needs to relive a cataclysmic event before he becomes a sentient, sensitive human being. Both him and Janhvi bring belief and sincerity to their performances. She has much less to work with and yet Nisha isn’t pure cardboard. There is a grace and empathy about her. But the actors can’t salvage the material. Both strain for poignance but the situations these characters are placed in defeat them.

Missed Opportunity

There are flashes when you see Nitesh’s flair for constructing emotion and his ability to find the absurd humor in daily life. There’s a lovely scene in which Ajju comes home drunk. His parents, played by the wonderful Manoj Pahwa and Anjuman Saxena, respond with a mix of exasperation and support. It gives you a glimpse of what this film could have been.  As does the interaction between Nisha and her mother when her mother tells her to come home. Or the back and forth between Ajay and his bestie Bipin, played with warmth and wit by Pratiek Pachori. I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere in there was a better film.

Bawaal Movie Review by Anupama Chopra

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