Bawaal Movie Review: World War II Keeps An Indian Marriage Together in 2023

Directed by Nitesh Tiwari, this film stars Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor as an unhappily married couple who need the Holocaust to bring them together
Bawaal Movie Review: World War II Keeps An Indian Marriage Together in 2023
Bawaal Movie Review: World War II Keeps An Indian Marriage Together in 2023

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

In Bawaal, Adolf Hitler saves a crumbling marriage. No, this is not an irreverent dramedy directed by Taika Waititi. No, this is not a subversive Holocaust love story. No, this is not a provocative revisionist thriller made by Quentin Tarantino. No, this is not even a sneaky social satire about Hitler magically waking up in the 21st century and becoming a celebrity for his ‘refreshing’ takes on modern-day issues (this film already exists: The 2015 German comedy Look Who’s Back). Bawaal is none of that. What it is, though, is unbelievable – and I don’t mean this in a positive sense. It just beggars belief. For those of you who haven’t seen the trailer, the premise will keep thwarting you, like an annoying kid who literally turns out to be an annoying kid and not some narrative metaphor for man-child tropes. 

Because Bawaal is the most mystifying manifestation of ‘Hitler saves a marriage’. A middle-class Indian couple learns about World War II on their European holiday only to realize, “Hey, maybe there’s a Hitler in all of us, because he was never satisfied with what he had and neither are we.” And that “every relationship goes through their Auschwitz” (their words, not mine). And that today’s petty marital troubles pale in the face of the terror experienced by millions of Jewish couples in the 1940s. And that we have no business being mean to each other after seeing a sole Auschwitz survivor regretting the fact that he was a bad husband until they were torn apart at a concentration camp. (This scene tarnished my memories of Aamir Khan’s character getting transformed while watching the opera singer in Dil Chahta Hai (2001)). And that we millennials have no right to waste the space given to us when Anne Frank spent months cooped up in a tiny Amsterdam annex. 

Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor in Bawaal
Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor in Bawaal

The Bawaal is in the Writing

Ah, the cinema of perspective. Where would storytellers go if there was no history to humble them? What would we do if there were no murderous dictators and wars to trivialise? How would we normalise toxic marriages and men if there were no horrific genocides to compare them with? By that yardstick, if not for the likes of Hitler, we would be such loveless and witless people. If not for the madness he unleashed, we would still be a planet teeming with fascism and violence and intolerance. If not for the tragedy he constructed, we would never have known to neglect our littler tragedies and turn our ignorance into bliss. If not for his evil, the world would never be such a peaceful and content place. Bawaal’s logic, not mine.

I’m tempted to say that the first half of Bawaal is watchable. But it’s impossible to judge it in isolation after the second half reveals the tone-deafness of the film. It opens harmlessly enough in Lucknow, with an image-obsessed loafer named Ajay (Varun Dhawan) phoning it in as a primary-school history teacher. He believes in creating a “mahaul” (an aura or atmosphere) that distracts from the actual result (a bit like the Indian cricket team at ICC tournaments?). Ajay is also a typical Varun Dhawan character: He is introduced as a guy so nasty and immature – yet naively capable of change – that the entire story serves his boyish transformation into a wiser fool. Bawaal goes overboard in setting this stage. 

Ten minutes in, we see that he’s already unhappily married to a woman named Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor) – I like that she appears at the corner of a frame, like an invisible entity – who he hides away in his family home. Theirs is an arranged marriage, but he is ashamed of her because she has epilepsy; her fits might ruin his reputation. I will admit that the absurd parallels to Hitler and his concentration camps (Nisha lives like a prisoner; Ajay, a local legend and hollow teacher, calls her “defective”) aren’t immediately obvious. But when these do dawn upon us, all of Dhawan’s cute Govinda-style comedy loses its allure (like the time he decides to feign swagger only to be the first passenger pulled up by French Customs officials). Ajay drinks every night because he knows he’s a fraud, he knows he’s fooling himself more than others, and he is frighteningly self-aware for a narcissistic doofus. 

Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor in Bawaal
Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor in Bawaal

Fake it Till You Make — But in Europe

Now comes the clincher. Ajay is suspended for slapping a politician’s son in class. He conceives the most roundabout idea to rescue his image. It’s a minor miracle that this plan was passed at a script level. At this point, it’s unclear whether the film is serious or spoofy, so I suppose anything goes. He convinces his father (Manoj Pahwa, whose opening voiceover is the best performance of the film) to splurge on a belated European honeymoon for Nisha and him, under the pretext of personally going to World War II places of interest to livestream his lessons to his students. Ajay’s point is that his students will never understand this chapter of history unless he lives and feels it enough to tutor them. Read that again. It happens.

So Ajay reluctantly takes Nisha along to make the ‘trip’ look more authentic. His itinerary is Paris-Normandy-Amsterdam-Berlin-Auschwitz. The couple soon bond because he discovers that she travels better than he does. And wherever they go, she recites the events of that city – and he broadcasts said lessons – as if they were clunky infomercials made by the very kids he claims to care for. I’ve been on free walking tours in Berlin that have better narrative and production value than the exchanges between Ajay and Nisha in Bawaal

As a budget travel enthusiast myself, it’s amusing to see Ajay convert Euros into rupees in his head, or getting appalled at how expensive a taxi ride is. There are times the film could’ve settled for being that Queen-like coming-of-age drama; a self-reckoning shaped by tourist dread is a worthy theme. But as a World War nerd, it’s hard not to get offended by the basic nonsense Ajay spouts in the name of online teaching. 

How Nazi Fury Triggers Marital Bliss

However, the real horror is the present-meets-past device. We saw Rang De Basanti (2006) marry the two India(s) through this device, where modern students reimagined themselves as freedom-fighting revolutionaries in the face of political oppression. But Bawaal makes a mockery of this gimmick. When Ajay steps onto the beaches of Normandy, he first asks a fellow tourist where the shacks and food are. Then the screen transitions to stark black-and-white, and places a suddenly-emotional Ajay into the chaos and bloodshed of the Battle of Normandy. (If you listen closely, you’ll hear Dunkirk (2017) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) blushing in embarrassment). This tone reaches its nadir at the concentration camps outside Krakow, where Ajay grows feelings for Nisha by envisioning them trapped in a gas chamber among dying Jewish prisoners. It looks worse than it sounds. 

There’s also a running gag of Ajay mistakenly switching bags with a Gujarati man at Paris airport. Ajay is forced to wear embroidered shirts and tight jeans for the journey, while the Gujarati chap is sick of wearing ordinary t-shirts meant to accentuate Ajay’s chiselled body. It’s funny for a bit, especially the low-hanging-fruit scene of the man breaking into garba the second he reclaims his luggage (and vegetarian snacks). 

But the gag is stretched further, making me wonder why a bag plays such a big role. My question is answered in the most cringe-inducing manner. The bag exists solely so that the film can arrive at a moment where Ajay imagines packing his entire life into the suitcase in five minutes, the way Jewish families had to when the Nazis came knocking. Our intrepid hero is rushed by two German-speaking guards, but all he can pack is travel souvenirs and Nisha’s portraits – illustrating that he has fallen in love with his wife after ill-treating and humiliating her for ten months. Nothing like Nazi fury to trigger an epiphany, am I right? Lest I forget, back in Lucknow, the politician (Mukesh Tiwari) has decided to subject the students to a surprise test to see if they’ve learned anything from Ajay’s inventive methods (which unwittingly includes a video uploaded by Nisha of the two of them tipsy-dancing after a happy-hour binge). Talk about out-of-syllabus papers. Ajay returns like a soldier from war – everyone staring at him in awe while he goes around shaking hands – which further feeds the film’s total sense of oblivion. 

Bawaal is such a clear-eyed misfire that it’s making me reconsider my enjoyment of Chhichhore (2019), director Nitesh Tiwari’s previous film. The signs were there. The story of a married-but-separated couple reuniting to ‘cheer up’ their suicidal son now feels like a downgrade of peer pressure, mental health issues and dysfunctional families. It’s an entertaining film, but the sight of the parents’ college friends arriving to narrate their own campus adventures in order to put the child’s struggles into context – ah, the cinema of perspective – is a little disconcerting today. I’m surprised I didn’t see it then, but perhaps the ‘mahaul’ Ajay boasts of is a parable for mainstream accessibility. We often tend to think: At least the movie is addressing difficult things, so what if it’s messy and insensitive? Thanks to Bawaal, however, I’m an enlightened moviegoer. A film teaching us to appreciate things through the relativity of hindsight has convinced me to criticise things through relative hindsight. You can’t say Bawaal is a bad teacher, after all. This is not an education I will forget.

Watch Bawaal Movie Trailer

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