Is Bala the First Hindi Film that Understands the Social Media Habits of Millennials?

Bollywood

Is Bala the First Hindi Film that Understands the Social Media Habits of Millennials?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Two decades after Raj and Simran’s romance blossomed in the boundless expanse of Punjab’s mustard fields in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Balmukund, a small-town sales agent falls in love through a phone screen in Bala. There is perhaps no better encapsulation of the evolution of romance in India: If in 1995, one needed a guitar to serenade their object of affection, then in 2019, all you need is an internet connection.

In Amar Kaushik’s Bala, Balmukund (Ayushmann Khurrana) – nicknamed “Bala” – doesn’t have much going for him. Once the brash school stud whose head full of floppy hair allowed him the luxury to act like he was a Shah Rukh Khan-in-waiting, Bala has now mellowed down. At 25, his head is irritably half-full – a downshot of premature baldness – and his self-confidence half-empty. As the mundanity of life in Kanpur fails to distract him from his insecurities, Bala turns to the internet. There, he stumbles upon Pari (Yami Gautam) on TikTok, lip-syncing to “Yeh Reshmi Zulfein” with the perfected exaggeration of an influencer, and develops a crush.

In the film, Bala and Pari first meet at an ad shoot in Lucknow. The fairness company that Bala works for has signed Pari as its face, hoping to capitalise on her loyal following as sales for the brand. Bala makes a parody out of this fairness cream ad: the shoot is delightfully tacky and Gautam overacts a brand of small-town chirpiness with abandon that mocks the sale of fair skin. In that sense, Pari is Hindi cinema’s first depiction of an influencer – a legitimate profession in this generation – that is, a celebrityhood one notch below the stardom of an actor.

It helps that the makers accord her a backstory that is informed by the country’s socio-cultural realities: For instance, we learn that Pari originally aspired to be an actress, essentially part of a herd of faceless dreamers across India craving to make it big in Bollywood. The impossibility of realising a dream that is out of her means would have presumably rendered Pari insignificant had it not been for the internet. By including TikTok as a part of the narrative, Bala argues for the indispensability of social media in the lives of people like her. On the app, Pari is a star of her own making; her videos rack up thousands of views, translating into the kind of virality that can be easily monetised.

If in 1995, one needed a guitar to serenade their object of affection, then in 2019, all you need is an internet connection.

As of this month, TikTok, an app for creating and sharing short-form lip-synced videos and tutorials, has reached one billion users faster than any other social networking site. In every way imaginable, the popularity of TikTok, launched two years ago, represents the post-Facebook landscape of the internet, readily embraced by an attention-deficit generation hooked to fuss-free video and an overpowering need for instant validation.

bala

By including TikTok as a part of the narrative, Bala argues for the indispensability of social media in the lives of people like Pari.

Maddock Films

In India in particular, the app’s accessibility is paramount in transcending it from being just another social networking site to the preferred outlet for the repressed creativity housed in its small towns. There is inarguably more than one Pari making a living off TikTok in almost every state, city, and town in India, equating the number of likes, comments, and followers their posts receive with their self-worth. That Kaushik, who shot Bala in May this year, seamlessly incorporates an app, which is the language of small-town India, in the film’s narrative is admirable. But what especially merits praise, is how the makers (Bala is written by Niren Bhatt) mine social media as a device and not a distraction. The internet serves a real purpose here: it underlines the aspirations and anxieties of a section of the population as well as highlights its repercussions in their lives. Take Pari for instance, whose inflated ego and shallowness is a direct result of her complicated relationship with social media. In doing so, Bala becomes that rare Hindi film that strives to position the internet as a part of daily life.

In fact, Bala offers possibly the most accurate representation of a generation whose lives are so dependent on apps that their permanent address is the internet. In the film, Bala uses the internet to woo Pari and their courtship is entirely charted through a series of cleverly hilarious TikTok videos. You can sense their intimacy deepening as both Bala and Pari go from dressing up and posting Bollywood dance videos from their individual TikTok accounts to doing viral collaboration videos together from her profile. The attention to detail paid to social media dynamics in Bala is particularly rewarding: One of the hashtags accompanying their TikTok videos is the oft-abused “#couplegoals”. Pari talks of taking a couple selfie that would break the internet on the first night after their marriage, and when she leaves their house after a big fight, Bala goes to a park to record a TikTok video declaring his love to seek forgiveness. These are scenarios that could easily unfold in real life. After all, this is the generation that goes online to fall in love.

There’s another fascinating way the film draws a parallel between social media and validation: Mausi, Latika’s (Bhumi Pednekar) aunt regularly seeks Bala’s help to upload filter-brushed pictures of her on Instagram that make her appear fairer to attract prospective grooms. In an infuriating subplot that defeats its point by casting a fair actor to play a dark-skinned character, this attempt to examine how Instagram filters are routinely deployed to alter our appearances to suit beauty standards, is a silver lining.

It’s impossible to relate to the frantic lives of the younger generation without first understanding their social media habits.

Still, Bala isn’t the first Hindi film to make room for social media in its plot. Yet it stands out, mainly due to how it doesn’t include the internet as mere tokenism – to only be relevant to the younger generation instead of doing justice to the medium. In the last two years itself, films like Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, Chef, and Noor have erroneously used the internet as a statement, meant to earn brownie points, even when they get the mechanisms of social media wrong.

In Bhavesh Joshi for instance, a vigilante video becomes “viral” on YouTube in a matter of seconds despite getting a measly 400 views and earning the ire of Mumbai Police, a scenario so unrealistic that it turns “going viral” into a joke. Similarly, there’s a scene in Noor, where one tweet by its eponymous protagonist (Sonakshi Sinha) is enough for the hashtag included in it to suddenly become a trending topic. A barrage of tweet bubbles appear in the next scene: Apparently the entire country starts tweeting with the same hashtag and Noor is soon credited with starting a digital movement. If that’s how Twitter worked in real life, all of us would have had a blue tick next to our names. In both these films, as is the case with Chef, internet virality is made out to be the bastion of educated, urban, and possibly upper-class protagonists. Bala has an edge in this regard as well: Pari is a small-towner who doesn’t speak perfect English. Moreover, the film’s choice of social networking site also allows it the luxury to break the myth that popularity on the internet is dictated solely by wealth or educational qualifications.

Then there are the Hindi films that peddle a dated approach of social media: The internet is seen as a last-resort medium that is relied upon only when real life disappoints. In Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge, the film’s two leads bond on Facebook under false identities and this duplicity seems to imply that forming a real connection on the website is somehow impossible. And in Qarib Qarib Singlle, the only Hindi film to outrightly reference dating apps, the film’s middle-aged, single protagonists only get on the app after they’ve exhausted every other option.

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Gully Boy, a film and an origin story that exists solely because of the wide reach and appetite of the internet, is a testament to how tethered millennial lives and fate are to the world that exists online.

Excel Entertainment

Bala can also be distinguished from the few Hindi films that have accurately represented social media on account of the extended screen time that it affords it. In Masaan, Manmarziyaan, and No Fathers in Kashmir, three films that use friend requests on Facebook as an indicator of mutual interest, the internet is cast in a blink and miss appearance, occurring as a sub-plot rather than its own protagonist. Look no further than Gully Boy, a film and an origin story that exists solely because of the wide reach and appetite of the internet, as a testament to how tethered millennial lives and fate are to the world that exists online. In a way then, Bala makes a compelling argument: It’s impossible to relate to the frantic lives of the younger generation without first understanding their social media habits.

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