By Poulomi Das Nov. 08, 2019
Despite its glaring flaws, Amar Kaushik's Bala stands out for packaging its grand ideas in the language of small-town India. The film underlines how incapable men are to withstand the cruelties of unreasonable beauty standards that they have heaped on women for centuries.
Amar Kaushik’s Bala is modelled primarily on everything that worked in Amar Kaushik’s Stree, a film whose unprecedented success catapulted him into a feted category of breakout directors.
Similar to last year’s horror comedy, at the centre of Bala’s proceedings is a confidently meek man from small-town India wrestling his insecurities to land a shot at love. The film’s writing (screenplay and dialogues are by Niren Bhatt) lends itself to a similar observation specific comedy that flits between slapstick one-liners and mining humour from helpless situations. Its lead is Ayushmann Khurrana, practically a fraternal twin of Rajkummar Rao (both actors have carved their own syntax in mainstream Hindi cinema). Aparshakti Khurrana and Abhishek Banerjee, the duo responsible for much of Stree’s laughs show up in Bala. Like in Stree, even here, the combined efficiency of the excellent supporting cast – Saurabh Shukla, Seema Pahwa (sporting an inexplicably horrid moustache), and Javed Jaffrey – make the film work.
In the universe of Bala, these additions have largely delightful upshots, although their novelty is diluted by how evidently they come across as repetitions. This templatisation reveal something crucial: Hindi filmmakers are far more willing to adopt shortcuts to replicate the 100-crore response that met a previously successful film than in wholeheartedly investing themselves to imbibe the originality that caused it. It’s probably why much of Bala has a seen-before filter to it. The film’s plot about premature baldness shares similarities with Ujda Chaman and Gone Kesh, two other releases of the year. Its larger theme of self-acceptance isn’t the most fresh takeaway in 2019. The joyful camaraderie between Banerjee and Khurrana – especially the scenes in the neighbourhood barber shop – remind you of Shah Rukh Khan and Vinay Pathak from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. And Khurrana’s casting, although apt, naturally comes with its own hangover of an earlier Khurrana performance.
Set in Kanpur, the film revolves around 25-year-old Balmukund Shivkumar (Khurrana) – nicknamed Bala – a sales agent who sells fairness creams to dark-skinned women. Ironically, Bala himself is shackled by worries of inadequacy: His neighbourhood charmer status, once reliant on his head full of floppy hair, is on the wane as he starts developing bald spots and retreating into a shell.
There is something unimaginably tender about how Khurrana, a self-assured actor, goes about playing Bala’s unlikeability, even tempering his bouts of cockiness with a lining of helplessness. Desperate to divorce his “loser” status, Bala embraces questionable remedies, which include raw onions, egg yolks, and even cow dung, but when they fail to have any effect on his hair follicles, he takes to wearing a wig. Trouble starts when he falls in love with Pari (a sensational Yami Gautam), a supermodel who profits off her looks as a TikTok influencer in Lucknow. Even as they plan to get married, he continues hiding the truth about himself from her, a deceit that forms the crux of the film’s conflict.
Bala is at its strongest when it takes a jab at Bollywood for dumping expectations of aspirational masculinity on middle-class Indian men.
Bala is not the first film to tackle the fragility of small-town Indian masculinity (Khurrana’s whole filmography is a worthy rival) and given Hindi cinema’s predilection towards social messaging, it certainly won’t be the last to do so. But in the same fashion as the underrated Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Bala stands out for packaging the seriousness of these issues with a touch that doesn’t mock the ignorance of small-town India. Instead, it speaks to their anxieties in a language they will understand.
A worthy testament is the film’s understanding of the relationship that small-town India shares with social media: As Bala posits, people across small towns not only depend on the internet’s validation to derive self-confidence, but it also affords them space for expression. Kaushik cleverly uses TikTok as a device to both pay homage to Hindi cinema while dismantling its tropes, and as a means of communication between the film’s lovers. The sequence where Kaushik charts out the trajectory of Pari and Bala’s relationship through a series of TikTok videos are winsome (They put up individual videos at first and then move on to collaborations). Khurrana and Gautam are a hoot together – the scene where he shoots a TikTok video to apologise to her for lying about his baldness is as inventive as Gautam’s flurry of overreaction when she finds out the truth. The charms of this attention to detail to small-town intricacies is sacrificed whenever Bala slips into preachy territory.
In the film. Kaushik parallels Bala’s unhappiness with the self-confidence of Latika, his dark-skinned childhood friend (Bhumi Pednekar) who refuses to second-guess her worth. It’s admirable how Kaushik uses their equation to unpack the double-standards that allows most Indian men to throw tantrums about their inadequacies and contrasts it with the shame that women have to bear for the perceived lack in them. Self-pity, the film convincingly argues, is a luxury that only men can afford. Yet, its brief effect is undone by the fact that Bala, which rallies against placing a premium on fairness, indulges in the exact same crime by covering Pednekar in soot to make her look dark-skinned (Interestingly, Pednekar ditches the brownface for the film’s item song). It’s a move that like Saand Ki Aankh’s ageism, is telling of the hypocrisy of Hindi filmmakers who want a pat on the back for confronting “issues” without really understanding what it really entails. In the film, dark skin is merely a “look”.
This is also Bala’s biggest letdown: It falters when it tries speaking for others. None of its grandstanding ties up in the end. When compared to the violence that women have long faced because of the society’s obsession with fair complexions, the film’s argument about the difficulties of male baldness seem trivial. It doesn’t help that Kaushik is frequently unable to to separate the ills of patriarchy from that of unrealistic beauty standards, almost implying as if the social discrimination meted out in both cases are on equal footing, which feels unconvincing if not inaccurate.
Even then, there can be a case made for sidestepping this lack of self-awareness. Kaushik consistently displays a knack of tackling grand ideas, even if with varying results. His gaze that places men as both victims and perpetrators of their own doing, results in the film’s best moments – a father-son showdown and a sibling tiff acquires greater meaning. Bala is at its strongest when it takes a jab at Bollywood for dumping expectations of aspirational masculinity on middle-class Indian men while simultaneously critiquing the dangers that male insecurity have on Indian women.
It’s the kind of attempt that at least suggests a reversal and starts off by putting Indian men under the scanner. In one scene, an ageing man expresses his gratitude to his devoted wife for not leaving him due to his baldness. And in another, a young woman refuses to make do with a bald husband, expressing her desire to be with someone who can rival her good looks. In doing so, Bala quietly underlines how incapable men are when it comes to withstanding the cruelties of beauty standards that they have heaped on women for centuries. Only if the rest of the film stuck to that memo.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.