Ayushmann Khurrana, who’s cornered the market when it comes to playing flawed, insecure men with confidence issues, continues his winning streak with Bala. This time he’s playing a young man dealing with premature balding, and the film uses that premise to make a case against judging people on the basis of physical appearance.
Ayushmann is Kanpur resident Balmukund Shukla aka Bala, thus named for his thick, lustrous hair at birth. In school his wavy tresses ensured his popularity with the girls; he even mocked his bald teacher in class. But karma appears to have caught up with Bala who, at 25, is losing hair every day, and growing more and more desperate. There’s no potential remedy he won’t try; no ‘nuskha’ he won’t give a shot…including oils and eggs, and a mixture of cow dung and bull semen. When everything else fails, he reluctantly goes with a wig. Director Amar Kaushik mines these moments for big laughs, but Ayushmann conveys Bala’s vulnerability with heartbreaking precision. Even as you laugh, you can’t help feeling for him.
This is, in fact, the biggest strength of Niren Bhatt’s winning screenplay, which gives us scenarios and moments that are both entertaining and authentic.
Amar Kaushik, who last directed Stree, perfectly captures the sights and sounds, and rhythms and feels of Tier II towns: the accents, the family banter, the casual moments between friends, the obsession with Bollywood. In one of the funniest bits in the film, the three of them just hanging out casually, Javed Jaffrey and Abhishek Banerjee playing Bala’s two best friends, break into Amitabh Bachchan imitations. Terrific stuff.
The other masterstroke is Yami Gautam’s character Pari, a Tik Tok star and sometime model from Lucknow who briefly enters Bala’s romantic orbit. Yami plays her as a ditzy but always likeable figure, and gets two of the best moments in the film – one in which she learns Bala’s truth and responds with understandable shock and horror, and another in which she explains candidly why looks matter so much to her and why she can’t resign herself to Bala’s ‘shortcoming’.
But the problem is that the filmmakers aren’t content giving us merely one case study to make the larger point about our prejudice towards people based on their physical appearance. So they bung in the character of Bala’s dark-skinned childhood friend Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), who’s grown up mocked and bullied because of her complexion, which is hampering her marriage prospects now. You can’t tell if it’s a case of sheer ignorance or convenience that the makers equate the agony of balding for men with the experience of being a dark-skinned woman in India – however well meaning the parallel may be, it’s just not the same.
The decision to cast a lighter-skinned Bhumi over an actress with the required complexion reeks of hypocrisy, and discredits the film’s very message. And the decision to practically lather Bhumi in dark face and body make up is misguided and completely distracting. It’s a shame because she’s a very talented actress, and she turns Latika into a confident, spirited character. In fact, I wish there was more of Latika woven organically into the plot, simply because Bhumi plays her with such vim. Latika’s scenes with Bala benefit from the comfort and the ease that Ayushmann and Bhumi clearly share, possibly from having made two films together before. Unfortunately Latika exists only to drive home the message.
That, for me, is the film’s only black spot (pun unintended). For the most part Bala crackles with sharp dialogues, Ayushmann’s winning mimicry of Bollywood stars, especially Shah Rukh Khan, and of course the charming ensemble that includes Saurabh Shukla, a moustache-sporting Seema Pahwa, Dheerendra Kumar Gautam as Bala’s younger brother, and again, Abhishek Banerjee and Javed Jaffrey as his best friends.
Supported very ably by his two leading ladies, Ayushmann Khurrana cuts a sympathetic figure as another not-instantly-likeable loser. Watch how he tears into his father for passing down the baldness gene. Never understating the troubling blackface of Bhumi’s character, the truth is that the film is consistently enjoyable.