Bala director Amar Kaushik defends plagiarism charges, clash with Ujda Chaman, and claims of hypocrisy in his film
Amar Kushik, who made his directorial debut with Stree last year, says his intention behind Bala was only to address society's obsession with appearances.
After an unconventional and empowering Stree, a horror comedy that made waves at the box office last year, director Amar Kaushik is back with a movie about ‘self-love’ and ‘self-acceptance’ that questions the age old notions of beauty.
Kaushik’s comedy Bala stars National Award-winning actor Ayushmann Khurrana as a prematurely balding young man alongside Bhumi Pednekar (whose character deals with colour bias), and Yami Gautam, who plays a small-time model and a Tik-Tok star 'living in a bubble'.
In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, Kaushik opens up about the expectations and pressures, the “perfect” casting, and how he battled various controversies around the film. Excerpts from the chat below.
What are the origins of Bala? How did the casting happen?
When I completed Stree, I was thinking what next. Dinesh Vijan (producer) came to me with a story with Ayushmann in it. I liked it and decided to develop it further. I also wanted to produce the film. Writing process started, and I met a few directors but they didn’t quite understand the film. I had already given lot of my time to the film, and I had also reached Kanpur, where I wanted to shoot the film. I had done what is required from a director. I also felt that I had understood the subject and character so well that it was better that I make it rather than someone else does. Ayushmann was always there because the script had come with him in mind. And as I was writing, I thought of Bhumi because I needed a strong, opinionated girl. I used to read her posts on social media, and I knew that she is a strong girl. This character suited her perfectly. Yami has never played this kind of a character. When I met Yami, and did a reading with her, I felt it would be a great casting. She has done a fantastic job in the film.
More than confidence, I am feeling good about how the film is made. It has turned out the way I wanted it to. Now, it all depends upon how people connect with the film. For me, more than Ayushmann, he is my film’s hero, he is Bala. His stardom is of course there. He has given back-to-back hits but as a filmmaker, as a director, for me, the character of Bala is working. Ayushmann has played it to the T.
Your debut film Stree was hugely appreciated, and it was also a big success. Ayushmann has had a great track record at the box office. So is there a pressure on you that how this will fare?
Every movie and its storytelling is different. Each film has a different destiny. So I just hope that people should come and watch Bala like a film, and not compare it with other films. It will be appreciated if they like, and they will tell us the shortcomings if they don’t. Expectations are always there with every film. We eagerly wait for the feedback. But film should be seen like a film. Actors bring in their creativity in different ways for every film but it is not necessary that it will work each time. But the way Ayushmann, Bhumi, and Yami have played their parts in Bala, it is phenomenal. It has gone one level up than what I had expected. There is pressure on me when people say that Stree was a huge success, it made lot of money, and how much money will this one make. I tell them that I don’t think too much about box office collection. I will be happy if the producers recover their money, and people like the film.
How was the atmosphere on sets?
It took first couple of days to break the ice. On the third day, Ayushmann and I became friends. I improvise a lot on sets. I don’t go by just what has been written in the script. So for that, you and your actors have to come on the same page. I don’t work as per the hierarchy. Until there is friendly atmosphere on sets, we can’t make good films because that gets reflected on sets. I have been assistant on many films, and I have seen the energy on sets reflect in films, and when you have such good actors then improvising becomes fun.
You were approached with the script but what motivated you that you put your heart and soul into it?
Since I am also facing hair fall problem, I am motivated by myself (laughs). But the film is not just talking about a bald man or that he is losing his hair. There are many more things that I have spoken about. In Stree, I also touched upon women empowerment without being preachy. So even in this film, I have tried to touch upon various other issues with the help of humour. People have different insecurities like some are short, some are tall, some are dark. We give them names, and for me, those are derogatory words. If someone is called ‘gori’ (fair), according to me, that is also derogatory because we are first humans. The film will inspire one and all that how one should face these insecurities, and march ahead in life.
Why did you not want Ayushmann to shave his head for the film?
There were two reasons – the film’s requirement was to show different stages of his hair growth. Secondly, even if I had shown him bald, his hair’s thickness is so good that you can’t say he can be bald. If there was some hair left on the corners, it won’t look convincing. It would have looked fake.
Ever since its release date was announced, Bala has courted one controversy after the other. First, there was the clash with Ujda Chaman, which was averted, and then there were allegations of plagiarism. Do you worry that Ujda Chaman was released before Bala?
No, not at all. Honestly I don’t feel bad. Earlier, one or two days I wondered what was happening.
I was a bit disturbed. But I did not let these accusations affect me as it would have hindered my work. After two days, I talked myself out of it, and concentrated on making the film. We started the shoot first, announced our film first, and they started shooting after we had almost completed our shoot. Suddenly, they made the announcement of their film so you feel a bit bad that despite being from the film fraternity, you are aware that the film is being made, and yet you are making a film on the same subject.
But later, I came to know that my film is very different, and it’s just that the character is similar. When I write a film, or watch a film, I feel, as a filmmaker, you have an opportunity of saying something important. We sometimes say a very simple story and leave it but you have a responsibility of conveying something to the whole world, like what we showed in Stree. Similarly, Bala is not just about a bald man, it is also about our various insecurities in life. Your so-called physical shortcomings don’t matter. What matters is your image and persona. Physical looks are very shallow. I felt one can say a good story, and whether I am successful or not at doing that, only time can tell.
Then there was this other controversy of casting Bhumi Pednekar as a dark-skinned woman in the film. It was felt that if you really wanted to discuss cultural obsession with fair skin, you could have cast an actor who is actually dark.
For me, actor comes first, and then comes how the actor will look in that character. If you limit yourself in the beginning that this actor won’t suit the character then for Ayushmann’s character, I should have taken an actor who has a receding hairline. Why did I cast an actor who has thick hair? Don’t we have Deepika Padukone playing an acid attack survivor in Chhapaak? These are the actors, and it is their job to get into the skin of a character. You always want to cast a good actor. Before you start the film you give a lot of thought that which actor would suit this character the most. Who would connect with what, what clothes, costumes and make-up would work. Actually, I didn’t understand the whole controversy. Had I taken a dark-skinned actor even then some people would have made that into a controversy. Now for Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Zero (he played a vertically challenged man), should they have cast someone else? These controversies happen, people also enjoy it, and it is okay to have a conversation. It is important to have a conversation around all this but when you will watch the film, you will forget everything and enjoy.
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