Bala movie review: Ayushmann-Bhumi crackle and pop while slamming bias...till the film reveals its own prejudice
If this film had no Latika and the humour of the opening half had been maintained in the second, Bala would have been near perfect.
castAyushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Yami Gautam, Saurabh Shukla, Sunita Rajwar, Vijay Raaz, Seema Pahwa, Jaaved Jaaferi, Abhishek Banerjee, Dheerendra Gautam, Sumit Arora, Aparkshakti Khurana
One of the pleasures of watching Bala comes from its use of language. The characters in this film speak Kanpuriya Hindi which is a delight in and of itself. Better still, they hardly ever substitute words in their mother tongue with English equivalents. On the rare occasions when they do opt for a spot of English, they are hilarious without the narrative taking a condescending tone towards them or getting clichéd. And the dialogues are replete with usages you are unlikely to hear on the streets of Delhi or Mumbai.
So "hasthmaithun" is "hasthmaithun" for the hero, not "masturbation". His younger brother speaks of his family's "loloop nazar" on him. And a man is threatened with a "kantaap", not a slap.
While the going is good in Bala, it is very good. The first half is rip-roaringly funny, simultaneously poignant and insightful as it takes us through the protagonist Bala aka Balmukund Shukla's journey from a luscious head of hair in his teens to premature baldness in his 20s, from vanity and arrogance to a soul-crushing complex. Director Amar Kaushik, whose calling card for now is the stupendous horror comedy Stree, never lets the pace flag pre-interval. Writer Niren Bhatt is clearly determined to make a point about a bald man's sense of self-worth, stays true to this message and is intelligent while doing so here.
In the second half though, the humour and the intellect dip. For a start, the writing takes the easy way out in a crucial, pivotal situation. (Caution: Some people might consider the rest of this paragraph a spoiler) A woman Bala loves and who loves him back is condemned for rejecting him on discovering his baldness - condemned not merely by characters in the story, but by the film itself - by establishing her as a superficial creature for whom looks matter more than anything else and getting her to dump him solely and entirely because his appearance no longer appeals to her, never allowing her to believe what would have been a reason that might possibly have earned her some audience sympathy: that it is in fact his deception that killed their relationship, not his lack of hair. By getting Bala instead to acknowledge his lies and self-flagellate, the film uses even this opportunity to increase his likeability. This is silly, because it is a sort of ultimatum: once he apologises for lying, she had better forgive him, or else we will quietly slot her as a youknowwhat. It is all cleverly done, all the while ensuring that the judgement is subtle and the tone of the narrative never gets openly vicious towards her. From a film that until then and thereafter is honest about its hero's character flaws and does not let him off lightly, this is disappointing. (Spoiler alert ends)
The message being driven home by Bala from the start is that we must stop caring about what others think of our looks - that once we begin valuing ourselves, the world will too. Towards this end, it has a dark-skinned heroine called Latika Trivedi who has all her life been derided for her complexion. Getting Bala to be one of those who taunted her in her childhood, and making him a fairness cream salesman in his adulthood even while he battles a bias against early onset baldness, are both nice touches. However, this aspect of the messaging fails because the film reveals its own prejudice against dark skin from the word go.
No one on Team Bala seems to have detected the irony in casting a light-skinned actor as Latika and painting her face black, rather than casting a black woman to play a black woman.
In a film industry that favours goraapan especially for female stars despite marginal evolution on this front in recent decades, Bala's unwillingness to seek out a dark-complexioned actor for this role underlines the attitude that a woman whose skin does not match a certain shade is not worthy of being a lead. It appears that Bhatt and his colleagues did not notice either that throughout the film, they treat it as a given that a dark complexion is indeed less and cannot possibly be pretty, and equate it with the side effect of a disease (namely Bala's alopecia which is a direct result of his diabetes).
The screenplay well and truly bares its prejudice though in Latika's own reaction to the mythological tale of the hunchbacked woman Kubja who Lord Krishna is said to have miraculously turned into a beauty. Stage enactments of the story in Kanpur are twice shown, both times a dark-skinned woman is cast as Kubja, and Latika - a bright lawyer who had earlier been vocal about her comfort with her skin colour - says after a viewing: "Why did Lord Krishna have to make her sundar? It is possible that someone would have liked her just the way she is."
"Someone"? Umm, but wasn't the whole point that we must accept ourselves and not measure our worth by the acceptance of others? Note too that she does not question the casting of a dark-skinned actor as Kubja and the intrinsic assumption that her colour is equal to a lack of soundarya. This is not to say that Latika must be perfect, but that the questioning, unbiased person she has been shown to be until then does not gel with the attitude she displays here.
This inconsistent characterisation and the team's lack of awareness of their own prejudice robs Bala of much of its value. Tragic, because when it is dealing with the hero's baldness it is smart and sharp, the crackling dialogues are rich with cultural references, even the songs and choreography add to the comicality (watch 'Tequila', please, and those TikTok videos are out-and-out killers), the comedy involving Bala never crosses the line into insensitivity and the cast is absolutely A-grade.
Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar live up to expectations by delivering fine performances, and Yami Gautam as the somewhat frivolous professional model Pari Mishra displays a talent for comedy here that will hopefully be explored in future films. The trio are backed by a fabulous ensemble of supporting actors, each jostling with the other in the run-up to a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Every single one of them, including the lesser-known faces (Dheerendra Gautam playing Bala's younger brother, Sumit Arora as his boss) is given space to shine and they chew up the screen in those moments.
If this film had no Latika (or she was better written and appropriately cast) and the humour of the opening half had been maintained in the second, it would have been near perfect. There is a Latika though and the humour does dip, making Bala a 50-50.
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