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Bala, Review: Haireditory and dark humour

Bala, Review: Haireditory and dark humour

Two films in rapid succession about hair loss are about as rare as a new lock of hair sprouting on a bald pate. Whereas Ujda Chaman had the relatively unknown Sunny Singh Nijjar and Maanvi Gagroo playing the lead roles, Bala has National Award winning (shared) actor Ayushmann Khurrana, and by now well established actresses Bhumi Pednekar and Yami Gautam. Time has come when insider jokes, vulgar dialogue, mimicry and stand-up comedy are expected from Khurrana, whatever the role he might be playing. What will he play next? A serial killer who is a proficient mimic and a part-time stand-up comic? Though he can literally play with the camera, it is time film-makers stopped playing with him.

As a schoolboy in Kanpur, in 2003, Balmukund Shukla is naughty and flirtatious. He is also a mimic. Though dusky Latika has a crush on him, he showers his affection on fairer, more attractive girls. Among his regular pranks is making fun of a balding teacher, by drawing a sketch of his on the blackboard and yelling out “takla” (colloquial Hindi for bald), whenever he turns his back to the class. In 2019, Balmukund is a salesman for a fairness cream, Pretty You, but has a bald patch upfront, which has given him a terrible inferiority complex and which he conceals with a cap or scooter helmet. He has even masked the top of his bathroom mirror, so that he might not have to see his own bald head.

Theirs is a middle class family, with a father, Hari, who has retired, a mother who is a house-wife and Balmukund’s brother, who is an aspiring cricketer. On advice from various sources, he tries all kinds of remedies, including cow-dung mixed with buffalo sperm, which he asks his brother, and later father, to apply on his head. Bent on not wearing a wig or a toupé, he checks out possibilities of transplants. That is ruled out too, because he does not have requisite type or quantity of hair anywhere on his body. The doctor suggests pubic hair. The outraged Balmukund is about to relent when he learns that the operation can be futile as well as highly dangerous for persons suffering from diabetes. And…you guessed it.

Balmukund, known as Bala, is transferred to Lucknow, a sort of demotion at being unable to achieve sales targets. There, he falls in love with his own brand ambassador, model Pari, who is also a TikTok star. But he now wears a wig, and Pari is unaware of this dark secret. Meanwhile, Mausi (Latika’s aunt) asks Bala to make her niece several shades fairer on Instagram, so that she can find a good match. Latika, on her part, is a firebrand lawyer and completely at peace with her complexion. Bala, meanwhile, manages to make Pari fall head over heels in love with him, with his extroverted nature and films fixation. They marry. And then, one day, Bala’s inner, or rather upper, side is revealed!

The basis being a Kannada film, a lot of the writing credit becomes suspect and Niren Bhatt comes under the scanner. Credit for additional screenplay is given to Ravi Shankar Muppa. Muppa is an engineering and economics graduate who studied film-making at the Media Business School, Madrid, Spain. He contributed to the script of Amazon Prime’s The Family Man. Married on 18 October (three weeks ago), and has a receded hair-line, though the pictures of his younger days show him generously endowed. Now, is there an autobiographical basis to the story, in addition to the Kannada film?

Entertainment being the key, anything goes. Wild cutting, speeded up scenes, way out jokes, gags, mimicry, and, last but not the least, stand-up comedy. Barring some English jokes (eligible bachelor is pronounced ‘edible’ bachelor by a non-cognoscenti woman), the rest are a play on Hindi words, idioms and traditional customs. It is suggested that instead of seeing the moon before they break their karvaa chauth fast, the Kanpur women look at Bala’s chaand (moon; bald pate). About being dark, Bala says at a stand-up event, “That man is so dark that if you throw water at his face it turns into kaalaa khatta (black sour; traditional black syrupy drink).” On another’s ultra-dark complexion, he says after the man visited Mumbai decades ago, the area where he lived is called Andheri (dark place; real location but rots of name unclear), named after him. There are at least 100 such witticisms and puns in the film, and most of them will make you laugh. If merely getting laughs was the theme, all this is pointing in the right direction. Is it?

Male pattern  baldness, dark complexions and female moustaches causing untold misery and trauma, are the themes, and we are reminded time and again that it is indeed so. Then it proceeds to make a statement that original is beautiful, we must learn to accept our physical ‘shortcomings’, and search for inner beauty, beauty of the soul. Should this journey be full of entertainment, mimicry and gags, is a moot question. Perhaps a little bit of light-hearted humour, in the 20:80 ratio, would not be out of place, not the 80:20 we are dealt.

Director Amar Kaushik does not spare anyone. He gets Ayushmann Khurrana to do impressions of ShahRukh Khan over and over again, and leads right up to Ranbir Kapoor. An entire scene is devoted to three actors imitating Amitabh Bachchan, in turns. One dialogue takes a dig at his own debut feature, Stree (horror-comedy), going, “Stree, kal aanaa” [Stree (woman), come tomorrow)]. Since he wanted an actor to do all of the above, Khurrana was the best possible choice. But one wonders about his sagacity in choosing Bhumi Pednekar for the black girl’s role. No special skills are given to her and neither is her trauma done any justice with. Besides, she has already played an obese woman in Dum Lagake Haisha (opposite Ayushmann), so to cast her in another physical ‘shortcoming’ role was imprudent, unless the role demanded some high voltage drama. There is very little of that on the plate of Pednekar.

A perfect showcase for Ayushmann Khurrana’s multifarious talent, Bala also finds him improving upon his dialogue delivery, which was, perhaps, one of his only two major impediments. The other is his inability to pronounce certain sounds that have come into Hindi from Urdu, and in this aspect, he is among the majority of current acting talent. With Bala, he is approaching the thin red line, from where he can either go the Govinda-type comedy way or the Johnny Lever-type major comic roles way. An example from yesteryear would be Mahmood, in reverse, because he worked his way up from comedian to hero. There is also a chance, admittedly a slim one, that he may lose his hold as a frontline hero, and slip down the ladder, because there must be at least 20 mimics and comedians who remained so all their lives. So long as audiences laugh with him or at his delivery, it’s all well. If they start laughing at him, the hero tag gets replaced by the comedian label pronto.

Bhumi Pednekar seems to be mocking herself, head tilted up, most of the time, and even the courtroom exchanges are more impressive on account of dialogue rather than performance. Yami Gautam as Pari is too pretentious to be taken seriously and even gets down to hamming. Javed Jaaferi’s oodles and caboodles of talent are merely skimmed, the incongruous, humungous wig apart. Abhishek Banerjee as Ajju, the barber, never ceases to surprise. As Mausi, Seema Pahwa carries the moustache, and some expletives, with élan. Saurabh Shukla has an over the top role as Hari, and he performs it as if he was hitting a sixer in a cricket match (in the film, he is said to have played state cricket once, and was retired hurt, after making just three runs). Bala also blames his bald Dad for his ‘haireditory’deficiency.

Sunita Rajwar as his wife looks the part and is used as the plank to launch the English-Hindi mispronounced jokes. The only reason why Deepika Chikhlia is brought in to play Susheela, Pari’s mother, must be to crack a joke at her expense, as she still has the sustained image of playing Seeta in the mid to late-80s TV epic, Ramayan. Dhirendra Kumar Gautam as Vihan, Bala’s hairy, younger brother, gets one full scene to milk, and milk it he does. Very soon, Vijay Raaz, a good actor in the right hands, might have to bid good-bye to performing in front of the camera and keep doing narrations and voice-overs. He is no expert in this field, and yet his grainy voice is enough for every other film to summon him for microphone duty.

As is often the case, the second half runs out of steam and the humour is much more forced. An unconventional ending works in the film’s favour. Likely to garner good collections, audiences who are victims of baldness, women whose pigmentation is noir and women who have grown noticeable hair above their upper lip, watch it only if you have a self-deprecating attitude towards your condition or are have made peace with your skin. Incidentally, Bala is also a play upon the word bal, which, in Hindi and Urdu, means hair. Hair, hair!

Rating: ** ½

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veJ6ejMjzgE

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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