Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Yami Gautam, Bhumi Pednekar, Seema Pahwa, Javed Jaffery, Saurabh Shukla, Abhishek Banerjee, Sachin Chaudhary, Sunita Rajwar, Vijay Raaz (voiceover)
Director: Amar Kaushik
Poor Ayushmann Khurrana. On his delicate body parts rest the salvation of men and their faux mardangi.
The young actor hardly has a proud and patriarchal body part or function left that hasn’t already received a walloping for the sake of the box-office. Even his bodily fluids have been engaged and embarrassed, and his male ego has taken a beating, repeatedly.
And yet, riding on that battering, he goes from strength to strength. Rewriting the Bollywood hero a little, changing mindsets a bit.
This time his male ego is being manhandled by director Amar Kaushik (of Stree fame) and writer Niren Bhatt, in a film that is devoted to the long-faced male sulk over the slow, agonising, inglorious demise of lehrate-chamakte tufts of hair.
Bala is a 131-minute long relentless joke, a string of lacerating, funny one-liners about the lack of hair, and the need to do all that’s humanly possible for their return. And, of course, there is a sting in its tail.
Bala intertwines two tracks — about male baldness and women’s dark complexion — to deliver a rap and a message about the hypocrisy of Indians, especially those residing in the north. The film repeatedly focuses on and questions why women are expected to accept hairless wonders, while men feel entitled and emboldened to judge and reject women on the basis of their skin colour.
Barring a few scenes towards the end, and some minor, brief limping in between, Bala is a well-crafted, very well written comedy of bad manners. Its dialogues are especially crackling and carry the film from the beginning to the end.
Bala is set in Kanpur, of course. Amar Kaushik’s hometown.
A voiceover (Vijay Raaz), chuffed at its own significance and beauty, introduces us to the film’s protagonist — Hair, Baal.
And then to its primary beneficiary, Balmukund Shukla urf Bala (Sachin Chaudhary), a school-going boy who mimics filmy heroes because he is oh-so-in-love with his own hero-like looks and locks.
So obsessed is Bala with good looks that he doesn’t think twice before insulting and hurting his best friend Latika, who is dark skinned and already hurting from the fact that in a school play she’s cast as Kubja (hunchback) who is made pretty (read: fair) by him, playing Krishna.
The voiceover of Baal jumps a decade-and-a-half to show us how its disappearance has impacted the same Bala (Ayushmann Khurrana).
Now we are introduced to a new cast of characters. In Bala’s family there is his father (Saurabh Shukla) — Kanpur’s only Ranji cricketer, mother (Sunita Rajwar), younger brother and grandfather.
Then there are his two friends — barber Ajju (Abhishek Banerjee), and Bachchan Bhaiyya (Javed Jaffrey).
With all of them, Bala’s conversations are only about his hair, specifically the lack of it, and it’s these exchanges that are the soul and smooth scalp of the film.
Bala beseeches them all — through self-deprecating humour and heart-felt appeals — to save him, help him. And though they insult him and joke, they also provide uppay, nuske, remedies. They are all, separately and through joint ventures, devoted to pull Bala out of his perpetual sulk.
There are strange oils and stranger massages, head-stands and head masks, including one made out of bhains ka gobar and saand ka, well… to coax some follicles on Bala’s banjar scalp. Even a hair transplant is considered, but…
Then there is Bala’s friend-turned-enemy Latika (Bhumi Pednekar) who is now a lawyer, and her moonch-waali mausi (Seema Pahwa).
At Bala’s office, where he’s required to market and sell an “ayurvedic chemicals wali fairness cream”, he hates his boss and colleagues, but stalks the product’s pretty model, Pari Mishra (Yami Gautam), on TikTok.
Maybe you can imagine where the story goes, or maybe you can’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the film is really fun.
Some dialogue and scenes are so hysterical that I’m still laughing thinking of them. The one where Bala’s brother — who is always pressed into service to do this, put that on his head — loses his s**t, is epic.
The blithe, gently sarcastic, UP-colloquial tone of Bala is set to Vijay Raaz’s saucy but dripping-with-irony voiceover. His monologues are sharply written and rendered in elegant jest.
Bala’s dialogues are not just quick-witted and nimble, but also load-bearing. They help create, define characters and add meat and zing to a story that is quite meagre.
And since the film is set in Kanpur, when men talk to other men here, they always begin with “abe” and end with “bae”. As in, “Abe, kaise ho bae?” And here people don’t deliver simple slaps. They administer a kantap (an ear-shattering slap).
The film’s dialogue, that have a pace and rhythm as if it’s a kavi sammelan of insults, take references from the world around, and then add some random political comments, like one about a state running “Bhagwan ke bharose”. Lol!
And they, of course, regularly channel ardent love for Bollywood which, in cities like Kanpur, begins and ends with Bachchan, bae.
Few films capture how north Indian families communicate with each other — sarcasm and insults first, unsolicited gyaan then, followed by idioms, muhaware or lokoktis (proverbs).
A routine conversation about something quite banal can suddenly begin to drip with past hurts, accolades and current misdemeanours. Anything can be brought up at anytime, irrespective of the context or logic. Old sores and scores must be settled by having the last word.
This is best exhibited in Bala through the lovely bitching between Bala’s father and grandfather. What a welcome change from the stale saas-bahu ki chik-chik.
The discussions Bala has with his family and two pals are loaded with indignities that are not meant, of course, because that’s how close-knit, loving, interfering families and friends in India talk.
Bala casts Ayushmann’s two leading ladies with whom he has delivered his two best films — Vicky Donor and Dum Laga Ke Haisha — and uses their well-established chemistry and goodwill to jump-start their relationships here.
Ayushmann, as always, embraces his look and character with such affecting, robust irritation that you feel his pain.
Bhumi Pednekar, though constricted by a character that’s not very well written, is good. But Yami Gautam, surprisingly, totally nails the pretty-dumb model’s character. Her “I’m so happy that I’m so pretty and so superficial” blank but riveting expression is priceless.
Except for a few dull moments in the beginning and the climax that becomes a bit preachy, Bala is mostly a pitch-perfect choreography of its actors, director, dialogue writers, cinematographer, musicians and editor that makes you laugh a lot, while taking note of Bollywood’s exceptional character actors who have lately been getting more screen time because they finally have real characters to inhabit. Seema Pahwa, Javed Jaffery, Saurabh Shukla, Abhishek Banerjee, Sunita Rajwar, Vijay Raaz create Bala’s ecosystem with their skill and brilliance.
In one way, this marks the demise of hero-driven films — or, well, the death of the superstar. On the other, it marks the rise of actors, and stories.
This rise and demise is very welcome, because it’s karma, bae.