Ayushamann Khurrana, it can be now declared, has singularly taken the responsibility of getting the average Indian dudebro from the hinterland woke. Khuranna, a charming performer, makes the average look exceptional, emphasising his character’s ordinariness by making it appear as an endearingly standout feature as in film after film, he goes about confronting lowkey emasculating terror with a raw, self-deprecating determination.
In Bala, he’s an angsty young man who masks his self-loathing with a charming personality entirely derived from Bollywood heroes, mainly Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. His balding head, which he says women spot before they see the full moon on a karvachauth night, has crushed his self-confidence and he often breaks into bitter monologues, blaming everyone and everything, but mostly his father’s (Saurabh Shukla) faulty genes. It doesn’t help that the place he works at - a marketing firm for a fairness cream called Pretty You - obviously has an ageist work culture. That his younger brother has a thick cover of hair also troubles him but the worst humiliation comes, as it often does, from only one place: the society’s condescendingly sympathetic gaze.
Amar Kaushik, who made the powerful Stree in 2018, employs an interestingly empathetic gaze in Bala. The director, along with writer Niren Bhat, walks a tightrope, with complex gender, class and issues of colorism at stake. And yet Bala, thanks to its clever and subversive writing, manages to carefully save itself from what could’ve been an alarmingly problematic film... to become a less problematic film.
After several failed attempts at getting his hair to grow (this includes applying animal poop and semen, rubbing raw onion, standing upside down so the roots get better blood flow), Bala finally gets a hair patch. This makes him look like the young Khans of the 90s: innocuous but with a hint of mischief. He falls for a TikTok star, Pari Mishra (Yami Gautam) who endorses the fairness cream he markets and sets out from Kanpur to woo her with real charm and fake hair.
The best way to read Bala is to see it as a parody of Bollywood. Just like Dreamgirl’s self-reflexive humour, Bala too is deliberately peppered with Bollywood tropes, Hindi film references (Deewar to Kal Ho Na Ho to Gully Boy), exaggerated and melodramatic Hindi film dialogues and an ending that subverts the Bollywood template to set bold new ground rules. From using TikTok as a device to show a 90s style romance between Bala and Pari to invoking Bachchan during a serious life crisis, this is a Bollywood film that adores Bollywood but also quietly critiques it.
In a scene where Bala is about to get a hair patch fixed, the camera trains itself on sketches of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, pauses for half a second, before moving on. Essentially, Kaushik seems to be saying that while a healthy diet of Bollywood films has infused the leading man with a lot of character and personality, it’s also made him internalise the conventional idea of what a good-looking man (and woman) ought to look like.The film’s obsession with Shah Rukh Khan, an actor known for his hair, dimples and charm, is as much a celebration of Khan’s cultural weight as it is an indictment of just how much social conditioning is a product of how masculinity is depicted in mass media.
The film’s other strength is its writing. There’s such sparkling with in Niren Bhat’s joyous, wonderful one-liners that once you’ve bought into the loud and eccentric universe of the film, the plot becomes secondary. It’s easy to bundle the milieu of the Northern Indian hinterland as homogenous but it isn’t. Bala recognises these differences and focuses on the specifics of the Kanpur-Lucknow slang and while it has no room for subtlety, it paints a wildly entertaining portrait of small-town India.
While the film works for most parts, what the makers have done with Bhumi Pednekar’s character, Latika, is absolutely unforgivable. Instead of getting an actor whose skin matches the character requirement, Pednekar’s skin is browfaced tackily and doesn’t appear natural, becoming the film’s biggest undoing. Although she remains the film’s moral compass, things get laughably ironic when her character calls another one out on, well, racist behaviour.
It’s other flaw is the abrupt way it reaches its resolution where a character’s worldview is transformed in one moment of epiphany, which is followed by a clunky, NGO-volunteer type speech. What’s notable is how both the characters played by women enjoy complete autonomy and do not exist solely in context of the male protagonist.
While Khuranna and Pednekar are reliably and expectedly good, the film’s real discovery is Yami Gautam. It’s not wrong to say that Gautam’s career has now begun. As a young woman who likes ‘attneson’ and is excited about ‘marriaze’ Gautam nails a very specific kind of small-town-modern-girl, disappearing into her part with such seamlessness, you’d mistake her for an actual TikTok sensation. Mispronouncing the ‘ja’ sound with ‘za’ is a hyper-specific phonetic mistake many make as it’s essentially done when the person is trying to avoid saying ‘ja’ whenn ‘za’ might be correct. However, a consequence of this is when the person uses ‘za’ when ‘ja’ is correct usage, like in ‘age’ and ‘marriage.’
Gautam gets that dialect spot-on and is a sheer joy to watch. As is the film’s supporting cast, from Saurabh Shukla to Seema Pahwa to Abhishek Banerjee.
While the film might pretend to have a social-consciousness (which, to an extent, it does but the messaging is too spelt out, too hamfisted), Bala is both a celebration and critique of Bollywood as it deals with and calls out the false expectations and self-deceptions the movies unknowingly perpetuate.
It’s a potent film that exudes a lot of warmth and feel-good energy, a meta drama that winks at itself, one that knows what films can do and hence gives us a hero who subverts the very idea of what constitutes a Hindi film hero. He may not get the girl but still doesn’t lose the will to stretch his arms wide open with the hope of finding love.