Amar Kaushik’s Bala – centred on a young man facing an identity crisis because of his balding head – is obsessed with hair. As the opening credits roll, we see people of different ages getting haircuts; some of them have remarkable hairstyles – the names of cast and crew are on the right-bottom side of the screen, on which strands of animated hair fall. The voiceover, by Vijay Raaz, talks about the significance and vitality of hair. The voiceover, we soon find out, is not by a person but (metaphorical) hair itself. The film’s hero, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, is called “Bala”. (Obviously.) The film then cuts to Kanpur in 2005 where, in a classroom, a bald man is drawn on a blackboard with “takle” (bald) written beside it.
A certain kind of Hindi film is obsessed with its ‘quirky’ central idea – it functions as the film’s theme and its story – and the makers spend an inordinate amount of time reinforcing that thought. More often than not, that film is set in a north Indian small-town, depicting regular people’s lives with purported realism. An ordinary life, however, is not just a function of an eccentricity; it is varied and multidimensional. This obsession with the logline, then, both seems divorced from the people and the milieu (in this case, say, the movie’s opening credits) — a self-serving exercise that starts and ends with the film, a misguided approach that sees this world from the outside.
Bala doesn’t learn from the mistakes of its first five minutes, rather repeats it, smug and convinced that it has unlocked the central anxiety of the Indian middle-class. The story, in short, is this: Bala, tormented by his loss of hair, tries different ways to restore the patch but nothing helps. His girlfriend has recently dumped him for the same reason; he finally finds some succour in a toupee and falls in love with a local model and TikTok star, Pari (Yami Gautam). Parallelly, there’s the story of Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), Bala’s classmate, who was shamed by him, and others, for her dark complexion. Bala, in a cruel twist of fate, is a marketing professional for a skin-whitening cream.
But the contradictions in Bala – the wide chasm between its self-congratulatory, ‘noble’ message and weak, simplistic story (propped up by questionable means) – never let you be a part of the film. Take Pednekar, for instance, who has been blackwashed so starkly, and so shockingly, that it takes some time to register that impact. The cruel irony of Latika – always snubbed in school plays because of her skin colour, played by an otherwise fair (and hence pretty) actress, blackened for the role – is remarkable for its tone-deafness. It is all the more bizarre, when Pednekar, for the entire runtime, plays an independent, confident woman – she’s a lawyer – who literally says at one point, “Humein apne rang se koi problem nahin hai (I don’t have any problem with my complexion).” Well, clearly.
In another scene, when Pari is shooting an ad for a fairness cream, where a woman’s complexion transforms from dark to fair, we hear someone on the set say, “Arre, ise aur gora bana do (Make her fairer).” The makers think it’s playing out like comedic social commentary – ‘oh, look the society’s obsession with whiteness!’ – while being completely oblivious that the joke here, if at all, is on them.
Worse, the film misrepresents its central character. Bala is, in no uncertain terms, insensitive, entitled, dishonest, and a creep – even his ‘redemption’ is devoid of introspection or genuine remorse – and yet the film keeps bending backwards to convince us that he’s a hero, that he deserves our empathy. Bala is so self-absorbed with its own cleverness that it fails to ask itself a critical question: Who is this pathetic man whose entire identity rests on his balding head? Should you care for him? And if you do, then what does that say about the definition of Indian masculinity? Bala isn’t a 25-year-old man but a crabby adolescent, who wants the entire world to compensate for his flaw.
The film is disingenuous in other ways, too – especially the manner in which it tries to exploit the 90s’ nostalgia through TikTok videos, filmed on Khurrana and Gautam. Again, the device itself is not a problem – it was done wonderfully in another Khurrana starrer, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) – but here, it looks like an addendum, an afterthought carefully planted to elicit easy laughs.
Even the casting is so uninspired. Khurrana, competent as always, has done the role of a confused small-town man so many times that he seems on auto-pilot. Even the sidekick (Abhishek Banerjee), playing a good-hearted buffoon, is a repeat of a repeat. Here, he looks as if he walked straight out of the sets of Stree. Amar Kaushik is, in fact, the director of Stree, one of my favourite films of last year, and it looks to have been made by a completely different guy. (After watching Bala, I’ve a feeling that Stree’s writers — Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K., who also created the excellent The Family Man – had a huge part to play in that film’s success.)
Hackneyed casting has plagued even quasi-alternate Hindi cinema for a long time. The biggest example of that is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a less severe example Sanjay Mishra, and now that problem – an utter inability to think beyond easy, accepted conventions – seems to be percolating to actors playing more peripheral roles as well. The biggest misfire has to be the casting of Gautam though — in the role of a model endorsing fairness cream, allowing the film to garner social awareness points — when she herself, while appearing in ads for Fair & Lovely, has been a poster-girl for such regressive mindset.
Bala’s climax, with a clever, heartening twist, could well be the only good thing about this movie. But when a film displays an abject lack of self-awareness throughout its runtime, then its suddenly conscious climax sticks out: It doesn’t seem heartfelt but performative, another ruse to mislead and trick the audience. If only Bala were that smart. It is simply – and I know this is too easy – ‘hair’-brained.