Cast: Tamannaah, Abhishek Bajaj, Saurabh Shukla, Supriya Shukla, Sahil Vaid
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
An exasperatingly lightweight film about the weighty issue of an emancipation-seeking village girl going toe-to-toe with an orthodox society, Madhur Bhandarkar's Babli Bouncer, a feeble shot at a feminist fable, bumbles its way through a hackneyed plot and winds up in an ungainly heap.
Notwithstanding a sterling performance by Tamannaah Bhatia as a school dropout in Asola-Fatehpur village who lands a job as a bouncer in a Delhi NCR nightclub - a woman in a man's world - the comedy struggles to be funny and meaningful.
When Babli Bouncer is funny, it is unintentionally so. And when it strikes a somewhat meaningful chord, it makes a hash of it with an overly facile approach to the story of a girl caught between two men - one a villager who has been in love with her forever, the other a city slicker she has a crush on - and between societal pressures and personal ambitions.
Babli Bouncer, a Star Studios and Junglee Pictures production, is out on Disney+Hotstar. Another of those unremarkable straight-to-streaming Bollywood movies that have little to offer even if one were looking for no more than some mild diversion on a dull weekend, the film manages to find ways to wrestle itself to the ground never to rise again.
With her over made-up look, Tamannaah does not quite merge with the surroundings, but she well-nigh nails the protagonist's unvarnished lingo and gung-ho spirit. But that is about the only bright spot in an otherwise terribly desultory film that sets out to celebrate a spirited young woman's battle for freedom against all odds but loses its way in a maze of cliches.
Babli is the only daughter of wrestling guru Gajanan Tanwar (Saurabh Shukla), who has tens of boys under his tutelage. Having failed to pass her Class 10 exams despite five attempts, the girl is reconciled to the fate that is reserved for girls like her.
Babli's mother (Supriya Shukla), who sees no reason why the girl should be wasting her time in the wrestling pit at her father's akhada, wants to marry her off at the earliest. Babli, inspired by her best friend Pinky (Priyam Saha) who has relocated to Delhi to work as a schoolteacher, aspires to move to the city. She fobs off two men who come to her door with marriage proposals.
Her former math teacher's (Yamini Das) corporate executive-son Viraj (Abhishek Bajaj) stops by briefly in the village on his way from London to Delhi. Babli bumps into the hunk at a wedding and falls head over heels for him.
In order to worm his way into Viraj's world, she tricks local boy Kukku (Sahil Vaid), who nurses dreams of marrying her one day, into helping her become a bouncer in the club where he already works. She passes the test without much difficulty.
In getting to this juncture of the story and then wending its way forward, Babli Bouncer, written by Amit Joshi, finds not a shred of inspiration that could make the progress purposeful and convincing. It lumbers along without ever hitting a steady rhythm. All it articulates ad nauseum is that a girl from a village must acquire the ways of the denizens of Delhi in order to be accepted.
Babli embarks on a mission to reform herself more to prove naysayers wrong than to find her own voice. Her surrender to the whims of others does not hold water especially in the light of the fact that she can punch well above her weight and has a highly supportive father rooting for her.
Along the way, Babli has encounters with a tough groomer (Ashwini Kalsekar) who is blown away by her endurance, a particularly troublesome nightclub guest (Upasana Singh) who is the reason why she is hired in the first place and a wealthy, ageing loner (Sabyasachi Chakraborty in a special appearance), a regular visitor to the nightclub who hands out generous tips to the waiters and bouncers when he is high.
Each one of these supporting characters is a stereotype who has been thrown into the mix to trigger contrived turning points in Babli's voyage of self-actualisation. By themselves, they count for little. Better scripting might have helped them find more significant spaces in the narrative.
At a high-end Delhi restaurant where she meets Viraj for lunch after her arrival in the big city, Babli wants to be served aloo paratha but has to make do with pizza instead because the eatery has no Indian dishes on the menu. Viraj asks for edamame rice.
Two cultures clash in a way that reeks of dreary predictability. Aloo paratha versus pizza and fluent English versus a rustic patois - that is the best Babli Bouncer can do to underscore the nature of the transformation that the heroine must attempt.
The film tries in vain to inject some comicality into the proceedings. Viraj says to Babli on more than one occasion that she is "funny, very, very funny". She repeats the assertion with greater emphasis. But not a word or line that she spouts is remotely amusing.
A Mumbai filmmaker's half-baked, shallow notions of Delhi are best exemplified in a scene in which a politician's son and Viraj clash in the nightclub when the former lights a cigarette in a no-smoking zone. You know who I am, the belligerent rule-breaker growls. Typical Delhi, Viraj retorts with the air of somebody who wants to convince us that he knows the city better than anyone else.
Babli Bouncer is typical Bollywood fare that takes a promising plot and turns it into a tepid, tedious movie stuck in a rut all the way until its predictable end. The film holds no surprises. It isn't going to give you any real idea about the twin villages that have emerged as a factory of bouncers or the young men who grow up there and spend all their time in an akhada to prepare themselves physically for the job they have their eyes on.
Neither will it suck you into the world of a feisty girl who strays into an unconventional profession to shrug off the stranglehold of an orthodox society and find a foothold in an environment determined to push her against her will into matrimony and motherhood.
In deference to Tamannaah's constituency, who has a thriving career down South, Babli Bouncer is also available in Tamil and Telugu, the two languages in which the star has done most of her work. The makers of Babli Bouncer clearly know their only hope lies in targeting the leading lady's fan base. It has little else to commend itself to a wider audience.