Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Yami Gautam
Director: Amar Kaushik
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Just last week, in the listless Ujda Chaman, we were witness to the sad spectacle of a misguided man grappling with premature balding and tying himself up in knots. In Bala, directed by Amar Kaushik and written by Niren Bhatt, a similar (yet intrinsically different) story-line yields a far more salutary result - a film that, give and take a few minor wobbles along the way, strikes at the root of the societal and mental blocks that prevent people from reconciling themselves with their looks and facing the world with confidence. It is a breezy drama on a prickly theme that sustains its sense of proportion and its control over a challenging narrative arc.
Laced with wit and humour, this comic take on the plight of the lead character essayed by Ayushmann Khurrana, is presented as a series of mishaps brought on by his own inability to deal with hair loss and dwindling self-esteem. He tries out, as the narrator tells us, "210 cures in two months" at the behest of his hairdresser-friend (Abhishek Banerjee) and the know-it-all Bachchan bhai (Javed Jaffery), who assumes the mantle of a well-meaning adviser. In one of the film's funniest scenes, all three men, at the lowest point of the hero's life, mimic Amitabh Bachchan. And all three actors effortlessly hit the right notes, reflecting the charming, easy flowing nature of the film.
Ayushmann Khurrana surrenders himself completely to the demands of the role, conveying the ups and downs, actually mostly downs, of the cocky Bal 'Bala' Mukund Shukla, who, as a teenager, saw himself as the Shah Rukh Khan of Kanpur. In a later scene, he blames his own insensitivity as a boy for his current perceived misfortune.
The story, narrated by Vijay Raaz impersonating the commodity that is in short supply on Bala's head, flows smoothly in the first half, hits a few hurdles in the initial portions of the second, and finally recovers to reach a finale that delivers a strong blow on behalf of body positivity and highlights the unrealistic standards of beauty that the media and cosmetic brands impose on our collective psyche.
Bala is a salesman who peddles a fairness cream for a beauty products firm that claims to use "ayurvedic chemicals", a contradiction of terms that sums up the intrinsic fakery involved in the cosmetics industry. His heart isn't in the job. He wants to make a mark as a stand-up comedian. But it is his own life that has become a joke. He can't bear to see his fast receding hairline. He has the mirror in the bathroom half covered so that the part of his face above the forehead in hidden from his sight.
Bala's reluctant sounding board in his endeavour to rise above his shortcoming is Latika Trivedi (an overly darkened Bhumi Pednekar), his classmate from school, who he grew up ridiculing for her complexion. She gets her own back when the insensitive schoolboy grows up and is assailed by alopecia in his early 20s. But Latika, infinitely more aware of the notion of true beauty than any other character in the story, never goes beyond likening his balding pate with the moon while she herself holds her own in the face of constant pinpricks.
The role of the 'antagonist' and Bala's love interest is assigned to Pari Mishra (Yami Gautam), Lucknow's self-styled supermodel and TikTok sensation. She falls for Bala's charm after he dons a hair patch. The sprightly lady is swept off her feet by the man's skills as a mimic of Bollywood stars. But when things begin to fall apart - this is when the film flirts briefly with uncertainty - she isn't put in the dock for insisting on settling only for a physically perfect man as her life partner.
Bala touches upon sensitive issues but makes its point without turning overtly judgmental about anyone or anything. The dialogues are peppered with words like takla, ganja and kaali. However, the negative connotations of these pejorative expressions aren't allowed to linger. If anything, the screenplay finds ways to put a positive spin on them at times. That takes some doing all right, but the writing - it keeps the proceedings light - ensures that the effort does not usually show.
Bala is undoubtedly Ayushmann Khurrana's film. But Bhumi Pednekar and Yami Gautam play second fiddle with such aplomb that they are never put in the shade. Especially striking is Pednekar, who played another kind of Uttar Pradesh woman with great flair in Saand Ki Aankh, amps up the power of the no-nonsense activist-lawyer she etches out here.
The supporting cast, led by the ever-dependable Saurabh Shukla, contributes some of the film's most unforgettable scenes. Saurabh Shukla is cast as the harried hero's father, who himself is a man whose life hasn't turned out the way he would have liked it to although he never stops reminding Bala that he is a former Ranji Trophy player. The father-son love-hate relationship is wonderfully woven into the plot, as are Bala's equations with his younger brother Vihaan (Dheerendra Kumar Gautam, who steals a couple of scenes).
Two other actresses - Seema Pahwa as Latika's mausi, a woman with unwanted facial hair, and Sunita Rajwar in the role of Bala's mother who brings the house down with a malapropism - she describes her son as Kanpur's most "edible" bachelor - are wonderful.
Bala benefits no end from the quality of the performances as well as from its empathy for the idiosyncrasies of small town folk, but it is the writing that is its Samson's hair: the film's power flows principally from it. The screenplay is indeed King here. Yes, with a capital K.