Bala movie cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Yami Gautam, Dheerendra Kumar, Saurabh Shukla, Jaaved Jaaferi, Seema Pahwa, Deepika Chikhalia, Abishek Bannerjee
Bala movie director: Amar Kaushik
Bala movie rating: Three and a half stars
It’s funny how being hirsute is equated with manliness: a prematurely balding man often becomes the object of juvenile derision; worse, he becomes less than optimum in the sexual attraction-bedmate stakes.
Ayushmann Khurrana’s playing of the once- plentiful-now-scarce-sar-ki-kheti Balmukund Shukla is so spot-on that you forget the man ever had any hair on his head. And on his chin, arms, chest, and err, presumably, nether regions: all those body parts usually covered with a healthy, glossy, manly pelt.
Amar Kaushik’s film is both loud and subtle as it tracks Bala’s journey from a boisterous chick-magnet adolescence to a craven manhood: our hero is the kind of guy who tapes the upper part of his bathroom mirror so that his receding hairline stays out of his line of vision. He has sloping shoulders, slightly protruding teeth, and a belligerence belonging to a fellow wronged by fate.
Some of those loud parts are cringe-making. Would you slather on a mix of bodily fluids from a bull (yes, that’s a ‘nuskha’ we see being used, and it reminds us of Khurrana’s feat in his debut Vicky Donor) in the hope of hair-growth? No? Then you don’t know what true desperation is, even if your household, and your audience, is holding their nose in disgust, and their bellies with helpless laughter.
But both Kaushik and Khurrana get the vulnerable parts really well too, and that’s where the film scores. The Kanpur-Lucknow locations are still fresh enough (though the next time I hear ‘kantaap’ and Kanpur in the same breath, I will use a right upper cut of my own); the accent is kind-of-there even if not perfectly consistent. The only one who gets it all the way right is the young actor who plays Bala’s put-upon young brother: Dheerendra Kumar is a hoot.
And that brings me to the two ladies in this loop. Bhumi plays Latika, the dark-skinned childhood pal of Bala’s who has grown up tormented because of her complexion, but has been able to put it to a side even if it still hurts. Pednekar was Khurrana’s co-star in one of their best films (‘Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha’), and they bring some spark to their scenes, even if her dark-darker skin tone keeps varying. But conflating bald pates-dark skin-short-stature feels like a bit of a stretch, and a tasteless convenience. I wanted more of Latika, her heart-to-heart chats with her mooch-wali-mausi (Pahwa, always so solid), and her inner turmoil. Why is Latika’s face so disturbingly black, when she herself labels it being ‘saanwli’? Why is the aunt’s hairy upper-lip not been seen to by a beautician? This could have been much more, but is let down by a plot always in a hurry to get back to the male hero’s predicament.
The strand that belongs to the fair, beautiful Pari (Gautam) is looser and laxer, but more convincing. Gautam was Khurrana’s Vicky Donor co-star, and we see them slip smoothly in a groove. The use of the current selfie-driven, tik-tok oriented celebrity culture raises it up a notch, and I liked that the girl who lives only by appearance is not vilified, because the guy is doing exactly that, too.
There are, in fact, so many points that ‘Bala’ is busy raising, while using baldness as a chief peg, that it feels overstuffed at times. And though Bala is meant to be a stand-up comic, his mimicry of Bollywood greats becomes tiresome and repetitive, and a terrific supporting cast is reduced to propping up the hero. And yes, all over again, the third act turns into a moral science lesson: with our hero pontificating on inner and outward beauty, turning his lines into preachy pulpit patter. Yes, we know that fair is not lovely, but society, you know.. Yeah, we know.
Still, Khurrana’s Bala is an achievement. He’s perfected the art of playing people who are not instantly likeable, and he works the characters’ kinks to the point where we can see them, and yet sympathise. This is an unfiltered, bare performance, unafraid to be seen as ridiculous: this kind of shucking of vanity, even if it is self-aware, is rare amongst Bollywood actors. Bala is human, he is flawed; he is one of us. He makes us smile. So does this delicious line, Kaushik throwing in a politically acute curveball, just like he did in Stree — ‘poora Uttar Pradesh chal raha hai bhagwaan bharose, aur bhi chal jayega’. Or words to that effect.
Mazaa aa gaya guru.