In Bhagavata Purana when Lord Krishna sees Kubja, the hunchback maidservant of King Kansa in Mathura, he transforms her into a beautiful woman. Or, does he? Perhaps Lord Krishna only implied that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Like many aspects of mythology, we never delve into interpretations and remember stories in the most literal sense. Exactly, the way ‘Bala’ shows schoolchildren in Kanpur putting up this scene for a stage play, the dark-complexioned girl is replaced by a fair-complexioned one when the boy enacting Lord Krishna hands down the boon.
From mythology to the modern times of social media, the makers of Bala take us to the world obsessed with likes on social media. The ‘likes’ on social media and the deeply entrenched impact it has on people living in smaller towns. It does leave you feeling sad how technology has further reinforced our biases towards looking a certain way.
Honestly, should a bald patch on your head leave you depressed and snatch away professional and personal opportunities. Looks matter but how much should we obsess?
Ayushmann Khurrana and Authenticity
I have found Ayushmann Khurrana and authenticity to be synonym in recent times; take any of his movies and you are sure to get genuine locations, local dialects, and serious acting. The ‘authenticity’ that you keep screeching for in the ‘Khans’ movies comes with a 100% guarantee in Ayushmann Khurrana’s movies. So, you do not go anywhere except Kanpur and Lucknow in Bala. The narrow bylanes, old government buildings and the dingy beauty salon wrap you for about two hours. But, you will not cringe rather feel happy to see the reality.
Ayushman Khurrana’s role is similar to the one he played in Dum Laga Ke Heisha and Bareilly ki Barfi. In Bala, he plays a young man of about twenty-five in a small town with an added predicament of going bald.
Coming to the Movie
A quirky voice-over by Vijay Raaz begins the movie with ‘hair’ as the protagonist in everyone’s life. After all, the title of the movie rides on ‘hair and baldness’. This voice-over lets us into the childhood of Balmukunda and Latika, the two classmates in their pre-teens with the dark-skinned Latika surely having a crush on Balmukunda. Balmukunda aka Bala is a popular boy in class owing to his silky, long hair and the talent to mimic Bollywood actors. These two children play their roles exceptionally well. You feel the angst in Latika as she is put down at this tender age for her skin colour and looks. In young Bala, there is the perfect caricature of an over-confident boy making fun of the teacher for baldness and bullying Latika for a dark complexion.
From here, the movie fast forwards to a twenty-five-year-old Bala losing hair at a rapid speed. His family is troubled and wishes Bala to be married before he gets completely bald. Yes, the prerequisite for marital eligibility is also a requirement for Bala’s sales profession. With neither of the two things working out for Bala, he has to try hundreds of remedies to grow back the hair on his head.
With nothing working out, Bala succumbs to don a wig and impress his love interest, Pari Mishra. The character of Pari is played by Yami Gautam and in a true spirit to her real-life image; here she is the small-town model for a fairness cream – Pretty You. Yami Gautam is synonym to the Fair and Lovely brand in India (for which she receives flak), so this seemed to be a brave attempt by her. She wonderfully portrays her part as the beautiful woman, obsessed with her beauty and a continuous affirmation of her popularity from people around her.
On the other hand, Latika played by Bhumi Pednekar with additional layers of dark tone has become a lawyer. Though her role is sadly on the sidelines.
The strength of Supporting Actors
Seema Pahwa steals the screen the moment she arrives. In her minuscule role, she overshadows the two leading actresses. She plays Latika’s Aunt obsessed with trying to get an eligible groom for her niece. For this, she has to coax Bala in getting social media accounts going for Latika with photographs edited to look shades fairer. In one of the scenes when Latika confronts Bala for doing this, she is reminded by Bala on how he has bestowed a great favour on her by enhancing her social media pictures.
Another actor who stands out for his ability is Saurabh Shukla and he gets to play Bala’s father. He is bald and diabetic, the reason why Bala lashes out at him for handing down the bad genes. The adorable, loving father has to balance between Bala and his younger son who is still blessed with a dense crop of hair.
Surprisingly, there is Javed Jaffrey playing some sort of a mentor to Bala but I was disappointed for there seemed to be hardly any meat in his character. The barber friend from the salon seemed to be a more fun and popping character in the movie.
I found ‘Bala’ to be beyond the issue of baldness and its repercussions. It is more about accepting oneself in the true sense. The heavyweight dialogues actually come from the two leading ladies – Latika and Pari. On one hand, there is a beautiful girl who is unable to think beyond looking beautiful and getting likes on social media for her looks. And, then the dark-skinned girl more inclined towards becoming an independent woman. The movie doesn’t prove either of two perceptions wrong, it is an unapologetic acceptance of who one is.
Is it a Comedy?
A comedy couldn’t have justified the movie. But, the makers tried to incorporate comedy as a mainstay moving the script forward, which does fall flat. It isn’t comic to see Bala go through various experiments in regrowing his hair. He cannot get a transplant owing to his diabetic condition which also a sad part.
Bala incorporates the current problem with the Indian Society, the continued mindset to find a fair complexioned bride and the fetishes’ with beauty companies to obsess women with fair-complexion. So at best, Bala tries to be light-hearted but remaining serious, touching subjects like patriarchy, feminism and bullying apart from the obsession with perfect physical attributes.
The problem with the script is in its pace. What more could have the makers done – there is Bala on the verge of losing his personal and professional life to baldness and there is Latika who is only on the sidelines. Latika’s role limited to reinforce the belief in loving oneself.
There are a couple of songs but none that remained with me. It would have worked better without any songs for that matter (I thought).
Even with this, it isn’t common for Bollywood to seek out such socially relevant subjects and dole out in commercial cinema.