Bala is a continuum of celebrating trials and travails of social-cultural life of small city, as seen in films Badhai Ho Badahi, Dream Girl etc.
Amar Kaushik’s new film’s title ‘Bala’ is a straight give-away: it depicts a traumatic coming to terms tale of a balding young man and his ‘hair-raising’ efforts to reverse rapidly receding hair(bal)line. Guess, for effect, the protagonist ( played by Ayushmann Khurrana) is also named ‘Bal’ Mukund in the film. The film depicts trials and tribulations stemming from his thinning self-confidence corresponding with thinning hairline. His insecurities not only make him a psychological wreck but also turn upside his family, friends and work relationships. The film ends in Bal Mukund letting down his hair-both figuratively and metaphorically-by celebrating new found life and mantra. By doing so, in a way, he turned premature baldness association with old age to one being bestowed with wisdom and self-realization. Basically, it is a wholesome, entertaining film with a message, fit for full family viewing.
Owing to the subject and storyline, film was bound to, and has found immediate identification and right connect with urban audiences especially in North India. Though, through sub-titles or dubbing, it may find universal socio-cultural connect, its nuances can best be relished by people imbibed in Indian ethos and idioms that are extensively used in the story and dialogues.
The ingenuity of person penning the plot needs unqualified praise. If the theme of existential blues of a balding man wasn’t universal enough, Niren Bhatt juxtaposes this theme with another universal one- of colourism. Indians’ manic-obsessive aversive streak for black skin the nation’s worst-kept secret. In fact, some African students, pursuing education in India, have called Indians more racists than whites. Some state that India’s social value and ritual hierarchy ranks ‘black’ or ‘tamas’ as lowest guna in the hierarchy of ‘satvik’ and ‘rajsik’ gunas (attributes)
For quick validation, one only needs to see how the majority of matrimonial ads seek fair skin as essential pre-requisite. Imagine finding brides in a country where about ninety percent population’s skin tones vary between wheatish and black colour. Hope one hasn’t forgotten how ‘Fair and Lovely’ Cream, introduced(1975) five decades ago, continues to be an abiding metaphor of such a mindset. It has spawned an entire range of fairness creams, reaching a pinnacle when metrosexual megastar Shah Rukh Khan too modeled for one – others macho men like John Abraham, Shahid Kapoor, Sidharth Malhotra have followed suit. In south Indian films, fair skin still remains as the basic qualification for starring on the silver screen. Recall how ‘Silk ‘ Smitha couldn’t be considered for a heroine’s role despite massive fan following.
Before films, India’s common cultural consciousness was largely conditioned by characters drawn from religious mythology and real-life characters from medieval India. For both the kings and commoner- men and women alike- free-flowing long hair has been considered an essential part of living and being. For five full decades till satellite channels came in the nineties, pop culture was completely conditioned by the cinema. Nearly all popular film heroines’ beauty was buttressed by flowing long locks extending beyond the waist at least. For years various hair oils with Amla and coconut formulations have found constant market. Similarly, Brylcream got associated with well-groomed hair for gentlemen for decades.
During this period, not a single hero found adulation without hair ,both on and off-screen. One hears from one’s parents how post-independence generation openly copied hairstyles of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand , Dilip Kumar( his thick mane celebrated in song ‘uddi jab jab zulfein teri’); and has witnessed people’s similar craze with hairstyles of Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra , Amitabh Bachhan ,Mithun Chakrabarty and Shah Rukh Khan. Raj Kumar reportedly was bald but not a single photo is in public domain. Rakesh Roshan and Feroz Khan came out with bald look in public long after their acting days. Only Anup Kher and Amrish Puri openly donned bald look both on and off-screen, but they weren’t considered role models due to age and villainous role specialization. Having heavy mop of hair on the head is such a high premium attribute that Amitabh, Akshay, and Govinda have reportedly enhanced hair support through transplant, weaving etc. Even cricketers like Martin Crowe, Saurav, VVS Laxman, Sehwag, Kallis all have publicly declared the doing of their hair job ( Dravid jocularly commented that it would be easy to dismiss Kallis after hair transplant as he would spend more time in front of a mirror).
Amar Kaushik uses Shah Rukh Khan motif in Bala deliberately for his association with a thick mop of hair and as well as for his being Bollywood’s king of romance.
India hardly has any bald actor heroes whereas Hollywood had Yul Bryner and Telly Savalas .Since the seventies, the trio of Hollywood hunks, starring in high octane action movies, has been represented by bald Bruce Willis – others being Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger- and they are still continuing . Even today bald actors like Van Diesel, Jason Statham are favourite role models. At best, Indian audiences have accepted bald villains like Shetty, Amrish Puri Mocambo, Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Shakaal),Bob Christo,Asutosh and Rana (Sangarsh). Sanjay Dutt ( Agneepath) and Arjun Rampal( Ra-One) are two exceptions who wore bald look but enacted villainous roles. What is with baldness that even Hollywood baddie like Thanos wear the bald look for effect.
Man’s existential blues over hair loss is cross culturally universal barring some isolated tribes. Even popular culture associate thick mop of hair with manliness much like flowing mane of the lion and the horse. Top cricketers like Dennis Lillee and Imran Khan aped hair bounce to foster their macho men image ( remember Cinthol ad of Imran Khan in 1987). So much so, four decades ago in an era of newspapers and TV advertising, how a single news report of Anoop hair oil’s magical powers had nation in grip of hysteria and historic sales; of course, owner went laughing all the way to the bank and eventually made a fortune selling formula to the Godrej. Ironically, Anoop oil still sells and interestingly bald men population shows no sign of decline.
Ayushmann’s character encapsulates multiple motifs of movies: common man’s fascination with films and hero-worship; black as not beautiful; mimicry of manners of dress and speech of movie stars and romancing with the girls especially before the marriage though nearly all marriages are ‘arranged’. Unfortunately, the film perpetuates movie hero’s association with wooing and winning a lady-love; it underplays the earlier Bollywood storyline of a girl with golden heart winning the beau in the end. In fact, the film reinforces India’s aspiring middle class putting high premium on good looks, when heroine opts for divorce rather than reconciling with the bald man.
Bhumi Pednekar’s character of a dark-skinned girl comes across as a supremely confident person who insists on being accepted as a person rather than an object. Film avoids the usual cliché of beauty being skin deep and black people with a heart of gold .Obliquely, Bhumi’s character hints at better positioning of an educated professional and in the process beautifully breaks barriers of being black. Director uses Bhumi’s character for cathartic self-realization and remorse by the protagonist -that appearance doesn’t define a person; on the contrary, acceptance does first of oneself and then of others. This defining moment of the movie is the monologue by Ayushmann in the last scene.
If these two major motifs weren’t enough, story writer also slides in India’s hinterland’s cricket craze amongst youth and high hopes to play for India and hit big time. This motif is played out by father( Saurabh Shukla) having played in Ranji and Khurrana’s brother also making it to the Ranji team in final frames, coinciding with feel-good celebratory climax.
And if these three motifs weren’t enough to broaden storyline’s identification ingredient, plot adds all pervasive influence of Bollywood films in behavioural patterns of general populace. Millions have lived out the maxim of mein zindagi kaa saath nibhata chala gaya or naa sir jhooka key jiyo, naa muh chupa key jiyo. Who can forget the impact of Lata’ song ‘Ae merey watan key logon’in making whole nation cry. Living the maxim of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, Bal Mukund not only mimics Shah Rukh Khan mannerism but also wants to live the life of a romantic lover. Ayushmann’s mimicry of Shah Rukh Khan is simply endearing
Besides these four main motifs, film includes other booming middle-class aspiration to wear well-groomed look with coiffured hair and fashion accessories. Film also incorporates all pervasive influence of mythology and Ras-leela ( Krishna’s boon to transform a black girl into a fair(y) one ) for inducing easy identification amongst intended audience. Even Khurana’s last film ‘Dream Girl’ used the opening shot of a Ram Leela to build the identification ingredient .The background of joint family survival also builds a connect.
Film also uses blooming younger generation self-love syndrome spurred through selfies; smartphones as fashion accessory; two-minute fame seeking instinct by uploading Tik Tok clips; sharing daily life on Instagram; uploading photoshopped perfect face on Facebook and getting self-validated by likes and thumbs up clicks . Don’t know deliberate or otherwise, the director plays on the need for such validation by others , that mirrors similar self -validation sought by a balding man by re-growing hair. The universal urge of being liked is finding modern expression through symbolic thumbs up ,likes et al. 24×7 social media networks have aggravated this to near pathological need at times.
People attribute Ayushmann Khurrana’s abundant acting talent and choice of scripts for his repeated success at the box office. Actually, it’s his wise selection of subjects and themes, relating to small town inhabitants and lives, slowly being sucked into the big world, that is finding the right connect with specific social segments ( as films like Dream Girl, Badhai Ho Badhai, Article 15 show) . One’s acting alone can’t assure continuous success at the box office, barring exceptional films like Todd Phillips Joker wherein Joaquin Phoenix’s phenomenal performance alone pulled people to theatres worldwide.
Bollywood has realized that earlier era of films and subjects with pan India appeal is almost gone; Few film makers like Raju Hirani still make movies like PK , Munnabhai, 3 Idiots which sell across all India.
Bala is a continuum of celebrating trials and travails of social cultural life of small city, as seen in films Badhai Ho Badahi, Dream Girl etc.
Film’s dialogues in local dialect enhance flavour and feel of cultural matrix of cow belt Hindi heartland . Historically, Bollywood has used local dialect sparingly in films- like Hirani’s PK did. Though it did make Gunga Jamuna and Teesri Kasam that used Bhojpuri. Mostly, three superstars Khans films usually use Hindustani for all India and international appeal. One can say films such as Badhai ho Badhai, Dream Girl, Article 15, Stree, Newton, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan , Behen Hogi Teri, Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana and Bala fall somewhere in between the Hindi and regional films and cater to specific segments within larger Hindi adherents. Even Dangal can be said to be an extension of this genre though it won all India and international appeal due to its girl child theme. This is evident in use of dialect as evident in words like fadhtee hai, lag gayi, ley lee,..utiya, j…nt ; all these words are innuendos in local dialect and mixed with expletives typically used by street urchins . These words were strict until Bandit Queen broke the barrier in the free use of desi expletives to foster rural feel.
As stated, imitation as the sincerest form of flattery Shah Rukh Khan mimicked and parodied old film stars in Om Shanti Om: Bala must seem like a déjà vu for him as Ayushmann Khurrana masterfully mimics his mannerisms and mouths his memorable dialogues in the same way he did in Om Shanti Om.
Fair skin is passé now; golden brown or blonde hair is the current rage of the millennials. One is not surprised these days how white folks are starring in advertisements selling Indian brands. Even cricketers like Hiren Pandya,Rishabh Pant resort to bleaching for blonde effect.
Films made for a specific social segment use traditional cultural motifs like Dream Girl begins with protagonist playing a role in Ramleela for comical effect; Bala does likewise, though not comical, of using a story from Rasleela when Krishna blesses a black girl. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was the pioneer in using comical content to current context; he ( Kundan Shah) used Mahabharat play to induce identification through metaphorical allusion to meanings and messages .
Must appreciate that cinema of pure entertainment genre is embracing unusual and unexpected endings- in this film, heroine is happy having matter of fact divorce sans any regret, breaking the usual stereotypes of ideal north Indian suffering and sacrificial Sita; even second heroine refuses the reconciliation as a rebound offer and is refused with thanks. Both cases do away with any feeling of rancor, regret or revenge seeking and hint that hinterland is moving beyond role restriction for women for conjugal bliss. Now women are resisting accompaniment role for men as seen in Bareily Kee Barfi. Even a small-town woman is demanding to be treated with respect and wants to be treated as a person in her own right. This is only a small beginning and somewhat similar to what happened in Europe and America in post WW II when women began to join the workforce.
Interestingly film resorts to linking turning black girl to a fair one with Krishna who himself was considered ‘ dark’ and is painted blue in his photos, paintings and pictures. Film bypasses any comment about how the British rule actually accentuated and aggravated the existing fair skin bias into open colorism and ‘coloured’ consciousness.
Ayushmann Khurrana despite not from acting school or families, acts well including the felicity in uttering local dialect ; he uncannily bears unmistakable resemblance and appears like a grown-up version of Master Raju of Parichay fame. Besides showing a natural acting talent again ,Bhumi Pedneker is showing boldness in both building bulk ( Dum Laga Ke Haisa) and wearing black greasepaint for the role and is building reputation of a female method actor. Yami Gautam is just about fine in the limited role of looking good and expressing shock on discovering Bala without ‘bal’. Saurabh Shukla doesn’t get chance to show his histrionics. Seema Pahwa bravely wears a moustache and is carrying forward her unglamorous avatar of Badki of Hum Log in films of this genre .Javed Jafri, usually known for choosing comic roles, seemed to have mis-read the script and is a mere caricature.
Bala rehashes of motif of a hair salon owner/ friend used in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, where friend acts as an agony aunt as well helps hero in looking hep , helps in make-up and to don a new look.
Film art décor is fine in depicting typical items of household specially furniture, utensils, dilapidated look, iron grill celling separating first floor, street cricket, street side chaiwallah, barber and chai shops. The clothes donned by main characters don’t seem out of place.
The camera work is simple and straight in keeping with the subject. The aerial and pan shots do create the feel of Lucknow and Kanpur. The motorcycle rides on crowded roads are done well.
Music is also just about fine. Last song and dance routine is typical of Bollywood strategy to make money for music videos on MTV and music channels.
Let me guess-a story/screenplay is already in works about DNA doctored person with perfect physical and mental attributes who ends up being rejected by a partner after the initial appeal gets over. After all, what other person wants is not under ones’ control. Like Bala he would have two similar options: live to regret and blame genes, whose placement couldn’t be perfected to win another person’s sure shot approval; or accept and live and make most of what one got despite best-doctored DNA. Like Bala, that film would end with the same timeless lesson- there is no other but oneself that creates the world one lives in, like the spider. The next possible plotline could be hirsutism affecting a girl and her equally exciting journey to find a lover.
The film is contextualised in contemporary socio-economic urbanizing landscape and middle-class aspirations to improve their material conditions , lifestyles and looks. The fascination with looking good has spawned multi-million-dollar fairness creams and hair transplant industry. Last few decades have also seen simultaneous growth of cosmetic surgery catering to feel and look good urges, conscious and unconscious, amongst urban upwardly mobile middle class. While all these do bring ‘cosmetic’ changes along with increased self-confidence, lack of inner awakening can lead to pathological problems-like Cindy Jackson who underwent 14 surgical and 47 non-surgical procedures to look good and gave up the effort due to exhaustion but not on lack of intention to still improve her looks.
(Author is an avid fan of films and sports. He writes on cultural events like theatre and music occasionally. He also does book reviews and writes on the subject of Disaster Management. As a professional, he belongs to Indian Administrative Service and presently serving as Additional Secretary with the Government of India)