Madhur Bhandarkar has a knack for making films on unusual subjects and characters and also putting the female lead at the centre of the story. Having done that, most of his films falter when it comes to actually fleshing out those characters to a convincing degree.
His latest, Babli Bouncer, out on Disney+ Hotstar, avoids his normal judgmental tone, but is as populated with cardboard cut-outs and shorn of any nuance as some of his better known films (Chandni Bar, Fashion, Heroine).
Babli Tanwar (Tamannah Bhatia) lives in a Haryana village known for producing hefty bouncers for Delhi pubs. Her father Gangaram (Saurabh Shukla) runs an akhada for wrestlers, who then end up not as sportsmen but as muscle for hire.
Babli has acquired supposedly male traits, like a tendency to beat up those who offend her, overeating and burping. Her mother Ganga (Supriya Shukla) despairs of Babli’s tomboyishness and inability to make round rotis. The “five times tenth-fail” Babli is okay with the marriage-and-motherhood fate preordained for women, but she is either rejected by potential grooms or rejects them herself.
While her silent suitor Kukku (Sahil Vaid) waits for her to give him a glance, she falls in love with the London-returned Viraj (Abhishek Bajaj). To be able to follow him to Delhi and woo him, she takes up the only job available to her, “a lady bouncer” at a seedy-looking pub called Tally Gully (where Kukku is a bouncer), where she deals with drunk and aggressive women. It’s not as if Babli is the first or only female bouncer in Delhi, but it is made out to be some kind of pioneering achievement.
There is no attempt to understand the inner world of women who work in a risky environment doing what is considered a man’s job in a city notorious for entitled males. Babli is given several action sequences in which she bashes up molesters. But otherwise, the script follows a simple and predictable template taking Babli towards self-realisation. Even in today’s world, the shrew has to be tamed, if not by a man, then by herself.
Because Babli is given a deglam wardrobe, she has to be overloaded with cuteness (what’s with the running burp gag?). She is quite comfortable with social media and knows rudimentary English, but does not know the meaning of the F word, just so that Kukku can give her the wrong meaning for a throwaway and pointless comic scene.
Tamannah Bhatia uses up so much energy getting her Haryanvi accent right that her performance goes flat. Babli has to look perfect, with no sign of a tan that any village woman roaming outdoors would acquire. Still, since Bhatia is in almost every frame, she does grow on you, and her eagerness-to-please is evident.
The flag-waving message about women’s empowerment may still be valid, especially for a state known for female infanticide – and ironically, for medal-winning women wrestlers – but not if it is delivered in such a bland, simplistic manner.