In a sentence we never thought we would be writing, a couple in a troubled marriage is reconciled with some help from Adolf Hitler.

Nitesh Tiwari’s Bawaal is a pop history lesson masked as a love story. The Prime Video release, based on a story by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, sets out to subvert the conventions of the average comedy-laced, song-and-dance show that includes tours of picturesque locations in Europe.

Lucknow resident Ajay (Varun Dhawan) is a proud narcissist, hot-air dispenser and self-confessed charlatan. He lives by the credo that people should remember the hype, rather than the result, of any action.

Ajay struts about, brags endlessly (he didn’t become a cricketer because of tennis elbow) and fools nearly everybody, especially the students at the school where he has wangled a job as a history teacher. Ajay’s classroom behaviour brings to mind the song from Anpadh (1952), whose lyrics include the line about not caring a toss whether or not Alexander waged a war on Porous.

Ajay’s cavalier worldview extends to his wife Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor). They are on the brink of a permanent rupture. Might a tour of Europe past the sites of Nazi atrocities in the 1940s – which will also boost Ajay’s professional credentials – provide the healing touch?

Janhvi Kapoor and Varun Dhawan in Bawaal (2023). Courtesy Earthsky Pictures/Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment/Prime Video.

There’s no shortage of ambition in Nitesh Tiwari’s screenplay, written along with Nikhil Mehrotra, Shreyas Jain and Piyush Gupta. Sharp humour – Tiwari’s forte – paves the way for a far trickier attempt to update Gen Z and WhatsApp history believers about the perils of ignoring the lessons of the past.

Among the key sites for resolution is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where Hitler’s “Final Solution” – the mass murders of Jews – was carried out. The well-intentioned film smuggles in a note of caution about following charismatic but underqualified men and living in a bubble of ignorance. From a safe distance, Tiwari gingerly delivers a message about the realities back home.

The sobering remnants of the Holocaust remind Ajay of just how petty-minded he is. There might have been a better, and cheaper way, to educate Ajay. The film’s lessons in love, tolerance and a wider worldview for its hero comes at the cost of its heroine.

Nisha is described as smarter, better qualified, and more independent than her husband. Among her favourite actors is Smita Patil, and she has read Rabindranath Tagore. Yet, Nisha plays gentle counsellor rather than fiery feminist, smoothening Ajay’s rough edges rather instead of giving him the boot.

Ajay’s redemption arc goes only so far. Varun Dhawan does a fine job of portraying an obnoxious man with a visibly nasty streak. But the speed with which Ajay is transformed beggars belief, just as the earnest endeavour to personalise history falls short. The recreation of key historical events reaches its nadir in Auschwitz, where a gas chamber becomes a staging ground for a peak lovey-dovey moment.

Bawaal (2023).