Bala, Stree director Amar Kaushik’s new movie about the travails of a prematurely balding young man, makes all the right noises about society’s obsession with mere appearances. As Bala (Ayushmann Khurrana) moves from embarrassment over his dwindling hair to despair before finally achieving acceptance, the movie makes the not-exactly-new argument that looks don’t matter. All ye who are fat, bald or dark, learn to love yourselves.

So far, so progressive. Why then did the movie not heed its own message when it came to casting Bala’s childhood friend Latika? This crucial role of a smart and confident woman who happens to be dark-skinned is played by the fair-complexioned Bhumi Pednekar with blackface.

More painful than the clumps clinging to Bala’s increasingly bare scalp is the soot that coats Pednekar’s face and body, and more worrying than Bala’s anguish is the movie’s inability to see that blackface is a bigger problem than balding.

The Kanpur-set movie is based on a story by Pavel and a screenplay by Niren Bhatt. Bala shares some similarities with the recently released Ujda Chaman, which was a remake of the Kannada film Ondu Motteya Kathe (2017). In all three movies, young men assess the impact of early balding on their love lives. The hero of Udja Chaman settles for an overweight woman, as if to underscore the belief that people perceived as undesirable can never punch above their weight.

Bala extends its leading man’s predicament in more interesting ways, and is an altogether more humorous and layered examination of a widespread problem than Ujda Chaman. And yet, every time Latika appears on the screen, a shred of legitimacy falls to the floor, just like one of the many strands leaving Bala’s scalp at an alarming rate.

As a child, Bala has a full head of hair and cockiness to spare. He is rude to Latika and lampoons a balding teacher. Revenge catches up with Bala when he is 25 and is afraid to look into the mirror. Every solution is grasped at but nothing works – the bodily fluids of animals, rejuvenating oils, exercise. A hair transplant procedure is deemed too risky, so Bala opts for the safer option – a hairpiece.

The re-coiffured Bala puts the moves on Pari (Yami Gautam), the model for the skin whitening cream manufacturer for whom he works. The romance plays out over a series of hilarious TikTok recreations of 1990s songs. These videos, apart from celebrating the cheesy charms of the ’90s, allow Khurrana to show off his talent for mimicry. When Pari cottons on to the truth, she behaves as expected, leaving behind a broken-hearted but also cowardly man who still refuses to embrace his condition.

The script slyly channels the craze for Bollywood culture. Bala is pursuing a separate career in stand-up comedy by imitating movie stars (his impersonations of Shah Rukh Khan and Bobby Deol are spot-on). It’s only when Bala begins to create original material that his transformation is complete.

Bala (2019).

Bala, Bala, Bala: the movie is absorbed with, and better at, dealing with its self-pitying hero. Ayushmann Khurrana is apt for the role and up for the challenge of playing yet another ordinary man dealing with an extraordinary problem. Yet, there are scenes in which Khurrana appears to be mimicking his own previous performances. The talented actor extends his repertoire with every new comedy, but there are moments in Bala that echo previous Khurrana hits, including Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Dream Girl.

Despite the repetitiveness that has become a part of Khurrana’s shtick, Bala’s pathos breaks through the jokes and barbs. In this clever reworking of the fairy-tale about the prince, the princess and the ogre, Khurrana’s Bala suggests a hero who is also something of a villain.

For all her superficiality, Pari too is a well-rounded character. She tells Bala that since she is in the business of keeping up appearances, she expects her life partner to be conventionally good-looking – a perfectly logical argument. It’s nice that the movie portrays Pari not as a heartless wench in need of taming, but a ditz who feels cheated in love. Yami Gautam turns out a sweet and convincing performance, and her Pari is an altogether more believable character than the righteous Latika.

Latika’s parallel predicament soon begins to resemble the morsel of food that refuses to go down the throat. Every time Latika opens her mouth to put Bala into his place or tell him what he doesn’t want to hear, her words ring true, but then that face comes in the way, along with the nagging doubts over Pednekar’s casting.

Bhumi Pednekar (left) in Bala (2019). Courtesy Maddock Films.

There’s another freak in the room, Latika’s aunt (Seema Pahwa), who has a moustache that no beauty parlour has managed to tame. Fortunately, she is on the screen for very little time, and had she been given a back story too, Bala might just have tipped over into burlesque territory. There is full potential for doing so – a hero trying to be someone else, a heroine so dazzled by her lover that she can’t spot his hairpiece, a woman with an unnaturally and obviously blackened face. Bala’s parents and younger brother are eccentric too, as are his grandfather and his friend circle. Amidst the relentless joking and jousting, there are some valid observations about the evilness of the fairness cream industry, the malarkey behind the hair rejuvenation economy, and the absurdity of an inadequate man reaching above his station. Then Latika shows up, and it all goes to pot.

Also read:

Dream Girl’, ‘Bala’, two films in 2020: Why Ayushmann Khurrana is one of Bollywood’s busiest actors