Second films of a director speak so much more about him than his first. In this category, we have second-timers who can confirm are disasters, or were hypes the first time but do not measure up, are just media-favorites (mostly in the non-mainstream or pseudo space), and if the films are both good and successful, we can confirm or otherwise whether they are one-film wonders or can go on to better things. There is a last category, not applicable here, of filmmakers who for various reasons find their groove only with their second films.
Amar “Stree” Kaushik thus falls in the category of directors who are clearly no one-film wonders. Amid prevalent and malicious buzz that most of his debut film in 2018 was ghost-directed by writers Raj & DK, we see him outclassing his impressive start by leagues, showing his true potential as a man of the masses, so to speak, in the cinematic sense.
“Bala” will be loved across the demographic, by all ages and social strata. It is a rip-roaring delight with organically-flowing wit and humor and a dead-serious message that is finally given with huge impact: about self-acceptance in the true sense and about much-needed apathy to worldly norms and prejudiced perspectives about color of skin, the quantity of hair on the head or anything else.
All this is done through a novel yet simple story of a young man ironically named Balmukund (Bal-Mukund here refers to baby Krishna, but there is a pun as it also means hair in Hindi) a.k.a. Bala from Kanpur. A cocky high-school student who is so proud of his locks and ability to mimic top stars, he impresses girls, much to the chagrin of his best friend Latika (Sachin Chaudhari and Saniya Touqeer play the youngster), who is dark-complexioned. Bala often teases her about her skin color and a determined Latika, who faces similar snide comments from all, becomes a fearless activist and women’s lawyer who fights cases for them. This is 11 years later.
And now Bala works as an executive in a fairness cream company, but has become bitter as he is developing a bald patch. His barber friend (Abhishek Banerjee) tries his best to help him with various treatments and suggestions, but to no avail. Since he is losing hair, his boss (Sumit Arora) actually demotes him to a desk job.
Bala tries over a 100 tall-claim remedies, but none work, and some are truly bizarre. His younger brother (Dheerendra Gautam) is also forced to help him in these measures, but launches a defiant, long tirade as a protest and finally refuses. Bala’s father (Saurabh Shukla), mother (Sunita Rajwar) and maternal grandfather (Umesh Shukla) form the rest of his long-suffering (from him) family.
When sent for two months to an assignment in nearby Lucknow, Bala meets the girl he has been a silent admirer as the company’s model on Tik-Tok videos, Pari (Yami Gautam), and soon they start liking each other. By this time, his father has gifted him a hair patch.
Pari, being a successful local model, likes all things beautiful, and comes from a better-off family. Pari likes Bala for the simple man he is and they decide to get married. At this point of time, Bala wants to tell her the truth as he looks very good when he wears the patch, and Pari does not know his secret. He finally sends her a message about his truth. And what happens next?
Kaushik follows the tried-and-tested way of quickly bringing in an emotional or sad angle in a comic sequence and vice-versa. But the best part is that the light, often satirical segments outnumber the few sad moments and there is also a lot of genuine dark comedy where the characters have problems but the audience is enjoying the humor emanating from them. He creates, along with his writers, a very warm, realistic and cozy small-town world, and this critic, having resided for a while in Kanpur, identifies with the milieu, lingo and culture, and can vouch for its veracity.
The master-stroke by Kaushik and his team is of using a narrator who says he is the hair and looks at the characters in the film and their attitude to hair from his perspective! The dialogues are an absolute highlight, and the actors take them to another level. Ayushmann Khurrana is incredible: gone lean for the character, he brings in a 100 percent perfection in this role, with all the right nuances and inflections in tones, expressions and body language. In short, he is not Khurrana at all but Bala in flesh and blood, a fallible and simple man obsessed with his hair once and now with his lack of it.
Bhumi Pednekar strikes a chord as the grown-up Latika, and her quicksilver change of expressions and tones are as wonderful as her make-up, which like Khurrana’s, is done by Preetisheel Singh with complete and very natural brilliance. Yami Gautam truly puts in a lovely turn as the glam Pari, and is excellent throughout, shining brilliantly in the sequence where Ayushmann apologizes for not telling her his truth earlier.
All the supporting artistes, big or small, are wonderfully cast and they perform wonderfully as well. Ayushmaan never shares screen space with his brother Aparashakti in a cameo, but the latter is actually wasted.
Technically, such films need apt support, and the DOP et al cannot dominate. But they all work competently. Special mention is needed for the flawless production design (Mayur Sharma and Amrish Patange), and the costumes (Sheetal Sharma). The choreography (Vijay Ganguly) is realistic and natural and the background music (Sachin-Jigar) wonderfully effective. Their songs hit a chord within the film but are not of the memorable kind.
But the film, emphatically, is.
Produced by: Dinesh Vijan
Directed by: Amar Kaushik
Written by: Pavel Bhattacharya, Niren Bhatt & Ravi Muppa
Music: Sachin-Jigar, Jaani, B. Praak
Starring: Ayushmann Khurrana, Yami Gautam, Bhumi Pednekar, Saurabh Shukla, Abhishek Banerjee, Seema Pahwa, Jaaved Jafferi, Deepika Chikhalia Topiwala, Sachin Chaudhari, Saniya Touqeer, Dheerendra Gautam, Sunita Rajwar, Umesh Shukla, Sumit Arora, Yash Chaturvedi, Shashi Verma, Mushtaq Khan & others
Special Appearance: Aparashakti Khurrana