Remember Rajkummar Rao’s delirious Shah Rukh Khan impression in Stree? Reassuringly in Bala, his second effort, director Amar Kaushik does not skimp on his SRK obsession. He is aided by a die-hard admirer in Ayushmann Khurrana, and the film itself doubles as a wonderful fan-edit of Khan's journey: from Baazigar to Jab Tak Hai Jaan. And yet the mimicry bits in Bala go beyond pointless tribute. At every beat, the film is a reflection on unabashed fandom, the curious ways it can both limit and expand our emotional grammar.
When he is sad, Balmukund Shukla (Ayushmann) invokes Devdas. When happy, his arms splay out like Khan’s. Ayushmann nails these bits and more, throwing in nods to Govinda, Bobby Deol, Akshay Kumar, and, for my money, 90s sensation Kamal Sadanah, immortalised by Kumar Sanu’s lovelorn Dil Cheer Ke Dekh in the 1993 film Rang.
All this unbridled adulating has fanned Bala’s ego — so when his silky-soft hair finally begins to thin out, he is aghast at his demotion from ‘hero’ to ‘charitra abhineta’ (character actor). That this line is uttered by an actor who, in recent years, has ably bridged the gap between the two, speaks of the many meta-pleasures this film strews along the way.
The story unfolds in Kanpur, where Bala is a salesman at a fairness product firm. He is presented an opportunity to visit Lucknow, where lives TikTok sensation Pari (Yami Gautam), who has agreed to endorse their product. Bala has fallen for Pari, so before embarking on the work trip, he must find a way to re-grow his hair. He tries everything: assorted oils, a cow-dung-and-bull-semen combo, yoga. Nothing works. Giving up, he settles for a wig — not the same as real hair but deceptive enough for the job. This, of course, becomes the draw: Will Pari, whose entire life is built around appearances, accept Bala if and when his rug comes off? And what about Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), a dark-skinned girl who was once bullied by Bala, and whose friendship he’ll soon come seeking?
Screenwriters Niren Bhatt and Ravi Shankar Muppa make no haste to answer these questions. The film is often funny, but not at the expense of a bald man’s plight. Unlike last week’s Ujda Chaman, there are no exaggerated taunts and jeers, and Bala’s only real conflict is an internal one, his inability to accept baldness as a fact of life. “You fret too much,” coos Jaaved Jaaferi as the neighbourly Bachchan Bhaiyaa, even as he pats his own hair like the megastar of his name. There are other great turns — by Seema Pahwa, Saurabh Shukla and Abhishek Banerjee — and the strong ensemble ensures the humour remains fresh, instead of pegging all jokes on Ayushmann’s patch and wig.
If there’s at all a mocking gaze in Bala, it’s trained elsewhere. Yami Gautam shines out with her gleefully vain rendition of Pari. When they meet for the first time, Bala intrudes on a live TikTok video she’s shooting. Pari is irked at first, but, realising how well he is lip-syncing along, lets him stay on. This is mirrored in a later scene when she’s bitterly upset but won’t stop styling her cheeks. Ayushmann and Yami have gone down this road before, and it’s always endearing to see the Vicky Donor pair pine on over a second-act lull. In contrast, the scenes featuring Bhumi are a dud, full of shrill tokenisms that sit uneasily with the actor’s bronzed makeup and underwritten part.
Like he did in Stree, Amar peers hard into Indian masculinity. There’s a father who fluffed his cricketing career back in the day, and is egging his son into the domestic league. Bala returns home flustered from an encounter. Watching his younger brother at play, he snatches the bat and tries hitting it hard. He ducks out instead, and in the next flash you see him scraping with one of the boys. “We live in a male-dominated society,” Bachchan spews in one scene, telling Bala to quit his cribbing since a man is easily forgiven his flaws while a woman is stuck in wedlock. This is subverted later on — in a courtroom scene that’s interchangeably deadpan and high-flown.
Bala gets incredibly cheeky at times. Phantom cigarettes and coke bottles are used to eschew censor board tags. There’s a straight-up dig at a haloed mythological figure, and while the film does make an effort to soften the blow, the words sting. It might have been a fallow year at the movies, but Hindi cinema hasn’t yet lost its bite. The gods must be crazy to disapprove. In Ayushmann we trust.
Director: Amar Kaushik
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Yami Gautam, Bhumi Pednekar