By Rachit Raj

Bala is another addition to the Ayushmann Khurrana sub-genre. These movies (obviously starring Khurrana) bring a Rajkumar Hirani-esque optimism to their narrative, place it in the culturally stubborn and regressive North India, and give us a protagonist who might not be an entirely likeable character but becomes charming and likeable under the skin of the actor playing him.

Earlier this year, Dream Girl became the first glitch in this formulaic Ayushmann-Khurrana-movie template. It showed how a sense of laziness might creep in the writing of a movie when it starts taking an actor-defined template more seriously than the essential requirements of the story. In that regard Bala, although formulaic, patchy and marred by another make-up mess for Bhumi Pednekar, comes out a winner because it understands the tale it wants to tell, never looking intimidated (and hence hurried) by its predictability.

Addressing a similar issue that Ujda Chaman studied, Bala is about the twenty-five-year-old Balmukund Shukla (Ayushmann Khurrana), a boy named ‘Bala’ because his thickly cultivated hair became a prop in his mimicry of Shah Rukh Khan as a school boy. An aspiring standup comedian now, Bala is going through premature balding, resulting in a complete role-reversal. The boy who used to be an arrogant bully, especially harsh to a dark-skinned Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), is now bullied for his looks.

The transition is a harsh one, and like most bullies Bala remains an offensive, racist man even as he himself feels marginalized in a world dictated by people with thick hair. Khurrana pulls off this section of the movie brilliantly. Walking the thin line of a man who is offensive, brash and arrogant, but also vulnerable and drowning in self-pity, he gives Bala the right layers to make you root for him despite his flaws.

Add to that a career-best performance by Yami Gautam as the shallow Tik Tok sensation Pari Mishra, and Bala becomes a comedy of immature, absurd characters seamlessly. Their romance is stupid, senseless and yet endearing. Director Amar Kaushik has made you root for Bala enough by now for you to be invested in his wig-driven love-story with a character so obsessed with looks that marriage for her is all about her hair on the day of the ceremony.

Coming together after the terrific Vicky Donor, Ayushmann and Yami make for an odd, clumsy but immensely likeable couple. Yami is especially brilliant in a scene where she speaks about why physical appearance matters to her. It is a gentle, insightful monologue that quickly makes you understand who she is beyond her Tik Tok videos. Thankfully, though, the film does not try to find its definition in the love story between Bala and Pari. That simply forms a part of his journey not the purpose, and there lies the biggest strength of Bala as a coming-of-age story.

Writer Niren Bhatt keeps the story about Bala, never wavering its focus from his journey. Every other character is present in the movie to give Bala’s journey an arc. Latika, then, becomes an unavoidable, nagging presence in his life. The worst written character in the film, Latika’s impact is also marred by the horrible goof-up by the make-up department. Bhumi never looks convincing as the dark-skinned Latika, even though her rant on living a life of discrimination is impactful despite the obvious mediocrity with how she has been presented to us on screen. That one aspect alone brings down Bala from becoming what previous Khurrana movies have turned out to be.

Bala, like Dream Girl, elevates its caliber because of some fantastic actors at the top of their game. Bhumi Pednekar has taken some courageous roles this year. Sadly, one was in a movie that seems to have been erased from our consciousness and the other two pulled down by shoddy make-up. Yami Gautam gives a timely reminder of the talent she possesses, revelling in the fruity mindlessness of her character. Saurabh Shukla, Seema Pahwa (endorsing a moustache here), Javed Jaffrey and Abhishek Banerjee provide good support to a fantastic lead performance by Ayushmann Khurrana.

Bala never becomes an extraordinary film, but it remains a good, entertaining movie with a wonderful final act. Its message and humour does not seem forced. It remains a simple, likeable watch. The film does not want to be as path-breaking as Stree (Amar Kaushik’s previous film) or as morally complex as Vicky Donor. Bala is content being a light-hearted commentary on premature baldness, racism and our obsession with a certain idea of beauty. Powered by the ever-dependable Ayushmann Khurrana, it manages to be an endearing watch for its two hours of runtime. Maybe that is all we should expect from it. A good few hours at the movies watching Ayushmann Khurrana impersonating Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan.

[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]