Bala Shukla works at a company marketing fairness products in Kanpur. His wit and communication skills come in handy for selling these illusionary creams and powders to a gaggle of dark skinned women. But Bala, the Salesman (Ayushmann Khurrana), is prematurely bald, and is himself victim to promises of miraculous restorative treatment from charlatans, corporations and folk practitioners.
This supposed situational irony is a cruel joke. There is no comparison between a male vanity affliction like early hair loss and the colour prejudice a dark skinned woman suffers in most parts of Northern India. As if to compound this lack of sensitivity to our inbred racism, the makers of ‘Bala’ casts a well know Indian actress, in blackface.
Bhumi Pednekar plays Latika Trivedi, a dark skinned lawyer who has been derided with the word ‘kali’, since she was a child. In the opening flashback of the movie, we see her ‘little girl’ avatar taunted for her dark skin by the ‘little boy’ version of Bala Shukla. He has a full head of thick, wavy hair, that he tosses from side to side, as in a shampoo commercial. She likes him, but he rubs it in that he prefers the fair girls in his class. As they both turn adult, destiny steps in and Bala loses hair rapidly. This has the effect of quickly erasing his confidence and charm, and the result, according to the film, brings him on par with Latika in the dating and marriage market.
The artist working on Ayushmann’s head has done a good job. With the actor able to control his facial features before and after the adornment of a stylish wig, the stark contrast in the personae is vivid and convincing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in the case of the blackface executed on Bhumi Pednekar. Her make-up is so bad that the actress looks like she has had Cherry Blossom Boot Polish smeared unevenly on her face and arms before every take. Why couldn’t they just cast a naturally dark skinned actress? Or don’t our celebrated casting agents include any in their profile?
But once Bala gets the terrifically woven wig to wear, his energy and personality is restored and he gets sent on work to Lucknow. There, a beautiful, fair skinned model called Pari Mishra (Yami Gautam) falls head over heels for him. Of course he plans to tell her, in good time, that his hair is not natural. But high on passion, he postpones it. Self willed, she rushes him, and then, at the last minute, he doesn’t have the courage to say what should be said. As the poet once said: ‘O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive’.
‘But why should Bala confess? He is not a Christian.’ This is probably the funniest one liner in a movie that has its morality confused, but has some great words written in lyrical Kanpuriya Hindi. The dialogue, spoken by a host of bit characters in the film, consists of lengthy diatribes on the subject under discussion, and is delivered in elocutionary style. The best speaker is Bala’s younger brother, Vihan (Dheerendra Kumar Gautam), a spunky cricketer who is sick of all the bad hair days in his family.
With catchy songs as well, ‘Bala’ is an entertaining film. But ultimately, it is an unconvincing presentation on the tribulation of early hair loss. Worse, it makes disingenuous comparisons, by measuring a common ailment with serious social and cultural prejudices.