Director Amar Kaushik proved his mettle in Stree (2018) with a fine balance of horror and comedy. In Bala, he gets us to buy into the world of the characters in Kanpur who are chasing dreams inspired by cinema and cricket, who are obsessed with good looks and, inevitably, fairness.
It helps that the dilemma of the principal character, Balmukund “Bala” Shukla (Khurrana) is not overplayed. There are others, including his neighbour and classmate in school, Latika Trivedi (Bhumi Pednekar), who are shamed for their looks. I wish the filmmakers had spared her the heavy make-up to emphasise her dark skin because she shines like a bronze statue throughout.
This does not, however, take away from her solid character and performance as the diligent schoolgirl who resents Bala's showering attention on fairer girls and grows up to be an independent-minded lawyer. She is the sensible, self-confident foil to Bala’s fragile, fumbling man who lost his mojo along with his treasured tresses. An expert mimic of Bollywood's leading men — a skill Khurrana relishes and flaunts — he spares no one, from SRK to Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor.
Bala is at heart an actor. (Based on recent evidence such as Andhadhun and Dream Girl, we shouldn't be surprised that Khurrana keeps getting roles where the characters pretend and “act” in a universe where dissembling and deceit is a dire need.) Bala's talent is fed more by his part-time opportunities as a stand-up comic. But it is his bread-and-butter job as a marketing agent of a fairness cream, with its limited possibilities for acting, that mirrors his own arrested, insecure identity.
There's an older generation that includes Bala's father, Hari (Saurabh Shukla), and Latika's aunt (Seema Pahwa), who have dealt with their own issues of baldness and female facial hair without fuss. But for the current selfie-afflicted lot — barring Latika — social media, TikTok and the hyperreal are everything.
Bala, who dons a wig after hundreds of failed comical experiments on his pate, meets his match in Pari Mishra (Yami Gautam), the alluring model for the product that he sells. She confesses that she was never very bright, that her life has been all about looking good. A romance aided by TikTok videos — a wooing sequence ends with the duo dancing to popular '90s film songs seen through a touchscreen — is a smart device suited to our times. She also intuits, “I feel like you are a movie. ...And I fear there will be a 'the end' to it.”
When she discovers that he is bald, Pari rushes back home the morning after their hasty wedding and sues him for fraud. Their marriage is annulled, with Bala relenting in the courtroom despite enlisting the plucky Latika to fight his case.
Bala is a comedy that never quite threatens to go overboard, helped by crisp dialogue and witty lines for the protagonists as well as an able supporting cast, especially Javed Jaffrey as a Bachchan lookalike, Abhishek Banerjee as Ajju the barber and aide of Bala and the hero's younger brother Vihaan (Dheerendra Kumar Gautam).
Bala has an awakening in one final sales pitch. In a scene reminiscent of the wonderful Being John Malkovich (1999), he sees Latika's staring face in everyone in the audience. He throws away his cap, lets the audience first laugh at him and then realise that they can shed body image issues like snakeskin and accept themselves for what they are.