Is Bala really as smart as it looks?
As we filed into the cinema, an audience member told their companion, “The best thing about Ayushmann Khurrana films is that they’re smart.” This statement is like one of those pop-psychology tests that ask you whether the glass of water is half empty or half full. If you’re an optimist, then you’ll see an audience with an evolving appreciation for less formulaic films. If you’re a pessimist, then you may want to fill the rest of said glass with something stronger. Because, despite Khurrana delivering a neat turn as a middle-class hero and the revelation that Yami Gautam is a good actress, what the film Bala actually lacks is intelligence.
The central idea in Bala is that society is unkind to those who don’t conform to beauty norms. This is not news to women – feminists have been attacking beauty conventions for decades – but since the rise of the metrosexual and the male grooming industry, men have started chafing against the pressure to look a particular way. The point that Bala’s writer Niren Bhatt makes is, that baldness in men is like dark complexions on women – they’re both superficial but are used to belittle people.
Well-meaning as this may be, the film’s premise is founded on ignorance. Baldness is a blow (as evinced by the popularity of hair replacement therapies), but softening said blow is tradition. Particularly among Hindus, positions of power have often been held by men who were either bald or had willingly shaved their heads. To lose your hair is to lose your youth; not your masculinity. At worst, baldness or thinning hair is met with mockery, but those jibes carry none of the toxicity layering colour bias.
The preference for fair skin is rooted in casteist and racist notions of privilege. Even though at least two major divinities from the Hindu pantheon are described as black, dark skin in India has been associated with the marginalised who have been subjected to oppressive stereotyping. The prejudice isn’t superficial; it’s cultural. To equate colour bias with baldness and make baldness seem like the more insurmountable obstacle, is to deliberately ignore a history of violence, exploitation, and discrimination. Especially when you choose to cast a fair-skinned actress and slather her in dark brown face paint (the less said about Pednekar in Bala, the better).
Maybe I need a reality check for expecting filmmakers to keep in mind things like the cultural history of prejudice. Context is everything, right? After all, Bala is a Bollywood production, which means it belongs to an industry that takes pride in its stupidity and cheerfully upholds the status quo, arguing that its idiotic simplicity offers audiences an escape from the complexities of real life. Films like the recent string of hits starring Khurrana are applauded for making an effort – as half-witted as it may be – to question society. The acclaim is not because they’re actually insightful but because that’s how low the bar is set for intelligence in our popular culture.
How full does that glass look now?