Insecurity, like a bald patch, reveals more than it hides. The feeling of failure from an apparent sense of lacking spills forth in things one chooses to laugh at and the jokes one takes offence to. In the recently released Ujda Chaman (directed by Abhishek Pathak) and Bala (directed by Amar Kaushik), the respective protagonists Chaman and Bala are stung by the word “takla”. What is a passing joke for some, feels like a personal affront for them. The reason is clear: both are wrestling with premature balding, and an unending trials of prayer, medication and remedies have proffered no results. A loose strand of hair both appal and gladden them, depending on where they see it. These protagonists are not smug about their appearances but struggling to accept who they see in the mirror. These are men who are so crippled with insecurity that they laugh at others only to ensure that they are not laughed at.
Moving away from the dominant genre of films where masculinity is almost always viewed as impregnable, there has emerged another section which is solely reliant on exploring (and often exploiting) male frailties. The heroism of the heroes constitutes not in flexing their muscles but in embracing their ordinariness and the messy shortcomings that come with it. Their appeal resides in being viewed as one of us and not in the enigma of being bigger and better than us. These films are self-aware, thriving in the knowledge that it is not deification but identification that draws the biggest clamour.
It is then fitting that Ayushmann Khurrana, who has been instrumental in both furthering these films and being their flag-bearer, headlines Bala. Unlike Ujda Chaman, where baldness exists merely as a premise to manufacture jokes, Bala contextualises both the need for a boy growing up in the 90s to have an enviable mop of hair and his personal shame of not having the same. Born and brought up in Kanpur, Hindi films were his only outlet point to the outside world and actors his reference point to be. As a kid, he was popular in school for being able to roll his ‘R’(s) like Shah Rukh Khan and emulate Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone. His identity constituted of their borrowed mannerisms. Thus, in a cruel twist of fate when he retains his gift of sounding like them but his demeanour fails to keep up, he suffers from the threat of losing his very self. It also hurts him where it impairs the most: his love life. His childhood girlfriend dumps him for obvious reasons and it gets supremely difficult to find a prospective bride.
Kaushik’s film is not just preoccupied with unfolding the humiliation a man suffering from a receding hairline experiences — resulting from the pressure that is on them to look a certain way — but strives to make a larger case: the need to accept oneself and others for the way they are. It is keenly underlined in the way the two female leads — Latika (Bhumi Pednekar) and Pari (Yami Gautam) — are presented. Disparate in their appearance, they are firm in their acceptance of self. Pari, a TikTok star and small-time model, is unabashed in the pride she takes in her looks and desire to marry someone equally good-looking. She exhibits a rare self-awareness where she not just takes ownership of her apparent shallowness but, through that, accepts who she is, most intensely. Her affinity for superficiality then is both incidental and crucial. The dark-skinned Latika, on the other hand, displays a similar certitude regarding her appearance. Departing from their traditional role of accentuating the heroes’ invulnerability by pitting it against their helplessness, women in the film teach their male counterpart how to be comfortable in his skin. It is the man here who derives validation from the women.
A similar ruse is employed in Ujda Chaman where the slightly chubby Apsara (Maanvi Gagroo) reminds Chaman (Sunny Singh) of the redundancy to gauge one's self-worth through the opinions of others. But Pathak’s film ultimately falls into its own trap when Apsara judges her self-worth using Chaman as the parameter, when her presence is used merely as a ploy to make Chaman feel more of a man. Bala cleverly bypasses this by letting the women merely aid the protagonist’s journey towards self-acceptance. When Bala finally looks at the mirror, he does so alone.
Kaushik mounts his film on a higher moral ground but it never holds up for its feet are made of clay. It collectively does what Chaman does alone. If Chaman reveals his insecurity by going back to Apsara — intending to hide his inadequacy in hers — Bala showcases its own obsession with skin tone by letting a fair-skinned actor essay the role of someone who is dark by merely blackening her face. It fails to practice what it preaches.
One can always argue the need to judge a film for what it is or even cite market feasibility as a fundamental reason. Recently, Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar in Saand Ki Aankh were criticised on similar grounds for essaying roles of octogenarian sharpshooters, Chandro Tomar and Prakashi Tomar. But the main grouse against them was of usurping roles that could have been played by elder women and not of propagating a stereotype it intended to dismantle. The fact that younger actors play roles which are twice their age does not betray the film's intent of highlighting the length and breadth of physical and mental labour women have to go through to pave the way for the rest. When Chandro Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar) reasons that she needs to learn how to shoot so that other women in their household follows suit, the statement does not lose relevance: the speaker is still a woman and irrespective of her age, the struggle is common if not equal.
Bala's failure then lies in inadvertently highlighting and widening the gap between the experience and those who experience it. In one of the instances in the film, Latika, with righteous anger on her face, tells Bala he would not know what it is like to be someone with dark skin. It is an affecting scene that succinctly emphasises the daily struggle and hardships women with a darker skin tone undergo. But it leaves one strangely cold not because the actor flounders with her line, but because she delivers it merely as a line. Pednekar too does not know what it feels like. Sometimes, acting demands more than play-acting, insisting on empathy and not just kindness.