Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers from the film.
Bala was promoted as a film with Ayushmann Khurrana's character in focus. He suffers from premature balding, which has robbed him of his confidence in his abilities and his charming self that was so popular among peers. He was the cool dude, who became not so cool, mostly in his own eyes, when his hairline started receding.
But that's not the only issue that the film explores. Parallel to his story is the character of Bhumi Pednekar, who has been ridiculed since she was a kid for her dark complexion. But Bhumi, instead of letting the society get to her, decides to be comfortable in her own skin, however brown it might be.
Bhumi does a fantastic job of portraying this fierce lawyer Latika, who won't compromise her self-respect to bow to the so-called societal norms. So much so, as a viewer you wonder whether she should have been the protagonist of the film. She has to deal with a far-reaching stigma that dates way back in mythology, as shown in the movie itself.
The obsession with white skin is a bigger global problem, one that is relevant even in 2019. Lupita Nyong'o might be an Oscar winning actress now, but has had to deal with the stigma all her life.
"European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world. The idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in the second grade, one of my teachers said, 'Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?' I was mortified," she said in an interview some years ago. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?
In September 2019, actress and director Nandita Das brought together a bunch of talented actresses including Divya Dutta, Ratna Pathak Shah, Radhika Apte, Gul Panag and Swara Bhasker for a video titled India's Got Colour. The video tackles stereotypes that women with dark skin have to deal with, in their homes and workspaces alike.
As a child growing up in small-town Bengal, I remember being horrified by a magazine cover featuring actress Kajol, which called her 'Black beauty' in bold. The words 'black', 'dark', 'kalo (in Bengali)' were akin to gaalis back then, not polite enough to describe a person.
Similar words are hurled as abuses at Bhumi in Bala, and even as a kid she tries to stay strong. Coming from a director like Amar Kaushik, who made the very feminist Stree last year, it is no surprise that he gave her all the strength a woman should have, conventionally beautiful or not.
And so, wondering why Bala is about Bala and not Latika, we put the questions to the director. Kaushik says that Bala is not just a movie about a balding man, it is about accepting yourself as you are and loving yourself with whatever flaws you might have. "We took the character of Bala, a balding man, to depict the message and surrounded him with people who are facing similar or more severe problems but are confident enough to accept themselves, keeping their head high."
Ask him if he thinks dark-skinned women have to deal with a bigger social stigma than balding men, and he says, "Why just dark-skinned, there are bigger stigmas people face in life because of their physical appearances and the standards that are set in the society, unfortunately. Through the character of Bhumi, we have tried to inspire Bala, that you have to face challenges in life head-on and that physical appearances cannot kill your confidence or stop your life. Bhumi's character is an inspiration!"
Taking quite the unconventional route, the film doesn't end in a happy romantic culmination for the hero. His wife leaves him because he is bald, but Bhumi manages to find a man who sees her beyond her skin colour.
Isn't it easier for a balding man to find a bride than a dark skinned woman to find a husband, we ask. "I firmly believe that till the time you are confident in your body and about yourself, you are a winner. Finding a husband or wife is just part of it. We are trying to say that if you love yourself, the world will love you back and if you respect yourself, no one can look down upon you," says Amar.
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