Bawaal: Brilliant concept aided by riveting execution

Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor in Bawaal. Photo: Sterling Media

The concept (story by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari) is brilliant: you need a far-off lesson from life sometimes to get you back on track when going wayward. We all know of real people changing for the better permanently with just one word, sentence, or session with someone. Lives have been transformed by a book, a photograph, a story, film or a news item.

My humble question is: Why can’t it be changed by foreign History that is over 80 years old? Besides, haven’t we known the truism that “Those who do not learn from History are condemned to repeat it?”

Ajju bhaiyya (Varun Dhawan), as he is known, lives by a carefully cultivated image in Lucknow. His parents (Manoj Pahwa and Anjuman Saxena) know what he is really is, ditto a crony, Bipin (Prateek Pachori). But everyone else in town, beginning with his students and his principal (Shashie Vermaa) to the roadside snack stall owner, are hoodwinked by his way of life. One colleague named Pandey (Gunjan Joshi) is also skeptical of him, for Ajju is a History teacher in a school.

Out of the same image-cultivation, an obsession with him as he is average in all aspects, Ajju agrees to wed the academically-brilliant livewire, Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor), who forewarns him that she is a patient of epilepsy, though there has been no attack in a decade. She suits his image as she is good-looking, smart and in every way an ideal wife for a man like him. But an attack after the wedding ceremony unsettles him. Let alone conjugal bliss, he sleeps separately and ill-treats her by omission: she cannot work, or go out with him, in case his image is spoilt by her having a fit in public!

Things take a turn when during his History class, a student asks him a question he cannot answer and Ajju slaps the boy. Turns out that he is the son of a local legislator (Mukesh Tiwari) who threatens the principal with dire consequences if Ajju is not suspended and a committee set up to judge him.

Out of work for a month, Ajju strikes back with a plan to travel to Europe (the chapter he is teaching is World War II) and tutor his lessons from there to students on video. The funding comes from his banker father after an emotional blackmail of sorts, on condition that Ajju take Nisha along. The resulting expense of about a million is worth it, dad tells mom, if Ajju can see sense and bring harmony into the strained relationship with Nisha. Nisha, meanwhile, has kept her divorce papers ready.

The foreign trip changes Ajju’s life very gradually but the final transformation is after the couple (they have become ‘friends’ now, partly because Ajju needs her intelligence overseas) visit the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp and gas chamber. Ajju has been insensitive again with Nisha and she has decided to leave him, but now, Ajju realizes that he must win the war within him, just as determined forces sacrificed their lives but defeated Hitler and his allies. And as a teacher, his fortunes also change when he becomes content with himself and what he has got in and out of life.

How the process unfolds is the essence of Bawaal (which means ‘commotion’, which can be varyingly interpreted here). It is a fascinating journey that uses actual World War II history, human emotions, a bit of comedy (the suitcase exchange with a Gujarati co-passenger) and foreign cultures to spin an engaging tapestry of emotions and entertainment. The vision of the film is so tangentially relevant that if we can applaud such things in a midstream or arty film there is certainly no reason to find the story of a toxic marriage solved by a World War far-fetched, though Ajju’s intention to travel abroad is selfish and image-driven.

There are, of course, countless facts that have been stranger than fiction in life, and this is fiction!

The screenplay is clever, even when it uses emotional pressure on viewers in a way at many junctures, but stops short of being overtly preachy or manipulative. The director keeps a tight leash on things, and the small touches of life in Lucknow and the issues Indians face in European countries (including expensive cabs and undergarments!) are lovable. For example, I loved the homely touch of Ajju’s mother asking Nisha to take care of her dupatta not getting stuck in the door of the cab that is taking the couple to the airport.

And somewhere along the line, the filmmakers also give subtle messages to all: to be content and genuine in life, because anything fake does not last and discontent and avarice make you miserable. And yet, Bawaal stops short again of being a Moral Science lesson.

The locations and the cinematography (Mitesh Mirchandani) are superb, and give the film a sheen that helps the story along. The use of black-and-white may be imaginative but it is more than a shade overdone. Manoj Kumar in Purab Aur Pacchim did it far more relevantly 52 years back, but nowadays this device is used too much! The editing keeps the pace going and at no point are scenes stretched. The background music (Daniel B. George) is evocative, but among the three songs, only Dil se dil tak sounds good within the film, but its complex structure removes any scope for lingering despite some nice lyrics (Kausar Munir).

Varun Dhawan is convincing as Ajju and gets the not-so-congenial rake right. Janhvi Kapoor does her best in a straight role as Nisha, who is as much determined as dominated. She plays a mature woman, who is practical at every step, with great competence. The rest of the cast is good, especially the natural kids, led by Agrim Mittal as Papon.

This is one of those message films that one can take home to ponder on. Had it released in movie halls, it would have been a winner. But maybe this movie’s makers should watch another film (if made) that teaches that when you are making something really good, you should take the bold step and not opt for minimum safe return on investment with an OTT release!

If there was so much hurry for the globe to watch it, they could have gone ahead after the 4-week normal window between theatrical release and streaming. I do not think any of the 200-plus countries would have missed anything with a month’s delay.

Rating: ****

Amazon Prime Video presents Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment’s & EarthSky Pictures’ Bawaal Produced by: Sajid Nadiadwala, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari & Nitesh Tiwari  Directed by: Nitesh Tiwari Written by: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari, Piyush Gupta, Nikhil Mehrotra & Shreyas Jain Music: Tanishk Bagchi, Mithoon & Akashdeep Sengupta Starring: Varun Dhawan, Janhvi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Anjuman Saxena, Mukesh Tiwari, Prateek Pachori, Vyas Hemang, Gunjan Joshi, Aariz Saiyed Alpesh, Shashie Vermaa, Nikhil Chawla, Agrim Mittal, Gina Perregrino, Rahul Sondigala, Varun Tamta & others        





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