There probably is a thin patina of novelty on the fanciful, smug plot of Bawaal, but the hubbub that it kicks up by intertwining unrelated things yields a bewildering clutter
Director Nitesh Tiwari isn’t anywhere close to replicating his Dangal form here. His new film is a love story, an anti-war plea and a commentary on fake narratives rolled into one. It all comes apart at the seams.
The drearily didactic, underwhelming film makes an equivalence between something as routine as a floundering marriage and the horrific plight of those who perished in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Produced by Earthsky Pictures and Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Bawaal is a tiresome and facile yarn that goes on and on about an inept history teacher in Lucknow and his unhappy wife who, even as their marriage is falling apart, undertake a tour of World War II locations, including Anne Frank’s home and an Auschwitz gas chamber. The longer their peregrination lasts the less sense it makes.
The girl is a college topper. The guy is an average bloke who thrives on talking up his accomplishments. The woman’s favourite writers are Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Tagore. The man hasn’t graduated beyond Diamond Comics.
The young lady likes Scent of a Woman, Life is Beautiful and Good Will Hunting. The husband is into Jurassic Park, Spiderman and Titanic when he isn’t consuming Hero No. 1, Jodi No.1 and Aunty No. 1. A world separates the two.
Ten months into a marriage that is going nowhere, the man, his wife in tow against his wish, flies to Europe to brush up on his knowledge of World War II. Like the film, the voyage hops from point to point without making any point that could be regarded as genuinely revelatory.
The Bawaal story is credited to Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and the screenplay to four writers (Nikhil Mehrotra, Shreyas Jain, Piyush Gupta and the director). What the team delivers is an anodyne, half-baked thesis on war that equates the wages of military conflict with the emotional price of not giving a marriage a chance to stabilise itself.
Marred by a wobbly script and uninspired execution, Bawaal is an escapist movie would have passed muster has it not bordered on the mendacious the way it does. It seeks to divert the attention of the audience from the miseries and scares that are looming over the modern world and urge them to cast their minds all the way back to the atrocities that the Nazis committed in Europe over eight decades ago.
Do we, given the times that we live in, need to go so far back in time in order to construct a commentary on mankind’s propensity to run itself into the ground? It smacks of overt artifice. The film’s critical plot points are so contrived that the last thing that one would be able to do is defend them by the means of logic.
Ajay “Ajju” Dikshit (Varun Dhawan) is a school teacher whose heart isn’t in the job. Dissatisfied with his lot in life, he lies left and right because he does not want the world to know how much of a loser he is.
The tall tales that Ajju trots out to his students about his imaginary feats have takers all across Lucknow, the audience is airily told via a voiceover. Either the whole city is hopelessly gullible or our guy is a dissembler who can do no wrong.
When Ajju marries a comely achiever Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor), he chooses to cold-shoulder her completely because she has a medical condition that he finds embarrassing.
When Ajju runs into trouble with a legislator (Mukesh Tiwari) and is suspended by the school for a month pending an inquiry into his conduct, he decides to make a trip to various World War II sites and deliver video lectures to his students from the spot. He thinks that would be a good way to turn public opinion in his favour.
He also pulls a fast one on his bank-employee father (Manoj Pahwa). He feigns that his wife will be accompanying him to Europe because only then is his dad likely to fund the expensive trip. The neglected Nisha learns in the nick of time what Ajju is up to. She scuttles his ploy to cut her out of his travel plans.
The European sojourn, which sees Nisha and Ajju visiting Paris, Normandy, Amsterdam, Berlin and Auschwitz, throws the couple into unforeseen situations that bring to light the stern mettle that Nisha is made of. A few of the run-ins, especially an extended one involving a Gujarati family on the same flight as them, are supposed to evoke mirth. They do, but not quite with the intended result.
The facile storyline has a consistently hollow ring to it. Stretching the idea of learning from history and not repeating mistakes of the past to encompass the fallout of the Holocaust comes at a heavy cost – it robs Bawaal of any possibility of being taken seriously, no matter how morally outraged the makers might appear to be at what happened when Nazi Germany invaded the rest of Europe.
Be happy with what you’ve got, do not covet what isn’t yours – that time-worn homily is meant to be the principal takeaway from Bawaal. Does one really need renewed edification couched in a tale that is part a sanctimonious denunciation of war, part an indictment of insensitive, self-serving masculinity.
If not exactly screechy, Bawaal is horribly preachy. The film’s two lead actors, notwithstanding the palpable enthusiasm that they bring to bear upon their roles, do not stand any chance of rising above the muddle. Janhvi Kapoor and Varun Dhawan go through the motions without ever finding a way around the dead-ends that they frequently hit along the way.
Bawaal is as fake as its fibber-hero – a film that masquerades as cinema’s equivalent of an agony aunt who wants to mend a marriage on the brink of annulment even as its larger aim is to deliver a pat truism about man’s inhumanity to man. The exercise, no matter how offbeat it seems, inevitably sinks into a bottomless trench.
Varun Dhawan, Janhvi Kapoor