By Soma Mandal
The upcoming film Bala, directed by Amar Kaushik with its producer Dinesh Vijan, is scheduled to release on 7 November, a day before the release of yet another strikingly similar film, Udta Chaman on 8 November, directed by Abhishek Pathak and co-produced by Kumar Mangat Pathak. This has left movie enthusiasts baffled. While the former stage Ayushman Khurana in the lead role as Bala/Gaurav Rawat who suffers from alopecia and receding hairline, the latter starring Sunny Singh as Chaman Kohli also seems to have the same issue of premature balding as a serious concern among men, women, and the youth. Although Ujda Chaman’s production house Manorama Studios allege that it is a remake of the Kannada movie, Ondu Motteya Kathe, Bala justifies it to present the same as a riveting social concern which need not have any precedent.
The similarities in the two films which talk about hair-loss resulting in loss of socially constructed identity try to collectively create a space to discuss and endorse the anti-endorsement policy of the film industry for culturally marginalizing markedly inferior social roles/subjects which do not take popular consensus on beauty. Body-shaming, verbal bashing and lookism (a discriminatory practice of being judgemental about people’s looks that are physically unattractive) have made us aware about how the changing perception of beauty has assumed monstrous proportions almost linking the obsession to a kind of disorder that can be connected to the syndrome of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This almost near-maniacal tendency to emulate and subscribe to mass culturism of whitening/brightening/straightening/transplanting aspects of the body which are incongruent to popular beauty standards have raised some serious debate about the notion of beauty in and around us.
The immensely popular perception of the Bollywood film industry with its top-notch actors creating a wave of general acceptability regarding iconic beauty standards is extremely obsessed in maintaining the hottest trends of beauty/fashion every season. It does it through the support of the burgeoning cosmetic industry that not only intensifies but aggravates the condition of the common public regarding the choice of to be/not to be the chronicler of this beauty saga. The first of its kind that unsettled such popular myths prevalent in Bollywood was Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008); the ‘jalwa’(magic) song had different connotations for people entering such markets with pre-conceived beliefs where literally they had to de-bunk, and de-mythify the notion that the ideal yardstick of beauty/fashion was anything but glamorous. Thus, Fashion stripped that world off its clothes and revealed the naked truth about the rampant sexism, objectification, and a disturbing impression of beautifying this façade of beauty in Bollywood. Starring Kangana Ranaut and Priyanka Chopra, the film went on to expose and win accolades by pricking the bubble of blatant myth about beauty and sexuality in society and workplace.
Bala speaks without binaries, breaks through masculinist and gendered landscapes of beauty and interrogates a neo-contemporanised and idealized version of antique beauty which Aldous Huxley mentions in his essay “The Beauty Industry”, and Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth. It also refutes and revisits the Keatsean expression in his famous ode “Ode on Grecian Urn” as “beauty is truth, truth beauty!” The films Bala and Ujda Chaman also question the feminized idealization of beauty and show men are not exempt from their patriarchal impositions. Such scandalously superficial, flagship programs launched by mainstream media and early ads like Vico Turmeric Nahi Cosmetic, Fair and Lovely Fairness Expert for Women, Fair and Handsome Menz Active, Garnier for wo/men, Baalo ki mazbooti ke liye Sunsilk (for stronger and longer hair) and Lux for Khubsurti se darr kaisa (“be not afraid of being beautiful) continuously manufacture latest trends in vogue and disregard the multifaceted versions of beauty found in common parlance. This static quality of beauty masquerade as a dynamic and liberatory mode of achieving all the social dreams that gain legitimacy through the universal notion “what is beautiful must be good.”
We are reminded of numerous instances of Bollywood portraying the glitz and glamour of the female icon through her resplendent beauty and the male icon through films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Mohabbatein, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kaho Na Pyar Hai, Ashiqui 2, et al. which foreground the notion that male actors have to be handsome hunks in search of their ‘beauty’, both in the figurative and non-metaphorical sense of the term. Negative stereotypes acted by Ayushman and Sunny Singh with a bald head in the lead role are a novice discourse in the making which is especially trying to portray the problems of common people who have the right to reject such marketable beauty standards. It also tries to challenge the status quo and the generic understanding of the term ‘beauty’ in the film industry, media and television.
The conflict with the conventional configuration of beauty model is beautifully brought out by the characters of Bala and Chaman who go around teaching the accepted mold of beauty but is instead haunted by their premature ageing with a receding hairline that leaves them starkly ugly in the pursuit of engaging women. This non-appeal of an almost odd, peculiar, unusual, and off-beat hero whose eccentric ways raise one of the most genuine social concerns of the day comes as an aberrant to viewers and relief to many who have normalized and internalized the popular versions of the ‘beauty’ model. Bala can surprisingly accommodate numerous expressions of the character Gaurav Rawat and can provide interpretations like “baal nahi hai to balah hai, baal hai to ‘bal’(strength) hai, aur jis mard ka baal nhi hai wo ‘bala’ hai, which means a sign of loss of masculinity (‘Bala’ which figuratively means a girl although the Asian name is given to a child regardless of sex in parts of Southern India) the last part is a pressing concern among men whose masculinity comes under question. And lastly, it critiques the entire culture practice of maintaining beauty through the most efficient but failing mechanism of cosmetic products and cosmetic surgery which drive the beauty wave.
At one instance Sunny Singh is called a ‘ganja’ (bald) and Bala too cannot tight-walk on the imbalanced (t)rope of hair-shaming, judgemental gazes that his balding head invites. The trailer also shows much to the horror of Ayushman, rest of his hair fade away in silent pity when the shampoo brand fails to deliver justice to the cheap but ambitious dream of hair growth after its application. This shocking realization that beauty is terrorizing, a concept that often scars lives, has been deftly played out by Ayushman and Sunny Singh who are powerful in their role as teachers often combining humour, pessimism and optimism as interconnected variables towards discovering and reconstructing the reality and authenticity of the beauty project.
Considering the timeless relevance and classic continuity of the beauty project for centuries which has subsumed all other external considerations ranging from weather conditions and genetic variations to wrongly prioritise and fetishize the external aesthetics of beauty, both the films, Bala and Ujda Chaman should not think of each other as antagonists but as essential and indispensable representations of an otherwise absent but much needed impactful and dynamic discourse on beauty that is inclusive of all its differences. Go and watch both the movies as they de-capitalise, de-heroise, and de-glamorise the beauty model by proving statements like #MyBeautyMySay, #UnStereotype. That is all that we need today.
Soma Mandal is an independent scholar. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Rohingya Refugees: Identity, Citizenship, and Human Rights”, edited by Chapparban Sajaudeen, Central University of Gujarat, India.