‘Bawaal’ movie review: Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor struggle in bizarro romance

After a few charming scenes, Nitesh Tiwari’s World War II-referencing drama becomes a heavy and heavy-handed moral science class

July 21, 2023 12:18 pm | Updated 02:56 pm IST

A still from ‘Bawaal’

A still from ‘Bawaal’

Hindi films rarely require a serious provocation to scoot off to Europe. Think of DDLJ, Hero No. 1, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and the simple, existential reasons that prompt their trips. In recent years, though, something curiously has changed. A need for relatable characters in realistic settings has made it harder and harder to justify the sudden decamping abroad. In Queen (2013), Kangana Ranaut turned up in Paris for her ‘solo honeymoon’, after being deserted by her fiancé. The magnificent French capital is also where Ajay (Varun Dhawan) and Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor) arrive first in Nitesh Tiwari’s Bawaal. “It’s our second honeymoon,” Ajay tells the visa officer, beaming. He’s lying.

We first encounter Ajay as an image-conscious primary school teacher in Lucknow. He is a buff blowhard, still living off his parents (nicely played by Manoj Pahwa and Anjuman Saxena) and planting carefully concocted tales in the minds of his students and fellow teachers so they hold him in high regard. He has no interest in his job — teaching history — and spends most of his time cultivating and pruning his ‘image’. It’s the driving principle of his life, and the sole reason he’d married Nisha, a pretty girl from a well-to-do family who would boost his middle-class profile.

Bawaal (Hindi)
Director: Nitesh Tiwari
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Janhvi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Anjuman Saxena, Vyas Hemang, Pratiek Pachori
Run-time: 137 minutes
Storyline: An image-conscious history teacher mends his relationship with his wife while on the World War II Trail in Europe

Turns out, Nisha has epilepsy, reason for Ajay to not take her anywhere lest she have a seizure and embarrass him publicly. Tiwari and his co-writers — Piyush Gupta, Nikhil Mehrotra and Shreyas Jain (the story is by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari) — don’t couch the entitlement and cruelty of a selfish loser like Ajay. After a particularly frustrating episode at home, he rides into school in a foul mood. When a student ribs him for his limited knowledge of World War II, Ajay slaps him, only to find the boy’s father is a local MLA. Of course, the affronted politician is played by Mukesh Tiwari; the actor’s face a model of comic deadpan indignation.

If Bawaal is brisk and involving so far (there’s charm in how Tiwari directs ordinary domestic scenes or captures the Lucknow patois), it gets increasingly strange here on. Suspended for 30 days, with permanent termination looming, Ajay comes up with a plan to clear his name: he would go on the World War II Heritage Trail and teach his students through social media. Nisha, who, by now is on the verge of divorcing him, tags along (“I want to give it another chance,” she explains, a compulsion held up as virtue in so many Hindi film marriages).

In Paris, Ajay discovers there’s more to his quiet, meek wife than he ever bothered to notice. She is smart, well-travelled, quick on her feet; she also knows more history than him. Their relationship softens, and we begin to expect a different sort of film. It’s when Bawaal pitches forward and really comes clean with its central conceit: Ajay and Nisha will mend their marriage through the ravages of World War II. On Omaha Beach, Ajay puts on an audio guide and is mentally transported to 1944, amid the Allied invasion of Normandy. The screen goes dark as collapsing soldiers splash about in the sand, and Tiwari and cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani strain themselves to pay modest, awkward tribute to the thunderous opening of Saving Private Ryan.

I’d chuckled when I first heard the basic premise of Bawaal — it seemed too absurd, too far-fetched, for even Hindi cinema to sell. Tiwari, in interviews, has said that his late father was a history teacher who always wanted to visit Europe. The director’s sincerity isn’t in doubt — so much good cinema emerges from a place of personal tribute — but what’s discomfiting is the obtuse, simplistic lens through which he chooses to view a grim subject. At every pit-stop they make — in Amsterdam, Berlin and Auschwitz — Ajay and Nisha extract a basic, humanistic lesson: “be kind,” “live in the day”, “don’t be greedy”. The film begins to resemble a fourth grade moral science class: “War is bad...”, “Hitler was a liar...”, “Every relationship goes through its Auschwitz...”

Had the writers found some detail connecting India to WWII — the Indian soldiers at Dunkirk, perhaps — the film would have likely hit more home. But like any major studio production, it’s couched in vague platitudes, appropriating a history and experience that’s safely not ‘ours’. The film isn’t ‘insensitive’ per se; for every stray joke that someone makes, at Anne Frank’s house or a holocaust museum in Berlin, another character stares them down with remonstration. But it’s still bizarre how far the makers are willing to go; putting Dhawan and Kapoor in a gas chamber with throngs of Jewish prisoners coughing and dying around them, the heaviness of the scene reduced to comedy by its own self-centeredness.

Dhawan bravely endures Ajay’s Hitler parallels with a straight face. I preferred him in the film’s first half, playing a dense, entitled brat; As Jugjugg Jeeyo showed, he’s often memorable in these roles, so much so that his latter transformations are harder to swallow. Kapoor, seven films in, has gotten evidently better but still struggles to sell the emotionally knottier scenes. Something is yet to relax in her as a performer; like she’ll disappoint someone off-screen if she missed a mark or phrased a line differently. The film introduces a trio of Gujarati backpackers as comic relief: Vyas Hemang makes the most of a few silly gags.

Over drinks one evening, Nisha tells Ajay her three all-time favourite movies: Scent of a Woman, Life Is Beautiful, Good Will Hunting. The chirpy second film, set during The Holocaust, is a neat choice, and an indication of what Tiwari probably wanted to achieve with Bawaal. However, Roberto Benigni’s warm performance was really a reproach of a grave tragedy. Ajay and Nisha, on the other hand, betray little awareness of the world around them. They are busy saving private feelings.

Bawaal is currently streaming on Prime Video.

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