While watching the rather engaging first half of Nitesh Tiwari’s Bawaal, I found myself wondering how the thought, “We’re all a little like Hitler, aren’t we?” would enter the film.
The film is about Ajay (Varun Dhawan), a self-serving, self-aggrandising man whose ‘image’ matters to him more than anything else and to that goal, he has created an impression built on lies and smokescreening. When Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor) enters his life, he sees in her the ‘perfect wife’ for his ‘perfect’ life.
But his is not a perfect life and he is barely a decent person himself: Nisha’s medical condition derails his plans and he insists that she never leave the house lest he be seen with her. Nisha is written as a character who is smarter and more driven than him; he spends his days pretending to teach History in a local school.
Somehow, circumstances push the couple to an Europe trip. During this trip, Ajay plans to build back his since-then tarnished image by trying to teach his students the history of the second World War and consecutively Nazi Germany under Hitler’s rule.
So far, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, it’s understandable that you’d buy into this unique premise. Like I said, the first half is actually engaging. The movie goes beyond the idea of marriage being the ‘happily ever after’ and touches the surface of how deep-rooted abuse can be.
But the second half is much harder to buy into. Ajay, true to his nature, is barely interested in the history or the lessons that it teaches; a much more intuitive Nisha is moved by the atrocities of the War.
Yet, for the first time in his life, Ajay feels like he’s a fish out of water. The reading of how he looks for familiarity in his strained marriage in a new country when he forbade his wife from even leaving the house with him after she left behind her family is astute.
It is in some of these scenes that the Nitesh Tiwari and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari touch seeps through.
Ajay goes through a character transformation as he imagines (and feels himself be transported to) some of the defining moments and locations of the second World War, including Anne Frank’s house and the Normandy Beach.
The makers use heart wrenching visuals representative of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 to make a point about the futility of war. However, the sequence of Ajay and Nisha reconnecting in a gas chamber in Auschwitz is much less sensitive.
To compare a man’s ego destroying his marriage to the horrors of the Holocaust is insensitive but considering the wild possibility that it makes sense, it would've needed a nuance that is absent from the movie.
There is immense truth to the fact that humanity still contains evil – one needs only to look at the news every day to figure that out. But to reduce Hitler’s evil to ‘greed for what someone else had’ is pushing it a bit (a lot).
The best part about Bawaal is probably that the actors carry their weight. Varun Dhawan is immensely believable as Ajay, almost annoyingly so. And that’s a win for the actor I would say since that is precisely the reaction he is meant to evoke. It also helps that the actors' chemistry is palpable.
Janhvi Kapoor as Nisha, though given little to do considering Nisha’s impressive credentials, adds a certain spirit to Nisha that has you rooting for her most of the time.
Her eyes are filled with wonder as she takes in Europe for the first time after being confined to a house for almost a year. It’s in these moments that the film shows some promise. Really, the film makes you want to root for her to leave this marriage and find a better life for herself.
Manoj Pahwa and Anjuman Saxena as Ajay’s parents are so immensely likable that for a second you wonder if a spin-off about the two trying to navigate parenthood would make a better film.
The one performance I will leave the film with is that of Pratiek Pachori who plays Ajay's friend and confidante with a sincerity that is almost infectious.
There are some scenes, especially one between Nisha and her mother discussing the faults in her marriage, are effective. Further, the scenes of Ajay and Nisha connecting in a night in Amsterdam are almost endearing.
Bawaal is the kind of film that subscribes to the folly of its own character: its beautiful imagery is supposed to mask its flaws but in the second half, it barely manages to.