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Bawaal review: The most insensitive film of the year is here | Bollywood


There’s a lot to register and process in the absolute mess that is Nitesh Tiwari’s Bawaal, but let’s start with something that strikes immediately: the audacity. Here’s a mainstream Bollywood romance purposefully contextualising the unimaginable horrors of the World War II and the Holocaust to fit into the narrative of a failing marriage. Hitler becomes a metaphor for human greed; and Auschwitz, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp, is recreated to imagine the two leads as a Jewish couple being suffocated with pesticides. There’s no way to digest a film like Bawaal, and that it exists today, in all its singular insensitivity. (Also read: Bawaal celeb review: Arjun Kapoor, Karan Johar hail ‘career-best’ performances by Varun Dhawan, Janhvi Kapoor)

Bawaal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Bawaal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The setting

The tale begins in present day Lucknow, where the scene is set for our protagonist, Ajay ‘Ajju’ Dixit (Varun Dhawan), to make his heroic entry on his bike, catching the attention of the locals in his neighbourhood. Why? Because our Ajju, we are told, is conscious of his ‘image’ more than anything else in the world.

He works as a primary history teacher in the city, but how he got the job is still a ‘mystery.’ In reality, he is a good-for-nothing man-child and a pathological liar. He is married to Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor), an intelligent woman, who has epileptic fits. Nisha has told this to Ajju, who is too ashamed to take her out of the house fearing that the world would come to know about the truth and his ‘image’ would suffer.

Ajju and Nisha’s trip to Europe

Ajju’s carefully-constructed image is threatened by his own mistake: he slaps a student in class and it turns out that his father is an MLA. Ajju gets temporary suspension immediately. It is then that he hatches a totally baffling plan to travel to locations in Europe, which were affected by the World War II, and teach his students about the tragedy. On top of that Ajju’s parents (played by Manoj Pahwa and Anjuman Saxena) gleefully fund the hefty trip as they want the couple to come close. No one is still asking any questions? Good.

From here onwards, Bawaal becomes a different beast altogether. Nitesh Tiwari, who co-wrote Bawaal with Piyush Gupta, Nikhil Mehrotra and Shreyas Jain, is interested less in the unspeakable horrors of war and more on the coming-of-age of his male chauvinist protagonist. At The Musée de l’Armée in Paris, an orchestra performance is unbearable to him and he wants to run away. He mocks their way of speaking a language multiple times to Nisha, and then begs her to accompany him from the next day. He sends his videos from the site to his students, who seem to learn a lot from his ramblings.

The context of Holocaust

A visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam propels Ajju to ask Nisha what would she do if she had a day to live. When Nisha asks why is he acting all philosophical, here’s what he says: “Anne Frank ke ghar se nikalne ke baad thodi philosophy toh banti he (After visiting Anne Frank’s house, some philosophy is to be expected).”

Nisha says she would wear a gown and drink beer at a nearby cafe. Cue for their romantic development, and a ridiculously-staged song arrives. The more we try to wrap our heads in the tone-deaf positioning of history in Bawaal, the worse it gets.

It doesn’t help that Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor have zero chemistry. Varun is particularly exasperating to witness – his coming-of-age angle barely even making a difference. Janhvi seems strangely clueless to what’s occurring around her, and is saddled with the worst dialogues. There’s a special place in hell reserved for that line equating Hitler to human greed. My ears are still bleeding.

The most insensitive bits of Bawaal are saved for the last, when the two visit the concentration camp in Auschwitz and imagine themselves suffocated inside the gas chambers. It is an excruciatingly horrible and shameful depiction, in which Holocaust is but a narrative scapegoat for the characters to face their fears and save their toxic marriage. The moment the two find each other, the historical subtext disappears. The black and white fades to inject colour to the scenes. The effect is disconcerting to say the least.

This is a film that is so blinded by its own warped version of romance and self-worth that one of the greatest human tragedies becomes a metaphor to nourish it. The point is not that the unimaginable horrors of war should be forgotten. Cinema is an immersive, empathetic medium that grants us the space to accommodate so many unaccounted stories, of the places and the generations that still continue to be haunted by its remains. But from a place of distance.

There’s no point in even trying to contextualise that horror and imagine what would one do in that situation. It is a deeply problematic exercise of narcissism and worse, invalidation of the stories of countless victims, whose experiences can never be put under the examining lens. Bawaal is perhaps the most tone-deaf and insensitive film Hindi cinema has produced in recent memory. This is a history lesson no one deserves to sit through.


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