‘Bawaal’: Varun Dhawan-Janhvi Kapoor-starrer Promises a Lot, but Keeps Faltering

The story of an uncouth braggart undergoing a change of heart in the company of a good woman is an old one. Nitesh Tiwari’s ‘Bawaal’ promises us more, by trying to make that arc bigger and deeper, but keeps faltering, never quite knowing what to make of a wholly harebrained flourish in the plot. And that’s a pity, because this film had the potential to be something different.

Lucknow-based Ajay aka Ajju (Varun Dhawan) spends all his waking hours buffing and polishing the image he has assiduously created for himself: a man about town, his swag doing the talking. He does have an actual job, as a teacher of history in a local school. But given that his knowledge base about anything and everything appears to be zero, he hangs about wasting his time and everyone else’s in his vicinity, including his long-suffering parents (Manoj Pahwa and Anjuman Saxena), and his best friend (Prateek Pachori). Then, of course, he lucks into the lovely, sensible Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor), and, of course, his life changes.

Wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before the predictable ending hoves into sight, Ajay and Nisha will have made the journey of a lifetime to a clutch of European cities they deem to be most impacted by World War II — Paris, Amsterdam, Normandy, Berlin, culminating in Auschwitz. Why World War II? That’s because it’s the subject which Ajay is about to teach in class. So what does he do? Why, pose in front of monuments to create reels which his students back home are meant to watch in slack-jawed admiration, presumably learning everything they need to know about a war which shaped the world we live in, with a bit of Hitler and horrors of the gas chambers and the extermination of Jews thrown in. Clearly, Ajay has never heard of textbooks doing the job. How did he get hired? We are never told. A running gag featuring a gaggle of Gujarati travellers and their love for khakras and shiny shirts, meant to be provide comic relief, peters out.

There are many more problematic points in the proceedings. One of the biggest (I’m spoiling this, but there’s more than enough reason, as you will see) is Ajay’s horrified attitude to epilepsy, a condition Nisha has: his visible disgust is shocking for a film made in 2023. A rudimentary reading about someone ‘having fits’ is enough to know that it is a problem countless people live with, and productively to boot. Ajay learns his lesson, of course he does, but not until his disgust has permeated the film practically all the way till the end. It’s incomprehensible how this deeply insensitive depiction is made into such a deal-breaker between the newlyweds: what are people who have no idea of epilepsy meant to take away from the film? Ajju’s long-drawn fear and horror, or his too-sudden change of heart which lasts for a minute?

And that brings me to the one element in the film which sort of works: Varun Dhawan is a perfect candidate for the kind of guy Ajju is, who hides his low self-esteem under his unpleasant boorishness. Janhvi is given a thankless role, which, while giving Nisha some moments for herself, invariably finds her being the instrument through which the hero is bolstered, Bollywood’s most cliched way to show a man-woman relationship. But they have a sequence getting to know each other in the middle of their tour, which has real sweetness, and you wish the film had built more on those moments.

Instead of being moved by the plight of the millions who lost their lives in the concentration camps, as our leads do, walking through Auschwitz (imagine, a Hindi film actually being shot on location; that’s really something ), all we feel is a sense of waste: simplistic and trivialising takes on Hitler, ‘who was greedy for more countries’, something we get to hear in an actual exchange between Ajay and Nisha (you don’t say), and World War II, do not make a history lesson. Forget about heroes, when will our movies come of age?

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Janhvi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Anjuman Saxena, Mukesh Tiwari, Prateek Pachori
Director: Nitesh Tiwari
Rating: 1.5 stars