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‘Bawaal’ review: Hitler and the Holocaust save a marriage

Nitesh Tiwari's strange film finds a link between World War II tourism and a marriage on the brink of collapse

Varun Dhawan in 'Bawaal'
Varun Dhawan in 'Bawaal'

World War II tourism as a marketing tool for honeymooners—now that’s a concept that would be a hard sell in India, leave alone Lucknow which is where the central couple of Bawaal, Ajay (Varun Dhawan) and Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor) live. But a belated tour to prominent World War II locations such as Paris, Amsterdam, Normandy and Berlin, sets this young troubled couple on the path of reconciliation while also making Ajay a more involved and informed educator. In a story written by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari with a screenplay by director Nitesh Tiwari along with Nikhil Mehrotra, Shreyas Jain and Piyush Gupta, Hitler and history offer lessons. Couples separated in the concentration camp of Auschwitz become an eye-opening inspiration and a gas chamber becomes the unexpected site for love to blossom. That and a Pretty Woman moment of seeing Nisha in a flowing red gown.

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If this sounds far-fetched it is. ‘Bawaal’ is what happens when a breezy Imtiaz Ali romantic travelogue crashes into a speeding German tragicomedy. How can Hitler and the Holocaust save this marriage? Bawaal posits just that, via an image-obsessed mediocre school teacher named Ajay and his outwardly near-perfect wife Nisha, who is ‘damaged’ because she suffers from epilepsy. Nisha is intelligent, respectful, obedient, optimistic. She’s also ready to walk away, but not yet. Ajay is none of the above. The odds are stacked for the viewer to like her, loathe him.

Her movie preferences are Good Will Hunting and Scent of a Woman and she loves the mountains. He is a fan of Govinda movies and loves beach holidays. Can opposites attract? Ajay’s existence is built on optics. A disinterested history teacher, Ajay is popular and a local celebrity outside but he’s dislikable and disrespectful at home, plotting to create an ambience (‘mahaul’) that distracts from his bland reality. He treats Nisha like dirt, refusing to take her out lest she has a seizure in public and tarnishes his well-sculpted image. Yet she gives her toxic marriage repeated chances.

A fracas at the school leads to an extreme plan to boost Ajay’s understanding of history, save his job and appease his parents by taking his wife along for the trip. It becomes clear soon enough to Ajay that Nisha is far more capable of managing abroad than he is. At various sites—from Normandy to Auschwitz, the film shifts from colour to black and white to recreate the horrors of World War II. With each new place, Ajay’s understanding of the world and relationships begins to mature.

If this is meant to be a lesson in fixing one’s priorities, then it’s the Gujarati family on a European tour that reflects authenticity. When Kalpesh and Ajay’s bags get swapped, Kalpesh rues that he’s stuck with monochromatic clothes that he might, at best, sleep in. When he finally retrieves his luggage, Kalpesh is ecstatic to be reunited with his embroidered, printed wardrobe.

The subtext of Hitler’s leadership, the metaphor of “the war within”, learning lessons from the past, being content with your lot is simplistic and a reach when trying to relate it to modern times.

Dhawan is on point as the arrogant, local hero living a carefully cultivated public life. He’s less convincing as the boy-child coming of age. Kapoor’s Nisha is largely even-keeled. But she’s hardly able to rise above the bewildering material that eventually takes a safe passage to a ceasefire and finally a truce.

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