Bawaal was constructed in an alternate moral universe. One in which a husband confines his wife to their house because he’s embarrassed by her disability and the marriage is considered “troubled,” not abusive. One in which a teacher’s physical violence against a student can be overlooked if he’s deemed a competent instructor. One in which characters find ways to identify with Adolf Hitler, who is condemned for being greedy, not genocidal. One in which romantic relationship problems are compared to the Holocaust.
The romantic drama from filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari certainly looks nice. Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani takes full advantage of filming in picturesque locations in France, Germany, and Poland. But the movie itself is indefensible.
Ajay (Varun Dhawan), is a stereotypical Bollywood male main character who needs to grow up. He peaked in high school and has been trying to maintain his cool image ever since. As a disinterested middle school history teacher, Ajay buys the devotion of his students by giving them good grades despite teaching them nothing.
He thought he was getting the ultimate accessory when he married beautiful, smart Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor). She warned him that she had epilepsy, but incurious Ajay didn’t understand what that meant until he witnessed her have a seizure on their wedding night. Fearful of what might happen to his image if Nisha were to have a seizure in public, he made her stop working and forbade her from leaving the house. That was nine months ago.
Now Ajay’s in trouble because he slapped a student. The kid’s dad is a politician who demands the school investigate whether Ajay should keep his job. Ajay plans to repair his image as a lousy husband and teacher by taking Nisha on a two-week trip to Europe to tour World War II historic sites and send video lessons to his students back home. But he makes it clear to Nisha that he’s only doing this for his own benefit, not because he cares about her.
When in Europe, Ajay realizes how worldly his wife is and how attractive other men find her, causing him to reevaluate whether he’s underestimated her value to him. They tour museums and Nisha translates their tour guides’ English narrations into Hindi, helping him to finally gain a shred of empathy.
Even then, Ajay can only sympathize with people from the past by imagining himself in their place (not because they were individuals deserving of life and happiness for their own sake). When he does, the image onscreen changes from color to black and white as Ajay sees himself in events from the past. He stands among soldiers being slaughtered on Normandy Beach, packs a suitcase as Nazi officers urge him to hurry, and calls out to Nisha inside a crowded gas chamber as shirtless men succumb to poison all around him.
The gas chamber sequence is disturbing not because of the imagery but because of the sheer inappropriateness of equating such an evil act to the marital struggles of an abusive husband. Nisha translates an unbelievable speech by a character who is an Auschwitz survivor who says, “Every relationship goes through their Auschwitz.” The Holocaust is not a metaphor.
As seen through the lens applied by Tiwari and his collaborators, World War II is a conflict driven purely by greed for territory. Genocide is never brought up, nor is the Holocaust referred to by name. Very rarely is it even mentioned that the majority of Auschwitz’s million plus victims were Jewish. Instead, Nisha opines that, “We all too are a little like Hitler, aren’t we? We aren’t satisfied with what we have.”
I struggle to understand this interpretation of history. Maybe it’s purely coincidental that a filmmaker from India in 2023 chose to ignore or downplay the Nazi’s systemic persecution and extermination of a religious minority. There’s some irony that Ajay mistreats his wife because of her epilepsy, yet there’s no mention of Hitler’s eugenics program that targeted people with mental and physical disabilities.
Dhawan is competent as Ajay–which he should be, because he’s playing a version of the same character he’s played multiple times in his career already. Kapoor is sympathetic as the neglected wife. But both of them should have bailed on this project once they found out they’d be cosplaying Holocaust victims in a gas chamber.
Either Tiwari and his team have a completely superficial understanding of World War II and didn’t realize the callousness of their story, or they do understand and went ahead anyway because they wanted some novel visuals. Whatever the case, Bawaal is offensive and not worth watching even to see how bad it is.
- Bawaal at Wikipedia
- Bawaal at IMDb
- “The Murder of People with Disabilities” at the Holocaust Encyclopedia
- “Unworthy to Live” at Facing History & Ourselves
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