Around the 95th minute of Madhur Bhandarkar’s latest offering Babli Bouncer, Babli thrashes the living daylights out of four dudes in leather jackets and an SUV. They’ve drugged and kidnapped a girl from the club where Babli works as a “lady bouncer”. In hot pursuit on a motorcycle, alone, she finds and halts them. When her respectful plea that the girl be handed over to her only triggers derisive comments, she takes on all four of them. Single-handedly.
For young working women who’ve negotiated big cities and been at the receiving end of assault – of any kind – there is a certain vicarious satisfaction to be found in this scene. Unfortunately, Babli’s few punches land better than anything else in this purported “comedy” where the “jokes” are almost entirely at her expense, the pace is ridiculously slow and uneven, and the plot is nowhere to be found.
The premise of Babli Bouncer comes from a very real story – that of the twin towns of Asola-Fatehpur Beri located a few kilometres from south Delhi. From here comes a steady supply of strongmen – pehelwans – to Delhi NCR where they find viable occupation as bouncers in glitzy clubs. Bhandarkar, who has mostly made ‘women-centric’ films throughout his 23-year career or more precisely since Chandni Bar became a megahit, dives into this milieu and conjures a woman of great physical strength and appetite for his lead protagonist.
Babli is Tamannaah Bhatia, looking less petite than she ever has on screen. The camera lingers a lot (perhaps a bit too much) on her face, to underline the stark contrast between Babli’s natural beauty (the milk-white complexion, rose-hued cheeks and hazel eyes) and her ‘masculine’ ways. She eats all the time, she burps where she wants, walks like a man, scores goals on the football field, loves her buffaloes, but cannot make round rotis to save her life.
Babli is also aimless, perhaps because she knows what the future has in store for her. While her best friend Pinky (Priyam Saha) has graduated with a B Ed degree and landed a job in a school in Delhi, it’s not a big deal that Babli crashed out of school in 10th grade. In a flashback scene, when her maths teacher (a portly old woman referred to as “Dhol”) calls upon her parents to talk about Babli’s prospects, her father (Saurabh Shukla) dismisses her. So what if Babli can’t solve an equation, she can always fall back on a solid marriage.
All would be copacetic in this rural idyll and Babli’s life if she hadn’t run into the very urbane, rather dashing Viraj (Abhishek Bajaj), the math teacher’s son who did pay attention in class, went abroad to study and now has a plum corporate job in the big city. Naturally, Babli develops a crush, and begins to make overtures – only to learn here was a guy who was attracted to independent, self-reliant women. That, along with a series of chance encounters, brings her to the night shift at a club in Delhi.
Babli Bouncer is primarily the story of Babli’s awakening – the realisation that to stand on her own two feet means a lot more than having money in your bank account. Unlike the lead characters of a lot of Bhandarkar’s movies, she isn’t the victim, passive recipient or manipulator of egregious circumstances. She realises the need for growth. She develops a desire to rise up in the world by taking English classes and studying hard to pass 10th grade. If only she hadn’t been made the butt of a bad edamame rice joke several minutes earlier.
It’s clear that Tamannaah Bhatia has put in the work for a flawless Haryanvi accent. It’s an earnest performance, but none of her Babli is effortless – and the heavy mascara does not help. Much less laboured and significantly more accomplished are the performances of the entire supporting cast, including Saurabh Shukla as the gentle patriarch and Supriya Shukla as Babli’s harried mother. Priyam Saha does some excellent emoting in the little screen time she’s given; and a special mention for Sahil Vaid who, as lovestruck Kuku, is an endearing, sweet, believable presence.
Bhandarkar’s knack for finding interesting stories in cutting-edge journalism is intact. As is his insistence on watering down those complex worlds into over-simplified binaries. Here, the village and the big bad city especially at night – sit on opposite ends of the good-bad spectrum. Attached to them are notions of purity and corruption of the soul: Absolutes that seem forced given the setting, Haryana, where extreme conservatism and sexism exist.
To be sure, there are shades of ‘women’s empowerment’ to glean in Babli Bouncer if you were to look for them – in Babli’s maths teacher’s belief in the power of bookish knowledge, in Pinky’s path to success and out of this place, built on quiet hard work, even though she feels beholden to make fun of her own weight. Sadly, Babli isn’t inspired by these women with whom she has grown up – nor are this film’s makers. Her self-realisation comes only after Viraj humiliates her at every level of her being and gets away with it. There’s a reason why Bhandarkar’s films are called ‘women-centric’, never feminist.
At least on paper, Babli Bouncer is a very savvy product: A slice-of-life film set in the Indian heartland, with a strong female lead at its core. But so much goes wrong. The treatment, dialogue and script will make you feel like you’re watching something made in the 1990s. That includes a much too heavy reliance on a bad, too-loud background score engineered for comical effect, with an awful refrain (“Re Babli”) that sounds like the moo of a constipated cow – it’s the equivalent of the laughter track on American sitcoms, which is also rather out of place in 2022.
Where others have unearthed real insight about the ways and idiosyncrasies of life in north India beyond its metropolises – Stree to Bareilly ki Barfi, Dum Laga ke Haisha to Badhaai Ho, Pagglait to Ram Prasad ki Tehrvi – Babli Bouncer only reinforces the stereotypes of the spaces it purports to explore. Who ever struck comedy gold by mining clichés? Or by insisting, every 20 minutes or so like Babli does, that one is, in fact, “funny, very funny”? If you have to keep shouting it, you’re really, really not.Babli Bouncer is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.