Bhandarkar is known for setting films in interesting worlds, only to strip the story of complexities and present it as a simplistic morality tale. The world according to Bhandarkar is one drawn in broad strokes and it invariably offers the reassurance that your worst, unfounded suspicions are true. Babli Bouncer sticks to this formula. The village is the site of virtuous goodness while the city is the centre of all vices. This is a hilarious reimagining when you consider the violently conservative misogyny that characterises real-life, rural Haryana. The freedom that the city offers women is depicted as a corrupting factor. Although our heroine has the moral spine to resist temptation, we’re shown others who embody urbane vice. Middle-aged women go to bars and make a scene to avoid paying their bill, confident they can get away with such stunts because their femininity will act as armour. Young women in shiny clothes lose their common sense when they’re tipsy. Sleazy men with eye-popping stares go around sharing joints in a smoking room, unperturbed by the bouncers in the bar. Cocaine also works on city women much like gripe water did on babies back in the day. Accuracy and realism should not be expected from a film that has obviously taken its cue from Nineties’ Bollywood, but there’s an alarming eagerness to pander to stereotypes in Babli Bouncer. In a film that’s almost two hours long, there’s not one insight. Instead, it’s packed with tired clichés.
Babli is neither the conscience of this decadent world, as Konkona Sen Sharma’s Madhvi was in Page 3 (2005), nor is she its prey the way the models were in Fashion (2008). She’s the lens through which we glimpse Bhandarkar’s vision of Delhi nightlife, but there’s no conflict to anchor Babli to the story. She gets whatever she needs, whenever she needs it. Whether it’s a job in Delhi or a few men to beat up, the universe serves it to her on a platter. The only obstacle in her life is that she can’t make round rotis and — spoiler alert — by the end of the film, Babli’s rotis are shaped like a perfect zero.
It’s difficult to fault Bhatia for not making Babli feel more interesting when the role is written so poorly. However, even though her character goes on a journey — literally and figuratively — Bhatia fails to depict any changes in Babli. From her body language to her wardrobe, everything remains the same throughout the film. Ultimately, Kukku is more memorable than Babli because Vaid highlights the learning curve that his character has. From a man who’s confident that he can get whatever he wants — thanks, patriarchy — Kukku learns to accept reversals. He discovers friendship, he solves situations with his wits rather than his muscles, and even manages to seem charming despite the abysmally-lazy writing. By the end of the film, the script is so disinterested in the story it is telling that we don’t even find out how a climactic fight between Babli and four men actually ended. One moment, Babli’s fainting because she’s been whacked on her head. The next moment, she wakes up in a bed and says she’s hungry, having seemingly forgotten all about the night before.
To be fair, that’s about as memorable as Babli Bouncer is too.
Babli Bouncer is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.