“Bawaal” is a sensationally absurd Bollywood production that tells a simple moral story about what it means to be a Real Man. Directed by Nitesh Tiwari (“Dangal”), this globe-trotting romance is, like many Bollywood movies, willfully over the top. But this one’s not very fun.
Ajay (Varun Dhawan), a grade-school history teacher, is only interested in one thing: looking good. Impeccably groomed and chiseled, he doesn’t seem to care that his students aren’t learning, nor that his wife, Nisha (Janhvi Kapoor), is desperately unhappy.
Ajay keeps Nisha out of sight and at home with his parents — she has epilepsy, and he fears tarnishing his image should she have a seizure in public. When Ajay is suspended from work for slapping a student, he cooks up a scheme to prove his pedagogical worth. He heads to Europe, where he delivers video lectures from various historical sites to his students back home in small-town India.
Nisha tags along, despite Ajay’s protests, and proves herself, too. In Europe, she’s much more capable — and, of course, more beautiful — than Ajay had cared to realize, while he, in sleepy comic-relief segments, suffers through travel’s minor hardships: lost luggage, pickpockets and a dastardly exchange rate.
Ajay becomes more compassionate with each leg of the trip. Monochrome fantasy sequences plunge him and Nisha into battle on the shores of Normandy; in another, they’re victims inside an Auschwitz gas chamber. It’s an egregious metaphor for the dire state of their relationship, and one of the film’s many unearned pivots to high drama.
Dhawan (too convincing a narcissist to pull off a change of heart) and Kapoor (devoid of charisma) don’t have chemistry, and you’re never truly rooting for Ajay so much as you’re hoping Nisha makes a run for it. The film’s macho, save-the-marriage traditionalism will seem icky to some viewers — especially because, absent genuine laughs or stakes, there’s little else to take in.
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes. Watch on Prime Video.