Director: Abhishek Varman
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Kunal Kemmu, Hiten Tejwani, Achint Kaur
Dialogue Writer: Hussain Dalal (had to mention this because I cannot fathom how all that Urdu could spout off from the man who made Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani relatable to the millennial audience!!)
The last time Sonakshi Sinha (as Pakhi) was dying of a deadly disease and managed to arouse our heartfelt sympathy was in Lootera (2013). Still recovering from heartbreak and betrayal, and grappling with abject loneliness, her sighs and whispers interspersed between painful bouts of coughing and breathlessness came across as relatable.
This time though, as a stunning Sonakshi (as Satya in Kalank) layered in the choicest makeup and grace fitting for the goddesses, leaves the doctor’s clinic saying, “Marne wale ko karam thik karne chahiye, tabiyat nahin”, we find it less than convincing. As if that is not enough, we are then taken straight to a modest home in Rajputana (Rajasthan) where Sinha makes a rather unbecoming request of Roop (Alia Bhatt) – she only has a year to live and wants her husband Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapur) to marry again. And she wants them married right away, so she can assure herself that her husband’s life will not waste away like she will, very soon.
Now, we are never told, in the course of a whopping 170 minutes of the film as to what exactly Roop owes Satya (even though there are tedious hints throughout the film) to tag along in this bizarre plan; all we know is she reluctantly agrees to this proposal so she can lift her family (and especially, her other two unmarried sisters) off the financial trenches they were living in. If this is not the most regressive of Bollywood plots, then I don’t know what is. But since Kalank is set in the time of Partition, we reason to ourselves that of course, women were not as emancipated back then as they are now!
Fast forward to Husnabad (Lahore), Roop’s life begins on the most unexciting note ever. Dev is prompt and kind enough to let her know that while she will be accorded utmost respect as the bahu of the khandaan, she should not expect love in return from him. He loves his wife deeply, and will never be able to give her that place in his life. Sounds eerily similar to what Paro’s husband says to her in Devdas (2002) right? Fortunately or unfortunately, the references to “Bhansalism” don’t end here.
Trapped in the reality of her youth and her life nipped in the bud, Roop, while gazing out at empty skies on her balcony one day, is intrigued by a mysterious voice crooning out in the distance. It is none other than Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), the songstress and local courtesan who had wowed many a fickle heart (pun intended) and lives in Heera Mandi, the scandalous lanes of Husnabad, “jiska naam lene se bhi log badnaam ho jaate hain.” Or some such. No, I’m not saying it. The characters say it, over and over again, masking it with doom and making it sound as unpalatable as unpalatable can be. There is of course a dreaded link between Heera Mandi and Chaudhry villa, and the same becomes clear as day despite the characters humming and hawing through their lines, steeped in pointless sobriety.
Away from the stuffy, sombre atmosphere at Chaudhry villa, Roop finds herself mesmerized with Bahaar Begum’s singing prowess as she is by her nazaakat. Between working in the family newspaper business headed by Balraj Chaudhry (Sanjay Dutt) and learning music from Bahaar Begum, she gradually finds a purpose to soak herself in. All is decidedly well till she meets Zafar, the local blacksmith, who takes a fancy to her and even ends up grabbing her wrist the very first time they meet. Since this is the 1940s and stalking had not yet found a mention in society’s rulebook, Roop falls passionately for the audacious Zafar, against her better nature and the lines drawn for her as the bahu of the Chaudhry khandaan.
Zafar, abandoned at birth by an unwed mother (Bahaar Begum) and a cowardly father (guess who?) even prior to his birth, now wakes up every morning to be branded as “najayaz” and “haraami” by the local people, practically in every scene. Lives in the gutter (figuratively), sleeps around indiscriminately and throws himself away in murderous bullfights, while seething in rage directed at his mother as well as Sr. Chaudhry (Dutt) for having taken from him a life that could have been. When he meets Roop and finds her besotted with him, he decides to use her as a weapon to destroy the Chaudhry khandaan, to have them suffer the shame and humiliation he had endured all his life. There is a glitch though – and this is embarrassingly predictable – he inadvertently drops his seedy, Casanova image and does fall for Roop – but so does Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), despite the noblest of intentions. And that is exactly where all hell breaks loose, because the filmmakers seemed to have realized that now, hearts must shatter and make noises loud enough to deafen the audience – so that the ornate setting, ostentatious Bollywoodized Urdu, jaw-dropping expensive costumes and heavy, practiced silences can be justified.
Nonetheless, despite director and screenplay writer Abhishek Varman’s tenacious efforts, none of the faux-intensity employed to tackle the project seems necessary or sincere. In fact, what gravely punctures the tempo of the film is the forced drama inserted in every scene (even those that could have done with some cheeriness sans Urdu dripping off the actors’ tongues) that makes it come across as disingenuous. Many a time my mind wandered back to Bhansali’s Devdas and Saawariya, as I found myself drowning in the carefully designed noir-ness of Kalank – made possible with veteran cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s work behind the camera. It is a shame though that the film had none of the urgency palpable in Devdas (well okay, I admit I cannot say the same about Saawariya), despite overt signs of a forbidden love, and explicit scenes of unrest, violence and gory included to render the love triangle more devastating against the context of Partition.
This is not to say that Kalank does not at all have its winning moments; these however, are sparse and stand out in your memory long after you’ve watched the film. For example, the confrontation between Dev and Balraj Chaudhry juxtaposed against the one between Zafar and Bahaar Begum feels mildly thrilling. So does the climax, which the makers seem to have worked hard at to prevent it from veering into the utterly predictable.
The cinematography and the dance performances in both Ghar More Pardesiya and Tabaah Ho Gaye are breathtaking, the only time the extravagant build-up of the movie feels good. Alas! Without a solid plot, the decorative aspects of a film can only go so far.
Barring Alia Bhatt who shines as the gentle yet bold Roop, the performances of the remaining ensemble fizzle without a trace. Varun Dhawan as Zafar is hammy in the first half and a spitting image of most of his previous characters (sans the kajal and the beard) as he rolls off one cliché romantic/cringey dialogue after the other. It’s only in the second half that you begin feeling for his character, even though you do not cross over completely to side Zafar.
Roy Kapur as Dev is restrained and dignified, so much that it robs away from the character’s motivations. I actually enjoyed his conflict with Sr. Chaudhry more than I did his equation with his dying wife and his newly-wed second wife, which were insipid to start with. Sinha has Satya is completely passable, her presence so diluted she might not have even been a part of the project. Dutt as the newspaper baron Balraj Chaudhry is authoritative without the menace that patriarchs don such hats with. He, however, fails to slip into the remorseful old father towards the end, an element that chips away at the core plot tool. And may I add he seems resolutely stone-faced through most of his scenes? Madhuri Dixit as Bahaar Begum is grace personified, but lacks the namak that a Chandramukhi from Devdas was draped in, in addition to the layers of ethnic fashion. Supporting actors such as Hiten Tejwani and Kiara Advani remain just that – on the fringes. Kunal Kemmu (as Abdul, Zafar’s friend) starts out lukewarm but gains range over the course of the film – he is actually more of a surprise element than the film’s plot itself!
One of the cardinal sins of filmmaking is rendering the execution too stretched, too thin, a glitch the makers of Kalank ought to feel guilty about. Repetitive scenes between Roop and Zafar to forcibly create romantic tension between the pair only made it monotonous and yawn worthy after a point. Begum’s well-meaning advice to a young, impulsive Roop could have come about at least ten scenes earlier, and so could the atmosphere of strife in Heera Mandi and their agitation for a separate homeland. At least four of the eight loud, bombastic songs could have been done away with – would have helped lower the budget of the project while saving us recurring headaches. And so could the item song featuring Kriti Sanon and the boys to establish a Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam-esque bond between the two suitors (except that HDDCS was classy, massy and was the ultimate treat for folk-song lovers). Against the setup of the 1940s, why on earth would a garishly-dressed woman be used as a crucial plot tool, is beyond me!!
All in all, Kalank feels stuck in time (was conceptualized fifteen years ago by the late Yash Johar and revived by son Karan Johar, so no surprises there), and pretty darn regressive for a Bollywood seeking fresher, more emancipated subjects to make films on. An exercise to rip off the highlights of Bhansalism, the film, while succeeding in emulating the director’s over-the-top treatment of plots, dives miserably in creating characters that the audience could have truly rooted for. There is awe-inducing grandeur, just no spark.
Or as Bahaar Begum says to Roop in their very first meeting, “Aawaz acchi hai, bas namak kam hai.”