Director: Abhishek Varman
Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Sonakshi Sinha, Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sanjay Dutt
Kalank is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, not directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Director Abhishek Varman is a good disciple. He has taken the signature Bhansali tropes and reworked them into a tangled tale set in 1940s India. Kalank is driven by aesthetics and heightened emotion. Beautiful people in exquisite clothes suffer in soft lighting. Like Bhansali, Abhishek creates an operatic fantasy filled with staggering sets, swirling fabric and heartache. Let me warn you – this film is not for everyone. To enjoy it, you must wholly suspend disbelief. You can’t question the lack of realism or narrative logic or historical authenticity. This is Abhishek’s world. You can only surrender to it.
Kalank has been shot by Binod Pradhan who also shot Devdas. Binod and Abhishek create the same painting-like frames with each shadow and gust of wind carefully designed for maximum impact. Everything is color-coordinated – notice the shades of yellow in the kite flying festival or the pinks in Dussehra. The production design by Amrita Mahal Nakai is flamboyant – Bahaar Begum’s kotha has to be the most opulent brothel seen in Hindi cinema since Chandramukhi’s in Devdas. And the costumes – by Manish Malhotra and Maxima Basu Golani – are so luxurious that it’s impossible to tell who is rich and who poor. The characters of the red-light area Hira Mandi also wear beautifully detailed kurtas and the lehnga of the famed courtesan Bahaar Begum gave me wardrobe goals. Meanwhile Sanjay Dutt as Balraj Chaudhry gets the best shawl collection after Yashvardhan Raichand in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
Kalank touches on the layers of relationships between men and women, but the film never deep-dives into these complexities
Thankfully all this beauty is tethered to an emotional tapestry that keeps you gripped at least through the first half. A young feisty girl, Roop, is emotionally blackmailed into marriage – Roop’s vibrant introduction took me straight back to the first time we see Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Roop arrives in Husnabad, near Lahore, and somehow manages to impose her will on this rich family so she is allowed to go to Hira Mandi to learn music from Bahaar Begum. Roop’s entry into Hira Mandi and her first meeting with Zafar, set against Pritam’s gorgeous song ‘Ghar More Pardesiya’, is choreographed so beautifully that my hair stood on end. Abhishek stages every scene like theater. Roop is photographed through the large windows in her room to symbolize her entrapment. Ironically her only escape is Hira Mandi – a place where women are actually trapped. There is an emotional distance between Balraj and his son Dev so even at dinner or the office, they are always seated unnaturally apart. These characters deliver the dialogue by Hussain Dalal rather than speak them.
But the artificiality works because the emotions feel real. Varun Dhawan has the most complex character – someone who must be both noble and vengeful. He has to walk around shirtless, displaying his formidable abs, without looking silly and make a bull fight with clumsy digital work look authentic. Zafar is a man transformed by love and Varun skillfully captures both his strength and vulnerability. Alia Bhatt is equally watchable. She’s stunning without a trace of vanity. It’s a treat to see her with the other powerhouse in this film – Madhuri Dixit. Both bring conviction even to scenes that border on the outlandish – like Roop becoming a journalist. Sonakshi Sinha manages to make the part of a ridiculously sacrificing wife somewhat believable. Kunal Khemu shows that he’s a competent actor who should get more work and Aditya Roy Kapur does what he can with his fairly one-note role. Strangely, the usually reliable Sanjay Dutt comes off as stiff and uncomfortable as Balraj.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s best films are tinged with a singular madness – there is an abandon in the ambition that Abhishek is unable to summon in Kalank
There is so much talent and hard work on display and yet, Kalank doesn’t dazzle. Bhansali’s best films are tinged with a singular madness – there is an abandon in the ambition that Abhishek is unable to summon in Kalank. The film is so constructed that by the last hour, it starts to weigh you down. There isn’t enough lyricism or recklessness here – in fact, I constantly felt that the makers were trying to play safe, so Madhuri gets a solo dance sequence – ‘Tabaah Ho Gaye’. We must also have the heroes dance together – ‘Aira Gaira’. Incidentally this number, with Kriti Sanon shimmying between dozens of men, feels even more out of place than ‘First Class’. Is this what 1940s India was really like? But of course, we can’t ask that question.
Kalank touches on the layers of relationships between men and women. In one scene, when Bahaar tells Roop that her husband is a good man, Roop answers with a question – sirf acchai kafi hoti hai puri zindagi bitane ke liye? But the film never deep-dives into these complexities. And the story wobbles precariously when the plot addresses the political climate it is set in – the hate and bloodshed of pre-Partition India. There is no room here for the devastation to be depicted with any authenticity. The story stretches on interminably and eventually, an exhaustion seeps in.
Still, Kalank is likely to be the most visually stunning film you will see this year. Besides, Bahaar Begum has given me a line that I am dying to throw at the next boring person I meet – kal ayyiyega, filhal is guftugu se thak gaye hain hum. That’s a keeper. I’m going with three stars.