Director: Abhishek Varman
Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Sonakshi Sinha, Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sanjay Dutt
In Kalank, Varun Dhawan plays a muscular, and therefore perpetually bare-bodied, Muslim blacksmith named Zafar in pre-Independence Lahore. At one point, Roop (Alia Bhatt), the married woman he is wooing, asks him, “Tum sab mein buraayi kyun dhoondhte rehte ho?” (Why do you find flaws in everything?), to which a half-serious Zafar replies: “Kyuki mujhe achaayi se darr lagta hai” (Because I fear goodness/quality). Zafar doesn’t know it, but he is a living, breathing allegory for a Hindi film critic in 2019.
Can anyone blame him? Roop is the big-budget, pretty, elegant but soulless mainstream movie that he is trying so hard to like. She is married to a wealthy heir whose first wife – the previous big-budget extravaganza – is dying of cancer. Roop, too, is a compromise: She has married into privilege as part of a “financial” arrangement that promises a bright future to her younger sisters. The family doesn’t mind replacing one empty spectacle with another for the sake of its reputation, its izzat. The metaphors write themselves. Furthermore, Roop is intrigued by Zafar, and even becomes a “journalist” in her husband’s newspaper company so that she can write about Zafar’s exotic world – akin to the cinematic gaze the aforementioned movies employ to accessorize earthy middle-Indian stories in the name of rousing underdog sagas. It’s no wonder Zafar is shown fighting cartoonish bulls in his spare time. Needless to mention, her article is rejected.
In the meantime, poor Zafar is accused of being a cynic whose passion is trusted by nobody in the upper echelons of the town; even his own mother is wary of him. I empathize with this kohl-eyed warrior. And I sympathize with anyone who chooses to watch a bitter film-critic origin story disguised as a lavishly mounted historical – and vaguely xenophobic – drama.
In many ways, Kalank is an arrogant symbol of multiplex Bollywood. It truly believes that being beautiful is enough in a world infected with nostalgia. It decorates, pauses, gasps, whispers, sighs, romanticizes and ultimately chokes on its own derived sense of (slam) poetry. 2 States director Abhishek Varman seems to have trained his cameras on bootlegged Partition-themed paintings for most part: Brothels that look like palaces, palaces that look like kingdoms, kingdoms that look like newsrooms, newsrooms that look like South Bombay libraries. Some may call it eternal, but Varman’s sense of world-building is bereft of the depth the imagery thinks it merits. In short, the storytelling is just as obsolete as the story being told. Roop is introduced with a mandatory kite-flying song to demonstrate her happy-go-lucky nature; Zafar with an Eid song named “First-class”; the two have a love-at-first-sight scene during Dussherra against the backdrop of a burning Raavan with Ram’s arrows (doubling up as Cupid’s) whizzing past them; Sanjay Dutt is Balraaj, a patriarch whose murky past brings to memory the travails of Rajesh Khanna’s Balraaj in Aa Ab Laut Chalein; Madhuri Dixit plays a tawaif who so deliberately oozes Begum-heavy lyricism with every glance and arched eyebrow that you might wonder if Chandramukhi was merely reappearing after being accidentally locked in a diamond-studded prison on Bhansali’s Devdas set.
Given Kalank’s (unintentional) film-critic subtext, it’s only fair that, like any self-respecting and safe Indian reviewer, I mention every department of filmmaking. Some of the music is nice, but the songs exist solely to make the movie look like it was five years in the making. The production design, garish on the outside and lavish on the inside, is elevated by Binod Pradhan’s old-world cinematography. But not even a cinematographer can save the self-conscious and ill-conceived imagery of newspapers flying in slow-motion onto the hero’s face or burning in a CGI bonfire during the riots. The performances lack any sort of conditioning. Varun Dhawan’s dialogue delivery defies not just the ambiguity of 1946 but the fluidity of 2019 – he isn’t cut out to play period heroes, less so a rebel defying the politics of Jinnah’s Muslim League era. Aditya Roy Kapoor resists drinking alcohol in his role as a grieving Hindu husband and anti-Partition activist…until he meets Varun Dhawan. They hit the bottle together, and balance is restored in Kapoor’s “spirited” acting career. Sonakshi Sinha is fine as a dying lady.
Not even a cinematographer can save the self-conscious and ill-conceived imagery of newspapers flying in slow-motion onto the hero’s face or burning in a CGI bonfire during the riots
But it takes a special kind of talent to render Alia Bhatt ineffective, robotic and Student-of-the-Year-ish in a role that requires her to stare longingly out of the window for hours at end; Bhatt’s Roop is stripped of expression and personality, reducing her to a sullen heroine who looks more ashen-faced than an Indian spy married into a Pakistani army family. Hussain Dalal’s dialogues read more like a conglomeration of sweet-sounding Hindi film titles than actual Urdu phrases – at one point, Madhuri Dixit manages to mention Guzaarish, Tamasha, Badla, Wakht and Fanaa in the same sentence. Such a coup.
I understand that films like Kalank are designed to internalize the traditional interpretation of love – slow-moving moments, musical interludes, long exchanges of verbal nothingness, grand sacrifices and irrational indulgences. Romance is, after all, a dying genre in these keypad times. But the problem arises when modern filmmakers try to interpret the language of timelessness. They get consumed by the “look” and the “feel” of their stories, forgetting that time most certainly can be felt by viewers shifting restlessly in a dark air-conditioned hall. In the process, Kalank ends up impersonating one of those tragically dated Lucknowi nawabs that sees “character,” rather than impending disaster, in the cracks of their dilapidated mansion walls. For better or worse, there is only one Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I’m not sure history can afford more.