When I began writing stories as a child, I would resort to heavy words to describe feeble, and mundane things. I would open the dictionary to a random page, pick a word that sounded embellished and heavy, and weave a sentence and sometimes stories around it. I was told that a day would come when my stories would need words, as opposed to my words needing a story- and that would make me a better, more bearable writer.
Kalank feels like words searching anxiously for a story to house them. It reminded me of the conflicting thoughts I had watching Ae Dil Hai Mushkil years ago. It is not just the obsession with chaste Urdu, and the metaphor of love being a slippery floor that connects these films. Produced by the same banner, these films are symptomatic of the art-artifice debate that raged after Saawariya‘s release and unfortunate demise in 2007- when does art become artifice? And what do we as a society do with artifice?
Abhishek Varman’s second film, Kalank, is a beautiful but excessive irony. It seeks to be timeless, but roots itself in a time-period that to Indians and Pakistanis reeks of memories, anger, sadness, and nostalgia. It eludes geography, yet places itself among real cities facing real problems. It tries to be luxurious, but its luxury is so contrived, it creates discomfort- you are never able to surrender to the vision.
The vision, though, is admirable- think rich textured fabrics, tall towering structures with chalk blue walls, mosques, city squares, palaces, deserts, love that can only be expressed but never manifested, respect that begins to slowly, steadily think of itself as love, sadness that breeds bastards, and throbbing loneliness, love that is selfless, love that is possessed, love that is cursed, love that is bygone, love … This film feels like a compromise between layered, nuanced characters, and a run-time that is consumable by today’s standards- and therein lies its doom.
The two timelines- one where Roop is experiencing, and the other when Roop is articulating- is always an interesting cinematic device to study. Roop’s long silences, and deep gazes demand articulation. And it is not just because of Alia Bhatt‘s inability to evoke emotions through silences and gazes.
Roop as a character needed her thoughts to be articulated because she’s so much- but not enough of anything. She’s a wife, a lover, a journalist, an apprentice, a singer, a kathak dancer, a rebel, and a saviour. When her story on heera-mandi is rejected, we don’t know why she is sad. Is it because her talents as a writer were questioned, or that her rejection was so public, or did she feel this rejection as a rejection of heera-mandi, taking it personally; is she beginning to feel like one of them? Honestly, the speculations can go on. The problem is that this speculation begins to feel pointless, because whatever she’s feeling, it doesn’t leave any trace on her story hereon. Think of how one dissects a Bhansali film mining for meaning, where most answers find themselves housed in the various details of the story.
It is here I want to underscore the importance of having minimal wardrobe changes for characters who are inherently so-much-but-not-enough-of-anything. We see Alia Bhatt going to Heera Mandi, introducing herself to Madhuri Dixit, proving her prowess, meeting the first gaze of her lover, and coming back to her husband’s house- all in one outfit. Even Madhuri confronts Alia, dances to the tune of the world’s destruction, and is confronted by Varun in the same orange outfit. Where the screenplay is unable to cohere, the costumes pulsate with continuity.
However, it must be noted that having both a character experience, and articulate their experience in a film is an active choice that eludes subtlety- it is the trade-off an artist must contend with; to be obvious or to just be. Abhishek clearly chose the former, and for better or worse, it shows.
But Kalank‘s primary fault is that the articulation feels unnecessary- the words are repetitive, the feelings are obvious, the angst is generic, and the nostalgia is too tiresome. Mani Ratnam‘s ode to toxic love Kaatru Veliyidai too suffered from this unnecessary device of a character articulating what is obvious, and what is stated. This is also where the Urdu becomes insufferable. Because the film stops trying to develop its characters, but infuses their circumstances with beauty, heft, and poise. And for Dharma films, this means Urdu. When language becomes mere ornament, where does meaning then come from?
It is also important to note that geographic inconsistency was a deliberate cinematic choice. A city with a colosseum on a sunny and dry cliff, a river babbling from snowy capped mountains, a mosque that is open to a square which is open to a moat by a lake and an opulent palace begins to evoke dissonance beyond a certain point. For me this geographic inconsistency worked in a film like Saawariya, that is unapologetic about it being about a khwaabon ka shehr, sticks to a colour palette, and is outright dismissive of reality. But Kalank is rooted in a specific time, in a specific context that is not just historic but abound with meaning and memory. Cognitive dissonance was inevitable, as were the confused audience murmurs.
With such a genre, people mostly complain about the makers taking themselves too seriously. Watching Kalank, I really wished they had, because a thing of beauty is not necessarily a thing of consequence.
Review written by Prathyush Parasuraman, the winner of this week’s #YourReviewOnFC contest