Director: Abhishek Kapoor
Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Sara Ali Khan, Nitish Bharadwaj, Alka Amin
Kedarnath is based on the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, but it is more concerned with the humanity of its storytelling than the humans of the story. Multiple motifs jostle for space in a busy script: religion (the Hindu-Pandit-Muslim-porter tension), class (poor-rich conflict), economics (pilgrimage/tourist season), commercialization (the imminent displacement of traditional shops for modern hotels), generational discord (parents/fiancés are the villains) and of course, gender subversion (girl is the risk-taker and move-maker). One can’t entirely blame the filmmakers, though.
Much of Kedarnath’s conflicted identity is down to the cultural ramifications of the setting. A regular “disaster movie” hinges majorly, and stylistically, on the actual mechanics of the event and the effect of the devastation on its characters. It counts on the inhabitants – and their own little movies – being rudely interrupted by the force of nature. They have to look like they might have lived on, if not for this hindrance. As in the case of Titanic, it’s usually a life story – a young romance, or a broken family in the case of Roland Emmerich films – that is defined by the disaster.
But the Indian disaster movie is a different beast. It is weighed down by the responsibility of defining the disaster by the lives and stories occupying it. In Kedarnath, the floods are less of a plot device and more of a comment on the “timelessness” of the central love story. Everyone and everything is designed to texturize, rather than defy, the upcoming storm. For example, Sara Ali Khan’s name is Mandakini, which is also the name of the river that floods the valley. At one point, when she hides out in a cave with Sushant Singh Rajput (as Mansoor Khan, which is also half the name of Sara’s famous cricketer grandfather) on a wet day, she swallows a few droplets and lyrically declares: “I don’t just drink raindrops; I drink the whole sky” – a hint at the sky’s impending fury if they aren’t allowed to be together. This is the film telling us that everything that follows is written in the stars, and that the heavens get angry when the eternality of romance is thwarted. Trust Indian writers to find a way to paint destruction as an extension of love. And fate as an extension of divinity. It is not for no reason we call it an “act of God” – the desi disaster movie is obliged to take this a little too literally.
The politics of the secret courtship between Mandakini and Mansoor is another problem. They might have spent their entire lives in the valley – she is 19, he is 20-something, but their attraction is based on the same old tired themes of ‘modern’ romance. Case in point: Mansoor is shown to first notice her when she raucously cheers for an India-Pakistan cricket match. He is won over by her outspoken nature. Her aggressive…attitude. She is Hindi cinema’s version of the proverbial manic-pixie hothead – a rebel at home, does boy things, flirts like a boy, talks to his horse because he is shy, and even pines like a boy, waiting outside windows and harming herself when he is mad.
Back in the day, “spunky heroines” like Jab We Met’s Geet and K3G’s Anjali felt like a novel, charming and organic reversal of type. These days, the same personality traits are written more like a deliberate device – to showcase the film’s sense of liberalism or the actress’ potential rather than the couple’s unusual chemistry. Kanika Dhillon, Kedarnath’s writer, designs Mandakini’s individuality as an elaborate reaction to the North-Indian male stereotype. Dhillon did the same with Taapsee Pannu’s character in Manmarziyaan, especially in context of her contrasts with Abhishek Bachchan’s nobility. Except, here, the heroine has the extra baggage of highlighting religious differences – Muslims are fine, it takes a flash flood for pious Hindus to recognize this – rather than temperamental differences. She comes across as a heroine inspired by the Geets and Anjalis of Bollywood rather than a small-town girl embodying their spirit. As a result, much like Parineeti Chopra’s misguided turn in Meri Pyari Bindu, as charismatic as Sara Ali Khan is, she is saddled with a psyche that exists for effect. She exists to justify the limitations of her male co-star (Sushant’s ridiculously over-expressive face continues to confound) in a film overpopulated with narrative trends and voguish ambitions.
For a story that virtually moves mountains to advertise its secularity, it’s most ironic that a crucial scene involves a Gujarati family endangering a Muslim hero while a song called Namo Namo punctuates the soundscape. It’s not so ironic that the floods save the film from drowning in its own contradictions. The water raises the tempo and piles on the symbolism – submerged idols, demolished temples et al – until it is rounded off with oddly placed real-life footage and statistics from 2013. This is basically a paranoid movie embracing social relevance to compensate for daring to accessorize a tragedy through the medium of art. Given the current climate, these inclinations aren’t surprising. After all, you know a film is on shaky ground when it’s a natural disaster that must rescue it from being a man-made disaster.