Kedarnath (2018) Review!!

Synopsis – A Hindu-Muslim love story, Kedarnath portrays how a Muslim pithoo saves a Hindu tourist from the Uttrakhand floods at the pilgrimage, and the love that eventually develops between them.

My Take – Overcoming all kinds of controversies and production troubles, this Abhishek Kapoor (Rock On!!, Kai Po Che!) directed film finally released a week ago to strong box office numbers and has since then been sailing smoothly to a respectable final number. A definite sign of relief for Abhishek Kapoor (also wrote and co-produced this film), whose last film, Fitoor, tanked without a trace, despite some arresting visuals and splendid star cast. Here in his latest venture, an ambitious project no doubt, director Kapoor uses the backdrop of a catastrophic tragedy namely the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, to bring another sweeping love story that seeks to marry themes of faith, religion, intolerance and of course the destruction of the environment.

However, the end results are not as savory as one would have expected. Mainly as the film’s writing lacks a spark and often comes across as quite lethargic especially in the first half. The film is a classic example of old wine in a new bottle, where we see two people from different faith and status fall in love and the family and society pressures take over. How many times can Bollywood filmmakers recycle the same plot over and over again? Thankfully for director Kapoor what keeps the film from drowning (no pun intended), and instead makes it quite watchable are the performances and the hyper dramatic finale where the earth literally cracks open.

Led by the shining light in the young brigade of actors, Sushant Singh Rajput, the film also marks as the debut of Sara Ali Khan, daughter of Bollywood actors Amrita Singh and Saif Ali Khan, who single handedly makes every dour and melodramatic moment in the film seem genuine. If for nothing, the film is at least worth a watch for her arresting performance and overwhelming visuals.

Set in the North Indian temple town, the story follows Mansoor Khan (Sushant Singh Rajput), a Muslim porter, who well aware of the local geography and religious customs, doesn’t refrain from shouting Lord Shiva’s name, and covers the 14-kilometre trek from Gauri Kund to Kedarnath multiple times a day, devoting himself to the care of the pilgrims. Like his deceased father, Mansoor believes his work is a way to serve the almighty and doesn’t hide his religious identity while at it. Despite the social and religious divide his generous ways and friendliness ends up gaining the attention of Mandakini aka Mukku (Sara Ali Khan), a wealthy Hindu girl from a family of priests and lodge owners led by her father, Briraaj (Nitish Bharadwaj).

Being a raging rebel and known for calling out patriarchy at her home along with challenging the staid notions of gendered behaviors outside, Mukku openly courts Mansoor, to have her feelings reciprocated, despite the fact that she is actually engaged to Kullu (Nishant Dahiya). Hot-headed and young, Kullu was originally set to marry Mukku’s older sister, Brinda (Pooja Gor), but later switched his attention to the younger sibling. He understands the social dynamics that is tilted in favor of the Hindus and wants to exploit it for more lucrative business opportunities. However when he finds about the affair he sets out on a revenge path to divide the two by any means possible knowing little about the nature’s plan for them all.

Like all Indian cinema’s most enduring inter-community romances, there is more to this one than what you see on the surface. The film is not just about eyes meeting, young hearts beating and pulses racing across religious divides. It is not even about emotional connects alone, though the bond that forms between Mansoor and his Mukku is sweet and touching. What it is about is true love, pure hearts, innocence and goodness in a time of bigotry, business interests and climate change. Even without nature’s intervention, the romance between the film’s attractive stars surges inexorably towards conflict, with the floods providing a watery coda to forbidden love. At a time when Muslims in India are being marginalized and demonized like never before, the film carries a sense of profound urgency with the natural tragedy acting as a metaphor for impending doom systematic and unchecked religious divide can trigger.

Sadly it takes courage to write a story about a Muslim youth who, quite literally, carries the weight of Hindu pilgrims on his back and lugs them up difficult terrain. Director Kapoor and the co-writer of the film’s story, Kanika Dhillon, are no doubt aware of the messaging in their visual imagery. The couple’s love story, doomed right from the beginning has some achingly poetic moments, including a well-executed throwback to Lag Ja Gale which leads to what, in my book, appears to be one of the most memorable intimate moments in recent film memory. Yet, the romance, which unfolds through repartee and long trudges up the mountainside, has an old-fashioned quality to it.

It takes 10 quick minutes to figure out how the film is going to play out. Which is fine. An old, predictable story can be a good story, too. But the film’s screenwriters, invest little effort in overcoming that hurdle. Director Kapoor, who has always shown remarkable control over his craft, uses the natural catastrophe as a metaphor to depict the collapse of the leading couple’s relationship. While the pairing is seemingly fresh, the issues that plague their romance are decidedly 80s. From an imposing father to a scheming sister to an evil fiancé, director Kapoor, it appears is trying to weave in vintage oppression in a millennial module.

The first 40 minutes meander along illustrating how the over-smart, defiant and determined Mandakini wins over the modest Mansoor. Mansoor and Mukku frequently meet, but they hardly bond. We get one small scene of them watching a cricket match together and, later, sharing a cup of tea, but other than that you never get why these two are drawn to each other. But overall the shift of tones while blending a fictional, inter-faith romance with a historical natural disaster, the film suffers to some degree from the maker’s romantic and idealistic ideas and thereby leaves you unsatisfied. Though the film is only 120-minutes long, it feels much longer. The scene in which Mukku watches without protest as Mansoor is beaten up in her home is one of the few that had no place in this otherwise believable narrative.

While the second half gets a bit tedious and over melodramatic, Tushar Kanti Ray‘s stunning cinematography manages to capture the hustling town in all its chaos and calmness and the tragic climax actually manages to illustrate the magnitude of the real life 2013 Uttarakhand tragedy. More than 4000 people died and thousands were reported missing. Indiscriminate development and disregard for the environment is cited as one of the reasons for the terrible devastation. The visual effects are as impressive as can be on a limited budget, and give a very real sense of what follows when the mountainside crumbles and houses and people are washed away.

Thankfully the film totally banks on its leads and they deliver! Both Rajput and Khan share a quiet, understated chemistry and the tension heightens as the film progresses and moves to a darker territory. Sara Ali Khan makes a confident debut and is a treat to watch. The actress appears to be quite at ease in front of the camera. Her style of dialogue delivery doesn’t ever feel rehearsed or laborious. She is the most watchable and memorable character in the pre-interval sequences, and gives a snappily told but somewhat cold film much-needed warmth when the mountains melt and everything goes under water. As the feisty, loudmouth Mukku who is unabashed when it comes to matters of heart, Sara is a bundle of fresh talent and conveys through her eyes alone in many scenes. In fact in some parts, she might even remind you of her mother Amrita Singh.

Sushant Singh Rajput also churns out a subtle performance and underplays his part most of the time. He is natural, charming and nuanced. He isn’t your typical ‘hero’ who would flex muscles at the slightest provocation. He sometimes downplays emotions and that surprisingly serves the film. While Nishant Dahiya delivers a uniformly strong performance, the rest of the cast including Nitesh Bhardwaj, Pooja Gor and Alka Amin have nothing novel to explore in their respective roles. On the whole, ‘Kedarnath’ is a passable romantic film led down by its flat writing, yet deserves a watch for Sara Ali Khan‘s dazzling performance and the film’s VFX.

Directed – Abhishek Kapoor

Starring – Sushant Singh Rajput, Sara Ali Khan, Nitish Bharadwaj

Rated – PG13

Run Time – 120 minutes

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