Synopsis – Drama set in the 1940s during the partition of India.
My Take – Films based on illegitimate children, courtesans and the 1947 partition were a rage in the 60s and 70s Hindi cinema, a trend which continued to up to the early 90s. A trend which gave rise to prominent filmmakers, a chance for many actors and actress to showcase their melodramatic skills in multi-starrers, a trend which died quickly by the end of the millennium.
This Bollywood biggie, jointly produced by Karan Johar, Sajid Nadiadwala and Fox Star Studios, is a mishmash of all of this and more. It’s a potpourri of all the tropes, which had been done to death in Hindi cinema even before the firstborn of the millennial generation arrived.
Here, director Abhishek Varman (2 States) also attempts to replicate the epic kitsch aesthetic popularized by filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, as a result the film is a visual treat, one that you could watch for the sheer magnificence of scale that it is mounted on. And a premise that sets out to tackle the issue of love and morality. This film wants to believe it’s an aesthetic dream, filled with vibrant visuals, and stunning cast hereby setting the stage for a traditional Bollywood tale of love and destruction.
But surprisingly, this ambitious venture takes a major hit as the vision to create a rich visual experience takes precedence here, and despite the ensemble putting up their best efforts to sustain the scale, the film just fails to rise above its poor script, and it doesn’t help that the film runs for an elongated 166 minutes.
While it has been an alluring sight to witness mainstream Bollywood filmmakers upping their game by venturing into newer directions, a film like this one just end up putting a stain on that progress.
Set around the pre-partition era, in a fictional town called Husnabad, near Lahore, the story follows Roop (Alia Bhatt), a feisty educated woman, who in order to financially secure her family, agrees to marry Dev Chaudhary (Aditya Roy Kapur), upon the constant insistence of Satya (Sonakshi Sinha), Dev’s first wife who is dying of cancer.
Satya desires that Roop must be able to provide Dev the much need companionship after her death and brings her along to live with them in their mansion along with Baldev Chaudhry (Sanjay Dutt), a newspaper baron and Satya’s loving father in law, so that her transition into married life post her death becomes easier.
But unfortunately for Roop, as soon as they are married Dev reveals to her that their relationship will always be only cordial and platonic. Saddened and depressed Roop from such treatment from her husband takes solace in her passion for music, by stepping into forbidden ghetto of Heera Mandi, which is run by Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), a former-courtesan-turned-music-and-dance teacher.
While Roop also finds herself a job under Dev’s controversial editorial staff, she keeps finding herself drawn to the atmosphere of Heera Mandi, where she met Zafar (Varun Dhawan), a womanizing local blacksmith, who becomes her local guide to the small town. As the attraction between the two begins to set a stage for a forbidden romance which wreaks havoc all around, an old school revenge is also in play, something which will force Zafar’s close friend and confidant, Abdul (Kunal Khemu), to fuel his action against Dev and his liberal newspaper company.
The film sets off on a promising note, with a prelude showing glimpses of the film’s crux. A woman, in a train, extends her arm of support towards a wounded, sword-wielding man whilst she is held on the other side by her husband, who stands inside the train with her that leads to a new lease of life, escaping from the clutches of hate and violence. What amounts to that moment forms the rest of the film and it takes its own, whimsical time to get there. All things aside, what’s fresh about the film is the treatment.
This period drama is present in a lavish way and whether it’s the sets or the costumes, everything about the film brings the grandeur alive. The production design and cinematography is reminiscent of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s works, where grandeur overtakes realism. This quality was also reflective in the film’s poetic dialogue.
The film has been mounted on a lavish scale, with a lot of attention paid to the set, and costume designs to recreate the pre-Partition Lahore. It is doubtless a visual delight on the big screen but that’s its only USP.
While the film nearly salvages itself at the climactic portions, where the love triangle faces some challenges, which gives us some space to root for the lead characters, but its trite storyline and shoddy screenplay are a letdown and the fact that it’s stretched to 166 minutes in an era of two-hour-long flicks does not help it either.
Here, director Abhishek Verman, who had shown immense promise with his launch vehicle, 2 States (2014), aimed to create a ‘Titanic’ style epic romance, but in his attempt to map melodramatic conventions onto the tragedy of the Partition, his ambitions get the better of him. For a title that means taboo/stigma, the depiction of the era doesn’t fit with what I understand of that era. Also, the ‘losing face and honor’ is rather convenient through the film.
When it suits the story, things are a big no-no, else women are breaking the rules set in the own film without anyone raising an eyebrow. I am not even referring to what I know were big no-no at the time, like women showing off their mid-riff in a dance sequence or a man and a woman talking to each other openly on the streets.
Even the main issues like the social construct at the time of partition, the Hindu-Muslim divide aren’t dug deeper into. In Earth, director Deepa Mehta skillfully navigated the ways in which, given the perfect storm, heartbreak could get magnified to monstrous proportions and previously convivial neighbors could turn on one other. This film is, however, too inchoate to strike a balance between the personal and the political.
It works neither as an unusual love triangle nor a contemporary addition to the Partition genre. Even Abdul drastic ascend to villainy feels really unconvincing.
By no means is this an unbearable film, as there is a constant tryst to divert our attention from its story line, be the dance sequences or the humor, but then then you have these weird sequences like a bullfight which has little to do with the main story. That, we are used to in Hindi films, a sequence squeezing into the film just because. But, with such poor CGI? Why? Similarly, the film is filled with enough songs to make you feel like it is a musical, but none of the songs stay with you.
The formidable cast too tries to salvage as much as they can. Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan, the lovable pair that gave us three hits in a row try their best to extricate the film from the morass of mediocrity but, alas, their sparkling chemistry witnessed in their previous films is missing here. Alia is clearly miscast as Roop, and cannot do the heavy-lifting required of a woman who is pawn, reluctant feminist, dutiful second wife, philanderer, singer, and dancer and, in a hilarious moment of misjudgment, a budding journalist who marches out to document Hira Mandi’s history.
However, Varun Dhawan fares better as his character is the most compelling of the lot. Aditya Roy Kapur does some of his best work in the silences, and tender scenes with Sonakshi Sinha, who makes the most of her limited screen time. Sanjay Dutt too is endearing in his special appearance.
Despite being the least focus of the marketing, it’s Madhuri Dixit and Kunal Khemu who end up delivering the standout performances here, and shine in each every scene they are present in. Kiara Advani looks really gorgeous and does well in her small part. Kriti Sanon gets to showcase her dancing skills in a misplaced song. On the whole, ‘Kalank’ is a disappointing period-romance which despite being visually grand fails in the story department.
Directed – Abhishek Varman
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 166 minutes