In the first twenty minutes of Kalank comes the introduction of Varun Dhawan’s character Zafar – in the form of a song called “First Class” which, apart from the fact that it isn’t even remotely reminiscent of the 40s, is fun. One of the oft-repeated lines in the song is Baaki sab First Class hai. About Kalank the film I have this to say: picture ghatiya hai, baaki sab First Class hai.
While one might say that’s a tad bit rude, I truly haven’t got much good to say for anyone but director of photography Binod Pradhan and Kunal Khemu.
Kalank is probably the first “mainstream” Hindi film with “star-actors” to delve into the horrific events around the time of Partition in a decade. And it does a supremely shallow job of it by adding to the era the genre of cinema that has the capability of ruining everything when not pulled off: romance, or, in this case, roamance. On account of the length of the film and the long-windedness of the events that occur on screen.
The film opens with a montage in which we see the silhouettes of each of the six protagonists (though one wonders whether all six would actually qualify as that, given that four of them have little impact and even littler screentime), following which it cuts to Amritsar in 1956 with Alia Bhatt’s Roop narrating her tale to a reporter. The majority of the film, though, is set between 1944 and 1946, in the fictitious town of Husnabad near Lahore.
Roop tells Mr. Reporter (that’s not his name, so you can sigh happily in relief that there is no stereotypical bawa character in the film) about how she was essentially guilt-tripped by her father and his former employer’s daughter Satya to marry the latter’s husband, because she (Satya) is dying of cancer and she wants the husband to have company or whatever after she’s conked off.
So Roop, whom we have been introduced to in a totally inappropriate (for the era, place and samaaj the film is set in) fashion, marries the vilayat-returned Dev, who is the editor of Husnabad’s English newspaper The Daily Times. The samjhauta (as we are routinely reminded the marriage is; samjhauta as a term competes with the likes of aawam and haraami/najayas for the spot of most-used word) obviously results in Roop withering away (not literally, though, because that would mess with Kalank’s obsession with surface beauty) and then comes help – in the form of tawaif-turned-singer Bahaar Begum, who instructs her pupils in singing (though she spends more time extolling gyan on other issues). Roop’s wish to learn from this lady meets resistance from her father-in-law Balraj, whose issues with Bahaar are as clear as all the crystal used in the film if you possess even an iota of a brain.
Balraj relents because of Satya’s intervention and Roop is permitted to go to Hira Mandi, where Bahaar resides, which is where she runs into supremely-coiffured-at-all-times lohar Zafar, who she proceeds to fall in love with despite seeing him foolishly take on a thousand-kilo animal in a scene through which one can only infer director Abhishek Varman intends to pay tribute to his mentor Ashutosh Gowariker. The rest of the film is a homage to another mentor – Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Thrown into the mix are Abdul, Zafar’s firebrand friend who is in support of the proposed batwara, Zafar’s on-off coitus companion Lajjo, and of course, Dev, who I didn’t mention till now because I couldn’t work him into the review (sort of like the fate of the plot in the film, really).
Kalank is all over the damn place (set in undivided India, one can imagine said “place” being pretty massive) and its achievements have nothing to do with the people running the show or the ones at the forefront of it. Amrita Mahal Nakai’s production design may be out of sync with reality, but from a visual standpoint is still gorgeous. It serves the film Kalank is, not the one it should’ve been (in my opinion). Binod Pradhan has long been one of Hindi cinema’s foremost cinematographers and his work here produces splendid results, especially the songs “Ghar More Pardesiya” and “Tabaah Ho Gaye”. It is a throwback to the times of large-scale epics that Hindi films dabbled in quite successfully back in the day. Also surviving the carnage here are Pritam and Amitabh Bhattacharya, with their complement of songs, some of which again stick out like a bit of a sore thumb given the film’s setting but are still pretty good.
Kunal Khemu is – as mentioned earlier – the only noteworthy performer in this cocky cocktail which the makers seem convinced they’ll get away with. Khemu imbues Abdul with the right amount of honour and villainy, and invests effort into making the character sincere and straight-laced, whatever be his ambitions.
The rest of the cast ranges from inept to inconsistent to downright lazy (yes, you guessed it right – Sanjay Dutt!). Madhuri Dixit speaks in metaphors (everyone does in this film, and it’s an old and annoying trope now) and is required to do little apart from look graceful, raise her voice a couple of times and shed the odd tear. Though it’s great to see her maturity in picking a more age-appropriate role (the frontline Bollywood actors could learn from both her and Dutt in that regard), she is absolutely wasted in every frame in which she isn’t dancing. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that I’m not old enough to appreciate her and Dutt reuniting on screen, but it isn’t as if they set it on fire in the one scene they have together. Sonakshi Sinha has literally nothing to do but look unhappy throughout the film, which is sort of the point of the role. And Alia Bhatt delivers what is perhaps her most pointless and flat performance since her debut. Roop is as flat as a Rohit Sharma-friendly pitch and Alia, unfortunately, doesn’t show as much range as Sharma can on that kind of wicket. Her performance is laboured and the effort is far too evident for it to be appreciated. Varun Dhawan is loud, laboured and unsuited to the role he plays. He’s too finely carved to be a lohar. Too crisply-spoken in a manner that betrays the fact that he’s playing Zafar in 2019. Zafar is probably the best-written character in Kalank but none of what could have been comes to be on screen. Aditya Roy Kapur is saddled with as unidimensional a part as they come, and though he starts out quite subtle, the subtlety soon gives way to a one-noteness that is jarring. And Sanjay Dutt ruins his stoic silences with every word he utters, an exercise which he seems to be doing with the intention of making up for lost (jail)time with his performance.
The writing is a major player in making Kalank the film it is – Hussain Dalal’s dialogue would’ve been nice to listen to if it hadn’t followed the same format that has been done to death since heaven-knows-when. And if this was 1964. The lines aren’t aided by the fact that none of the characters sound even over-imaginatively like people from the 40s; everyone seems to have gone to Bombay Scottish and Sanawar. Varman’s screenplay is shallow and insipid – none of the characters save Zafar have depth to them (even selfish characters need depth, man!), he is unable to draw in the ferocity of events like Direct Action Day and the general state of affairs, and frankly, the whole thing is just a mess. The one subplot that showed promise – that of a possible relationship between Roop and Dev – is not given enough heft; that would’ve done wonders for the film. Of course, we’d all have been saved a lot of trouble had Satya died before Roop entered the picture. Maybe the film would never have been made. *thinks happy thoughts*
Varman relies on far too many old-school tropes to create the film. The establishing of a character being Muslim is so unremarkable and done-to-death that one wonders whether they’ve been transported back in time. The kohl, the tabeez, the miyaans and aawams are all in place to remind us all the time that the characters are Muslim. For Mohammed’s sake, they don’t talk like that! Moving on. Varman uses slow-motion like superhero films use VFX (which he uses pretty badly; not-so-fluid work by FluiidMask), and background score is ever-present to remind you that you are dutybound to react a certain way in certain scenes. The conflicts are well thought-out if a tad bit simplistic (nuance isn’t something one should expect from most Hindi films but I can’t help it) executed shoddily – by the time the big reveal of the film drops, you’ve not only guessed it but also tweaked it mentally to amuse yourself, the emotions are not genuine (Alia-Varun have zero chemistry for the first time in the four films they’ve done together) and every frame feels laborious. Varman extracts humour from his otherwise overwrought film, albeit unintentionally, by throwing in a bull-fighting sequence to establish that Zafar has nothing to live for. Bull-, rather bison-fighting may be believable in Rajamouli’s Mahishmati, but it is the most ludicrous thing in Kalank, which also has spectacular geography, by the way. One moment the characters are in Rajputana, and while engaging in kite-flying, they run into a deserted desert with snow-capped mountains in the backdrop. Husnabad (the name can’t be coincidental, can it?) has a lake in its midst and also easily accessible Ladakh-lookalike backdrops. Geography wasn’t my strongest suit in school, but itna bada duffer main bhi nahi hoon. And if that isn’t bizarre enough, you have the laws of physics being bent and tossed not only in action sequences but also where sound is concerned (how it travels in the film, man!). History too takes a bashing, as Alia Bhatt cheerfully frolics around with her dupatta just hanging off her shoulder, shaking a leg with a bunch of Rajput men. That’s not me being sexist or misogynistic; that’s Varman being ignorant. He is happy getting his set pieces into place, and cares a damn about it being a cohesive whole. Just the way the songs play out (there’s some supremely bad editing to thank there; also, Ghar More Pardesiya turns into, I shit you not, a rap battle at one point) and the way the riots are unable to engage you, plus that DDLJ-esque climax…..it’s infuriating, really. Gone are the days when picture-perfect frames could make up for bad filmmaking. In a day and age where filmmakers leave no stone unturned to praise the intelligence of their audience, Kalank is not only a bad film but an extremely dishonest and insulting one.
To sum it all up, picture nahi, Kalank hai yeh cheez. Look no further than the film’s title for an apt one-word description of it.