Kalank Review: An ambitiously mounted, overstretched romance
Set in 1945, Abhishek Varman’s film is ambitiously mounted, but suffers some usual injuries
While giving her a tour of the colourful Heera Mandi in Lahore, Zafar (Varun Dhawan) brings Roop (Alia Bhatt) to a movie theatre. On the stage are actors performing a play as a prelude to a screening. “Tamasha fills theatres,” he explains. “It helps with the business of cinema.” For a blacksmith, Zafar sure knows his film history — early examples of the Indian silent film era were essentially filmed plays, and audiences were often lured into theatres with the promise of live spectacle. It’s always nice to see a film probing the ‘indebtedness’ of relationships also acknowledge a few of its own.
Set in 1945, Abhishek Varman’s Kalank is ambitiously mounted, but suffers some usual injuries. The Dharma Productions film has been released in 5300 screens worldwide, making it the widest yet Bollywood release of 2019. Its promised scale and grandeur is bound to attract audiences by the droves, whetted by an impressive ensemble. The film thrives on theatrics and melodrama—the quaint Urdu-Hindi dialogues hang especially heavy over the younger members of the cast. Yet, measured against the empty spectacles familiar to the genre, there’s a fullness to the production that somehow manages to intrigue.
Director: Abhishek Varman
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit
The plot encircles Roop, a kite-flying Rajput girl married into Hindu aristocracy. She arrives as the second wife of Dev Chaudhary (Aditya Roy Kapur), an influential newsman in Husnabad on the outskirts of Lahore. Roop catches the fancy of the hotheaded Zafar, but their romance gets balled up in the rising communal tensions gripping the city. As the fear of a massacre begins to rattle the Hindu minorities, both Roop and Zafar find their loyalties tested. More secrets come to the front, and conflicting emotions bring to a head multiple lives — from Dev’s selfless first wife Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) to the forlorn courtesan Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit).
Both Alia and Varun flit through their performances. Alia, who was on a hot streak with Raazi and Gully Boy, sticks to cardboard emotions in Kalank. There’s nothing arresting or remarkable about Roop, so much so that I was more bewitched by the insides of her room — tiffany walls and blinds done up with floral etches and shaded with a round window — than the torment in her heart. Varun struts about in a Shah Rukh Khan swag and even tames a bull with his bare hands, but Zafar’s smugness severely undercuts his vulnerability as a romantic lead.
Sonakshi, an actor blessedly suited for period romances, brings a pained elegance to Satya, even though the character is outlandishly written. She is matched well opposite Aditya, who has both the good looks and a certain thoughtful austerity to suggest an editor with a heart. (One moment, Dev agrees to the idea of Roop writing an article on Heera Mandi; some scenes later, he dismisses the piece as 'un-publishable'.)
Sanjay Dutt holds a hangdog expression all through as Balraj Chaudhury, while Madhuri Dixit has fun as Baahar Begum. It’s bracing to watch this once-tantalising screen pair embrace the seniority of their characters. I was expecting some massive standoffs near the end — which either never come or are rushed unforgivably into song. Kunal Keemu amps up the villainy as Abdul, a local leader rallying the blacksmiths against the Hindus; I smiled in a scene where he storms out of Dev’s cabin and is surprised to find Roop in his office, angry eyebrows instantly eased by thoughts of mischief.
The production design and set extensions are top-notch. Cinematographer Binod Pradhan indulges in some lush artistry: a simple reaction shot of Kiara Advani sitting inside a stagecoach is framed like an oil painting. The music is both effective and indulgent, with Tabaah Ho Gaye and Ghar Moye Pardesiya playing on for over five minutes — a welcome turnaround for Hindi film music by itself, but still lacking the dramatic drive to justify their stay.
Kalank is a sincerely-crafted, visually-robust film pulled apart by mediocre performances. Once past the mid-point, there’s little in the story to move or stir. The gripping backdrop — of the rise of the Muslim League, the role of industrialism in the Partition of India, and the duplicity of Freedom of Press — is let down by the unfeeling narrative. As we rush toward the climax, the romance begins to fade, and so does the illusion of surfaces. Colours fly through the frames but the feelings remain dull. Like its characters, this film has a tainted heart.