Director – Abhishek Varman
Cast – Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt
Rating – 2.5/5
First things first, this is a gorgeous film. Ostensibly set in pre-Independent India, Kalank instead appears to have been staged inside a ‘Good Earth’ catalogue curated by Baz Luhrmann. In a disreputable neighbourhood, a courtesan stands in her doorway while gondoliers paddle about in what looks to be a moat behind her, and later, when she feels the need to cry, she walks first to the centre of the elaborate golden motifs painted on her floor before dropping to her knees and wailing cinematically. This is as baroque as it gets.
Directed by Abhishek Varman and shot by the masterful Binod Pradhan, the makers of Kalank not only want every frame to be a painting, but every dialogue a proverb, every scene a portent. The result is beautiful but tedious, an opera that needed a stout songstress to warble through it midway. We see revolutionaries in different shades of mustard, since it is set around the kite festival of Basant Panchami, but as Kalank goes on, we are conditioned to the exorbitant colours and their matching — from scarlet umbrellas to marsala walls and columns. Yet it jars when rioters holding swords march in fiery streets, dressed as if they’d first bickered about a suitably Prussian shade of blue.
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“You sing well,” says the courtesan to a young ingenue, “but there isn’t enough salt.” This search for the indefinable namak goes a long way in Indian art, and the older woman blames the blandness on the lack of spice in the girl’s life. The girl — Roop (Alia Bhatt) — may agree, caught in a passionless marriage via Victorian circumstances: a wealthy woman with a few years to live wants Roop to be her husband’s bride after she passes away. The arrangement is mechanical until Roop, inevitably, can be caged no more.
The names are literal. The pretty girl is Roop, the outsider Bahaar Begum, the husband is Dev (like in pati-dev), the upright lady is Satya and the boy who wins women over is named Zafar, meaning victor. Played by Varun Dhawan, his eyes tinged with kohl and misery, Zafar brings Kalank alive, a blacksmith forging swords with serrated edges, and lines even more lethal. Zafar says he doesn’t lay a hand on a woman without permission or payment, and an awestruck Roop wonders aloud that even he must have a limit. He may not. “Inhi tez jumlon se Heera Mandi ke auraton ke dil kaat rakhe hain,” admires his friend, emphasising how in a film where all lines are poetically potent, Zafar often gets the last word because of the sharpness of his phrases.
Dhawan is super, understanding the melodramatic syntax, making the audience root for him. Bhatt is fine in their scenes together, but otherwise appears reluctant to embrace this gaudy a cinematic style, while Sonakshi Sinha, as Satya, is rather effective as a woman perpetually biting her tongue — and biding her time. Aditya Roy Kapoor is suitably detached as Dev, a man wondering where to start rebuilding his life, while Sanjay Dutt does little but glower in silence. Above them all reigns Madhuri Dixit, playing Bahaar Begum with stately grace, her tear-filled eyes unmistakably flashing with defiance. Despite an odd, Kathak-caricaturing dance, Dixit outdoes even these extraordinary backdrops. The lady is an enchantment.
From verbose lines to obscene opulence, Kalank is too theatrical and stage-y to feel current, which is where the old-world setup works… until it doesn’t. More attention is paid to the chikan embroidery on the husband’s kurtas than to the climactic revolution, and the third act exposes the story’s hollowness while the film flits inconsequentially between timelines. The end asks the audience a question, but it means little.
The visuals linger. A necklace fastened around Roop’s neck with velvet drawstrings; a fake bird in a theatre performance spectacularly getting its wing cut off; a harp the size of a house; and the first time Zafar meets Roop. During a Ram-Leela performance at Dussehra, he shows up with wet, blue-skinned Rams rising from the water behind, and when the lovers touch, burning Ravana heads cast a glow on their encounter. Kalank often feels too much, and I only wish it made me do the same. It is a stunningly plated meal, but needed salt.
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First Published: Apr 17, 2019 15:26 IST