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Kalank

Rating: 2

April 17, 2019

Cast: Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Kunal Khemmu, Kiara Advani, Achint Kaur

Director: Abhishek Varman

Kalank is a doomed story of love, set in the time of Partition. It’s mounted as a grand multi-starrer; a timeless tragic epic that runs 169 minutes long, and is crammed with exquisitely choreographed songs, grandiose sets, and gorgeous costumes. But Madhuri Dixit’s character could as well be talking about the film when she says to a young singer, “Awaaz achchi hain, bas namak kam hain.” It’s true; director Abhishek Varman brings the razzle-dazzle, but the passion is missing.

You could blame it on the tired telling of a moth-eaten tale, set in 1944 in the fictional town of Husnabad on the outskirts of Lahore. Good thing it’s fictional because the geographical landscape is mind-boggling. One minute we see Venetian-type canals with giant lotuses, or streets straight out of a Rajasthani town. Is this ‘Bhansaliville’, a mish-mash of the sets from Saawariya and Ram-Leela? But then suddenly there’s a romantic scene in what I could swear looked like Ladakh, and then we’re transported to a Gladiator-style arena in what appears to be Afghanistan. It’s bewildering, but location is the least of the film’s problems.

Let’s face it – the story, by Shibani Bathija, is passé. Varun Dhawan is a bastard – no really, I mean it. His character Zafar was conceived outside of noble union, and he’s reminded of this fact every single day and by practically everyone he meets on the street. “Woh najayaz,” someone will say. “Woh haraami,” another voice utters. When it isn’t someone else saying it, Zafar frequently addresses himself this way. But wait, I’m digressing.

A seething Zafar, who is a blacksmith in the city’s red-light district Hira Mandi, wants revenge for being rejected at birth by his rich father Balraj Chaudhury (Sanjay Dutt). He burns with angst against his mother, famed courtesan Bahar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), for the shame he has to bear for his illegitimacy. When the opportunity presents itself, he decides to exact vengeance by seducing Roop (Alia Bhatt), the second-wife of Balraj’s ‘legitimate’ son Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur). The architect of Roop’s and our own misery is Satya (Sonakshi Sinha), Dev’s dying wife, who coerces Roop to marry her husband.

Varman, who has also written the film’s screenplay, tries desperately to stoke this dramatic saga right up to the bloody climax of Partition riots. There are some high-energy moments like the confrontation between former lovers Balraj and Bahar, or the electric undercurrents between Zafar and Roop. But not every idea lands. A clumsy CGI duel between Zafar and an angry bull sticks out like a sore thumb. A dance number featuring Zafar and Dev with Kriti Sanon making a cameo is entirely gratuitous. The verbose dialogues, by Hussain Dalal, are a real mouthful, and seldom roll off the actors’ tongues with ease.

For all its picture-perfect imagery and gorgeous lighting, the terrific dancing by both Alia Bhatt and especially Madhuri Dixit, and for all the beauty poured into every frame, the film ultimately comes off stuffy and over-crowded. It’s too ‘designed’ and leaves very little room for the characters to breathe. Every turn choreographed, every moment timed, watching Kalank ultimately feels like staring at a family photograph in which everyone’s sucking in their stomachs and holding their breath.

Of the cast the ones that leave an impression are Varun Dhawan who somehow embraces the melodrama and makes you care for Zafar, and also Madhuri Dixit who uses her eyes to great effect in communicating her character’s inner turmoil. Alia Bhatt is especially solid in her scenes with Varun, but her character is unfairly burdened with much of the heavy lifting. Kunal Khemmu also makes his presence felt with a convincing turn as Zafar’s friend and the leader of a group of fundamentalists growing increasingly resentful of the Hindu population in their parts.

Just shy of three hours Kalank is ultimately tiring and heartbreaking even. You can see the talent on screen. If only there was a sharper script to harness it. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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