Kalank movie review: Varun Dhawan and Madhuri Dixit can’t salvage this beautiful, hollow film
Kalank movie review: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt and especially Madhuri Dixit shine in director Abhishek Varman’s stunning but soulless film. Rating: 2.5/5.
Director - Abhishek Varman
Cast - Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt
Rating - 2.5/5
First things first, the film is gorgeous. Supposedly set in pre-Independent India, Kalank appears instead to have been filmed 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.
We see revolutionaries wearing different shades of mustard, with a scene set around the kite festival of Basant Panchami, but, as Kalank goes on, we are conditioned to exorbitant colours frequently matching — from scarlet umbrellas to marsala walls and columns. Rioters holding swords march in fiery streets, dressed as if they’d first bickered about a suitably Prussian shade of blue.
Watch - Raja Sen’s movie review of Kalank
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.
“You sing well,” says the courtesan to a young ingenue, “but there isn’t enough salt.” This indefinable namak goes a long way in Indian art, and the older woman blames the blandness on a potential 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 has brought Roop to be her husband’s bride after she passes away.
The names are literal. The pretty girl is Roop, the outsider is Baahar Begum, the upright lady is Satya, her husband is Dev (like in pati-dev), and the boy who wins women over is named Zafar, meaning victor. Played by Varun Dhawan, eyes tinged with kohl and misery, Zafar brings Kalank alive, a blacksmith forging swords with serrated edges, speaking in lines as lethal. He doesn’t lay a hand on a woman without permission or payment, and an awestruck Roop wonders aloud: even he must have a limit. He does not. “Inhi tez jumlon se Heera Mandi ke auraton ke dil kaat rakhe hain,” admires his friend, emphasising how in a film with exclusively poetic lines, Zafar gets the last word because of his sharpness of his phrases.
Dhawan revels in the melodramatic syntax, committing to the film’s pitch and 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 Baahar Begum with stately grace, her tear-filled eyes flashing with defiance. Despite an odd, Kathak-caricaturing dance, Dixit outdoes the film’s extraordinary backdrops. The lady is an enchantment.
The film’s politics are naive and laughable. From verbose lines to extreme opulence, Kalank is too theatrical and stage-y to appear current, which is why the old-world setup works… until it doesn’t. More attention is paid to the chikan embroidery on Roop’s husband’s kurtas than to the film’s climactic revolution, and the third act exposes the story’s hollowness, even as the film flits irritatingly and 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 sliced 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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