“Kalank”… A semi-watchable drama that sets up conflicts and doesn’t know what to do with them

Posted on April 22, 2019

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Spoilers ahead…

Abhishek Varman’s Kalank is at once an homage to and an update of the pre-“Bollywood” Hindi movie. The story is set in pre-Partition Pakistan, and touches on tropes common from the cinema of the time all the way to the tehzeeb-filled “Muslim socials” of the 1950s and 60s (outside of Arvind Kejriwal’s circle, you may not have heard this many utterances of “aap”) and even 1970s Angry Young Man dramas like Trishul. Drag the timeline some more, and you’ll find flashes of the Aishwarya Rai character from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in Roop (Alia Bhatt), whose arc moves similarly from feisty to subdued, after an ill-conceived marriage. (A Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie is still, theoretically if not technically, pre-“Bollywood”.) It’s not just about the plot points, though. It’s about the ethos. When Roop “hears” the songs of Bahaar Begum (an inexplicably wan Madhuri Dixit, appearing like a Madame Tussauds’ version of herself) from miles away, the music bridges the physical distance, like it did in Madhumati.

The familiar plot points are served up in interesting flavours. You could label the romance between Roop and Zafar (Varun Dhawan, not really stretching but not bad, either) as “rich girl/poor boy”, but it’s a married rich girl, a hate-filled poor boy. You could label the Zafar-Roop-Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur) angle as “brothers/best friends in love with the same girl”, but there’s no sacrifice involved — the resolution is more about perseverance and dumb luck. You have a woman forced to choose between husband and lover, but we see that this choice isn’t necessarily going to end in peace or happiness. Most interestingly, we get an unmarried mother who bears a child — but unlike Waheeda Rahman in Trishul, she abandons the child so she can pursue the man she loves. I even liked that Zafar is shown to sleep around. Had the gatekeepers of pre-“Bollywood” cinema been more attuned to social realities, maybe we would have seen a few more heroes (say, Dev Anand in his noir-ish films) bed-hopping their way to true love.

I won’t say that each of these scripting decisions pays off, but there’s a buttery smoothness to the pre-interval portions that makes Kalank quite watchable. The trailers made the film seem Bhansali-esque, but the first half is less a tempest than a gentle breeze. There’s a laughably executed bullfight sequence, and some scenes lack a sense of closure. For instance, when Roop submits an article to her husband, for his newspaper, and he rejects it, is that the end of it? Did she just accept the finality of his decision or did she even want to know why? But tone-wise, not one scene is off. The pacing is surefooted, building very slowly to a volcano of an interval block, which involves some superb cross-cutting between two sets of characters and a solid masala-reveal that promises to spice up the second half.

The unhurried pacing shapes the performances, too — even a very limited actor like Aditya Roy Kapur comes off with dignity (though he flounders when the melodrama amps up; the man just cannot cry). And Alia is especially fascinating to watch. There’s usually a trace of coltish cuteness in her screen presence, but here, she gets to parade a series of micro-calibrated looks and glances that make us see a woman who isn’t going to easily let the world see what’s going on inside her. She takes a dramatic line like “Sirf achchai kaafi nahin hoti poori zindagi bitane ke liye” and flattens it, so the emotion comes from the words but not from her reading. Look at her when Roop asks Zafar if he has no limits. Normally, Alia would be more playful. Here, the line hangs somewhere between curiosity and exasperation. It doesn’t play to the gallery. It sticks to character.

Kalank begins with a very unusual request from Satya (Sonakshi Sinha). She’s dying, and she wants Roop to take her place. At first, it all sounds daft, but her decision makes sense when we get to the scene where she admits she’s not educated. Her husband runs a newspaper, and you can see why she wants him to be with someone like Roop, who can read and write. Sonakshi Sinha essentially repeats her Lootera role. That film, too, was similarly paced, so there’s no revelation in the performance — but I was moved when Satya confides to her husband that she feels jealous of his new wife. The phrase she uses is gorgeous: “achchi jalan”. A negative emotion like envy is sweetened with a tinge of goodness. The relationship between Roop and her father-in-law Balraj (Sanjay Dutt), too, is charted with delicacy. His wariness around her comes from the fact that he knows what it’s like to be married to one person and be in love with someone else.

The scenes in the first half alternate between low-key and heavy, from the wry comedy of the first “meeting” between Roop and Dev (no, it’s not when they get married) to the spectacular “meeting” between Roop and Zafar, in his disreputable neighbourhood of Hira Mandi. This encounter is set against a most unusual backdrop for a Hindu-Muslim pair: the festival of Dussehra (though, later, we get an Eid celebration, too). A grandly theatrical Ram Leela is underway, and it amplifies the dissonance between Hira Mandi and the hushed newsrooms of Roop’s husband. It’s as though she’s entering a magical, mythical land, filled with joyous sounds and colours. Kalank may be the most ostentatiously mounted social movie (as opposed to historical epic) since Saawariya, and words cannot describe the otherworldly beauty conjured up by the costumes and Binod Pradhan’s cinematography and Amrita Mahal Nakai’s production design. If Bhansali tipped us off to the unreal setting of his romance with the phrase “khwabon ka shehar”, Kalank justifies its look with the very name of the location. The story is set in a fictitious place called Husnabad, which means “city of beauty”.

This beauty extends to the language, too – though an actor like Varun struggles to wrap his tapori twang around some of the honeyed words and phrases. How much better all this would have sounded in the mouths of the right actors, chosen for their comfort with the language rather than their box-office clout! At times, I was reminded of the Dilip Kumar incident, where he heard a very young Lata Mangeshkar sing an Urdu song and said her enunciation stank of “dal bhaat ki boo”. Still, there’s much to savour. I wondered if the film, given its period setting, was going to go all Mughal-e-Azam on us, but Hussain Dalal’s lines are an easy mix of conversational Urdu and Hindi, though filtered through the baroque stylings of pre-“Bollywood” Hindi cinema. When confronted with the prospect of hope, Satya says: “Ummeed sirf intezaar karwati hai. Sachai nahin badalti.” Another cracker:  Tawaif ko Taj Mahal kahoon to uska taqdeer badal jayega?

Even the lyrics go all the way from Hindi-sounding (with lovely rhymes like maiyya ki lori / phagun ki hori) to the more Urdu-sounding: tumse juda hoke hum tabah ho gaye. The song stretches, though, are a major bummer. Pritam’s score contains beautiful raga phrasings (especially in Aira gaira) — but one would have hoped for a more chartbusting score. Bahaar Begum would say these numbers needed more namak. And the staging of these songs is too generic. (Compare the Eid number here to Yun shabnami in Saawariya.) But conceptually, there’s still something interesting going on. In the First class sequence, for instance, we see all the major characters converge, and we sense the friction between Zafar and Bahaar Begum. In the midst of all the showstopping, there’s still some storytelling.

Purely in the directorial sense, Kalank is a huge leap for Abhishek Varman, whose 2 States was completely underwhelming. The background action is marvellously staged (though some of it suffers due to the CGI). I loved the visual melodrama of the cut (driven by the screenplay, surely) from Roop’s burning books to the fire solemnising her marriage. It links one sacrifice to another — and fire becomes a major thematic element thereon. Zafar is a blacksmith — he works with fire. (You could say his character arc is forged in the fires of love.) The first meeting of Zafar and Roop occurs in front of Ravana heads being set on fire, and the film’s finale reminded me of the “burning of Atlanta” sequence from Gone with the Wind. The drama unfolds against the backdrop of an entire city going up in flames, with the protagonists trying to flee in a horse carriage.

Unfortunately, post-interval, the writing really blows it. (The screenplay is by Abhishek Varman, the story by Shibani Bathija.) We wait for the slow set-up to begin paying off, but the film seems to slow down even more — nothing builds. Characters that should have huge transformative arcs (Zafar) seem to undergo these transformations in milliseconds. And characters that were in the margins of the story (the fundamentalist Abdul, nicely played by Kunal Khemu) become huge in the scheme of things. (This might not have been such a problem if the Partition-era politics had been convincingly explored.) Major character conceits (like Bahaar Begum beginning to dance again, after decades) are treated too casually. We get very odd scenes like the one between Zafar and Dev, and potentially explosive stretches become damp squibs– I wanted a character to have a grand death scene, but all we get is a line about dying where one is born.

The biggest problem, though, is that the “kalank” is never felt. Whatever happens between Roop and Zafar doesn’t seem that deep or transgressive enough to warrant that title. You wish some of the fire in the film had caught on in the romance, too. I think they were trying to keep things really “classy”, but there’s a lesson they could have learnt from Bhansali. Melodramas can be classy only to an extent. When the emotions start spilling over, you have to begin baying at the moon — there are no half-measures. I still enjoyed the odd scene, like the triangular confrontation between Balraj, Zafar and Bahaar Begum. But the overall feeling is that of disappointment. Kalank is certainly not a lazy failure, but it ends up being an odd bird: watchable, but neither generic enough to overlook its flaws nor specific enough to embrace with all your heart.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi