When it rains in Husnabad, the setting for Abhishek Varman’s Kalank, it pours. The intensity of the rain has nothing to do with the weather of this fictitious town, as it does have to do with the filmmaking language. Kalank is a free tutorial in old school, blockbuster filmmaking 101. No half measures here, both the film’s ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ are introduced with songs, which sees them dancing effortlessly in sync with 50 strangers on the street. The haveli‘s windows are obviously French, so that characters can sit and bemoan their ‘fate’ while literally staring at a town’s significantly bigger problems. They don’t converse, as much as they enunciate overwritten dialogue like yeh shaadi nahi samjhauta hai or aap se tu tak ka safar kaafi jaldi tay kar liya aapne.
Criticising such films for being over-the-top is like grumbling about diabetes while standing in a pastry shop. But even films like these need skill to execute perfectly.
The year is 1944, and the pre-partition communal tension in Husanbad is on the rise. A terminally-ill Satya Chaudhary (Sonakshi Sinha) wishes to find love for her husband (Aditya Roy Kapur) before passing. Much like Shah Rukh Khan in Kal Ho Naa Ho. She proposes a marriage of convenience to Alia Bhatt’s Roop, who runs around catching kites and breaks into riyaaz in the middle of the road. There’s senior Chaudhary (Sanjay Dutt) and some backstory of his brief romance with Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit-Nene), and their illegitimate son, Zafar (a kohl-eyed Varun Dhawan).
As it happens in these films, there’s a lot of talk about rishtas (relationships), parampara (tradition) and aabru (respect). After some back and forth, we arrive at the central conflict, which is when the film’s plot begins to resemble a burrito bowl.
Hussain Dalal, who is responsible for that iconic dialogue in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, comes up with some pretty pointed lines for his actors. Madhuri Dixit’s Bahaar Begum tells Roop how the only thing lacking in her voice is namak. “It is something that needs to be earned by leading a namkeen zindagi,” Begum adds flirtatiously, as the girls around her start to giggle. Weirdly enough, there’s also Varun Dhawan saying something along the lines of “Kisika wajood uske baap ke naam se mat jod” (Never try to ascertain someone’s identity from their surname) – a slight hint to Dhawan’s stance on the nepotism debate?
Towards the end of the film, Sanjay Dutt tells Aditya Roy Kapur about ‘mard‘s asli pehchaan‘ (real identity of a man) and how he should face the circumstances of his own bad decisions. Is this a meta nod to last year’s Sanju, where everyone is blamed for Dutt’s appalling decisions, except Dutt? One can’t be sure, but it surely does provide some unintentional chuckles.
Seemingly designed in a post-Baahubali world, Abhishek Varman’s Kalank rarely hits the sweet spot of good, commercial filmmaking. It has its many, many ingredients in place, but then director Varman cooks it, grills it… and even goes on to pan-fry it. After this, he tosses everything in the air, with a belief that it will all fall into place and we’ll buy into the film’s ambitious scale. He tries to recreate some of Karan Johar’s tension when a character stands face-to-face with her spouse and her lover. He tries to revive the complicated dynamics in a marriage of convenience, where the couple slowly thaws into respecting and eventually loving each other. Much like the second half of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. There’s also a pointless track around a young reporter speaking to the characters, about their lives around the time of partition, like in Zubeidaa.
Take a closer look, and you’ll see how Kalank is a Karan Johar film minus his fearless conviction. It’s a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film without his unabashed heartache and music. It’s all there in the film – Binod Pradhan’s sweeping camerawork, a splendid cast including the two most bankable names in the business, the illustrious production design possibly more expansive than a Bhansali film set. But we never get a glimpse at the soul of the film, and what it really stands for.
Varman tries to weave together several elements of commercial filmmaking, like DDLJ’s iconic train scene that is smartly subverted in Kalank‘s own climax. But the individuality of Varman’s vision is plagued with question marks till the very end.
Solid actors like Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Kunal Kemmu, look like shadows of themselves. Known for his ability to immerse himself in his director’s vision, Dhawan comes off looking as a lesser actor, because of his own director’s clouded perspective. Kemmu, in particular, is a disappointment considering how he doesn’t do much to build his character from the ground up with an accent or a mannerism. He’s just… there.
Towards the end of its mammoth running time of 168 minutes, Kalank has some preposterous flourishes, nudging the audience to imagine a ‘happy ending’. It might have just ended with a credit reading: ‘A magnum opus by Abhishek Varman’.