‘Kalank’ review: All Sparkle, No Spark

LICH rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

There’s a cardinal rule that applies to all movies, one that makers of big-screen mega-opus outings these days seem to delete from their swanky tablets and personal devices as they sit down to write them. No matter how deliciously vibrant you swathe and swaddle your movie, it’s got to have content to matter. If Mughal-E-Azam, Pakeezah, Once Upon a Time in the West, Sholay, and others got you, they did because underneath that vast canvas of visual swag, they had, running in their cinematic veins, true-blood stories pumping and alive, connecting you and their characters with a personal nerve.

That’s precisely what’s missing in writer-director Abhishek Varman (co-writing with Shibani Bathija) and his ambitious Kalank (Taint). Narrated a decade later by one of the protagonists, the movie opens in the India of 1946 to Satya Chaudhry (Sonakshi Sinha) approaching Dharam Pal (Pawan Chopra) for his daughter’s hand in marriage to her own husband—cue the swishing clicks of online protesters—because she’s dying of cancer. The daughter in question—or should that be questionable situation—is Roop (Alia Bhatt), and the opening titles show her dancing with gay abandon. That’s the spirit that Satya wants to capture and take back to her husband, Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapur), publishing scion and son of Balraj Chaudhry (Sanjay Dutt), before her passing.

Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan are boat drawn to each other.

In coming to the Chaudhry household in Husnabad, Roop has her own reasons. (Hint: younger sisters and their marriage.) And it’s also with her arrival that her own strong personality that comes into its own, one that Satya quickly becomes flexible to adjust to, while her husband—who doesn’t care for this arrangement at all—and her father in-law who does, but protests—have little say in. Roop’s assertions lead her to Hira Mandi, the segregated community which houses red-lit activities, the majority, but economically-down-and-out Muslim community, and a breathtaking courtesan’s house—more the house than her, courtesy the aquatic verdant set piece —Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit). In what is a highlight, Roop’s arrival at the courtesan’s abode is a visual marvel. Director Varman and cinematographer Binod Pradhan, with production designer Amrita Mahal create a stunning mosaic with colors, dance, drone shots, choreographed dancers who rise from underwater with bows and lit arrows, the story of Dussehra narrated in contrasting plumages.

Did you know this is the only scene we have together? Sanjay Dutt and Madhuri Dixit in Kalank.

It is also here that Roop runs into the local rake Zafar (Varun Dhawan) who, when not throwing grim glances in the direction of the courtesan’s palace or blacksmithing and showing off his oiled, sweaty, sculpted bod or fighting a raging CGI-fueled bull in a soil-filled dusty place (and then immediately washing his hands in sparkling stream of nowhere-land), is rousing his community leader Abdul Khan (Kunal Khemu, bitingly vicious and good) to spearhead the demand for India’s partition, a move which Dev opposes vehemently via his newspaper.

Production Designer Amrita Mahal and cinematographer Binod Pradhan stun in Kalank.

The relational push-and-pull in Kalank are all too tired and predictable, but predictability is least of its problems. There could have been tension in the ideological differences between Zafar and Dev, but in a suspend-your-credulity-with-your-trousers story trope, they don’t see each other until much later in a screaming match scene that had me cringing despite the beautiful imagery. You look forward to some zinger dialogues and crackling verbal jousts between Dutt’s Balraj and Dixit’s Begum, but all you get are some worn-out exchanges, as if both, weary and tired, wanted to pack up and go home. There could have been more intensity between Bhatt, Dhawan, Kapur, and Sinha’s interactions; the motivations for Roop’s falling for Zafar (no spoiler this) while a tug for Dev are non-existent. The occlusion’s all sanitized, polished, while you yearn for something raw and crackling. That moment comes much too late in this long-drawn out spectacle, in the climactic railway-station action sequence that’s truly heart-stopping, even if it involves Alia Bhatt holding out her outstretched hand for a record-breaking time.  

The songs by Pritam are pretty good, especially the heart-wrenching title track, while Sanchit Bhallara and Ankit Bhallara‘s background score is effective, using rousing orchestral touches to add some heft. Speaking of which (heft that is), Husain Dalal‘s dialogues spike and fall in terms of drama; there’s sudden Urdu-sprinkled poetry (something that alludes to not letting the eye’s vision interfere with the disdain of the eyebrows or the way around, which Varun Dhawan sheepishly mouths); elsewhere there’s philosophizing that Aditya Roy Kapur cannot muster maturity enough to deliver. As a result, the dialogues that aim for a knock-out punch fall flat on the pristine, polished designer tiles.

Madhuri Dixit in Kalank.

In this Kuch Kuch Hota Hai-meets-Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge-meets-Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham-meets-Hum Dil Deke Chuke Sanammeets-Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna-in Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s-dreams enterprise, most of the actors do well, but there’s less spark, more sparkle. Sanjay Dutt is mournful, waiting for the moment to unleash his intensity that never arrives; Madhuri Dixit is vibrant in some scenes and in a dance sequence, appropriately steely-lipped in others, but slightly down-and out; Aditya Roy Kapur seems bedazzled by it all, trying hard to get the Ajay Devgn bit in his eyes and voice, but looking a wee bit lost without a bot of the strong spirits—things don’t improve after he gets one either; Varun Dhawan is likeable as always, but can’t strike the steely grit that his role never gets; Alia Bhatt is superb, bobbing above her badly written role to show shimmers of her fantastic talent. But there’s only so much she can do.

Sonakshi Sinha comes into her own in a scene that’s her last in the movie. It’s a tender, heartbreaking moment between the couple and she makes Kapur’s Dev promise things he’s not ready for. Her eyes brim with the inevitability of what’s to come, of what she’s going to miss, of the unfairness of it all. As it turns out, she didn’t miss much.

LICH ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Kalank (2019) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Kalank is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s some intense violence and disturbing images of rioting; some smoking of beedis and a sensual scene.

Director Abhishek Varman Running Time 2h 46min
Writers Abhishek Varman, Shibani Bathija
Stars Madhuri Dixit, Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Kunal Khemu
Genres  Drama, Romance