Kalank, directed by Abhishek Varman, stretches for 168 long minutes. Complete exasperation overrides everything else. Even with all the resources at his disposal – stars, budget, cinematographic flair – Varman cannot answer a basic filmmaking question, “Do you know how to tell a story?”
Or perhaps, its close cousin: “Ever heard of this invention called the second draft?”
You don’t enter a film like Kalank with a burst of anticipation. Rather you hope for a movie that is passable and springs sporadic surprises. But Kalank goes further: It continuously challenges your patience, forcing you to find the point in the pointless. An hour in, there’s no sense of stake, no momentum. Varman seems to have confused narrative for story, as if merely slapping one scene over another passes off as compelling drama.
The movie opens in Husnabad, a small town on the outskirts of Lahore, in 1946. Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapur) is the editor of The Daily Times. His wife, Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) is suffering from cancer and facing imminent death.
Attempting to save her husband’s household, she asks Roop (Alia Bhatt), a singer, to marry him. But Dev isn’t interested in a second wife, and Roop is intrigued by a local courtesan, Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), and later a blacksmith, Zafar (Varun Dhawan) in Hira Mandi – a settlement of sex workers that town elites do not visit.
If the premise feels dated (conceptualised by Johar and his father 15 years ago), then Varman’s muddled execution, relying on lazy old tropes, layer dust on top of it.
The film’s stars, Bhatt and Dhawan, are introduced through long, trite songs, adding nothing to their characters – a template that should have been retired years ago. The mood doesn’t lend itself to songs; Varman hopes for the opposite, which, due to insipid filmmaking, never happens. There are so many tenuous plot points, as a result of unconvincing character motivations, that you lose count after the first hour.
The film’s basic premises – Roop’s reasons for getting married, her curiosity about Bahaar, her insistence on visiting the Hira Mandi – all clutch hard at the sands of logic. The repetition of information, scene after scene, renders the film monotonous. And once Varman lays all the staid cards on the table, right before the interval, the rest of the film is predictable, too.
Dialogues, by Hussain Dalal, lurch from forgettable to self-parody. Zafar is born out of wedlock, so he keeps calling himself “haraami” and “najaayaz” throughout the movie (repetitions so constant that they deserve a drinking game of their own).
Dev (a Hindu) and Zafar (a Muslim) speak the same Bollywoodised Urdu. They literally use the same word, “giraftaar”, in the space of a few minutes, to refer to Dev’s marriage to Roop. After a point, fed up with the dialogues, I began reading the English subtitles. A few scenes later, “women” was spelt as “womens”. There’s no escaping this movie’s shoddiness – a classic case of the audience getting “giraftaar”.
Kalank could have been made bearable by good acting. No such luck. Dutt is stone-faced throughout. Dhawan, playing an angsty, creepy Casanova (a rite of passage for every Bollywood star), is unconvincing. Dixit, often staring into the distance with vague longing on her face, is an embarrassment.
Even Bhatt, a gifted reliable performer, has been flattened beyond recognition here. Kapur, measured and pragmatic, is easily the best among the lot, but by the time his role gathers steam, the film is way beyond saving.
Even Kalank’s high points – Binod Pradhan’s silken cinematography (the camera, unlike the story, is a busy, purposeful presence) complementing the ornate set decorations – look like an exercise in arrogance: a misleading belief that a big budget will somehow rectify the film’s flaws.
Over the last few years, even mainstream Bollywood has upped its game, avoiding the mistakes of the past. But then comes along a film like Kalank, hellbent on distorting the very idea of a mainstream entertainer.