Kedarnath Review: A tepid love story masked as a tragedy, it is neither here nor there

Sara Ali Khan’s crackling debut and the flawless cinematography make this a bearable watch.

Director: Abhishek Kapoor

Cast: Sara Ali Khan, Sushant Singh Rajput

In June 2013, the northern belt of India, particularly Uttarakhand faced one of the biggest natural disasters the country had ever seen since the 1999 Super cyclone in Odisha. The scale of the devastation and the horrific picture the catastrophe painted still lingers on in our memories, but more so, it has changed the lives of those affected and scarred them irreparably. That an entire region – the surrounding flora and fauna, concrete, shops, and tenements – could get wiped off in a matter of hours due to torrential waves of water is shocking. At the heart of this disaster lay, Kedarnath, flattened and razed to the ground, except for a 1200-year old temple jutting out from a mass of debris. And this is also what forms the crux of director Abhishek Kapoor’s Kedarnath, who possibly wanted to picturize the inconceivable tragedy in all its vehemence. But when the fury of nature has been so all-pervasive, where does one start?

Image result for kedarnath movie
Source: Google

The Plot: Kapoor picks the easy way out and keeps an interfaith love affair at the center of Kedarnath. Mandakini aka Mukku (Sara Ali Khan), plays the spirited, rebellious daughter of a local priest (Nitish Bhardwaj), and is engaged to be married to Kullu (Nishant Dahiya), a leader of the local priests. A B.A. pass mother who has evidently surrendered her life, and voice to the force of patriarchy, and an elder sister (Pooja Gor) who was earlier engaged to Kullu but now rues the reality of a love lost, make up the other characters of Mukku’s world. Voices are shushed, Mukku’sfree-spiritedness and even her presence on Facebook is used as a yardstick to measure how far she’s flown away from the conservative upbringing sticking to her like a label.

Honor and propriety are used as a shield to let the men do their bidding, and hypocrisy rife in the interpersonal dynamics as Kullu makes eyes at and attempts to court Mandakini, much to her displeasure and disgust. All is seemingly well, till she meets Mansoor (Sushant Singh Rajput), a porter(called pitthoo in the local dialect), and is taken in by his calm, restrained demeanor, but more by his understated vulnerability. A moth to a flame, the two lovebirds are drawn towards each other, and as the fire of their passion burns, so does Hindu sentiments, tradition and male ego. Kullu, reluctant to give up without a fight, gets Mansoor thrashed and humiliated, even as Mandakini’s father unobtrusively supports the drama from the sidelines. Little do they know that in a few hours their lives would forever be changed, wherein these human “victories” and “failures” shall cease to matter.

The Highlights:

Sara Ali Khan: Can I say Sara Ali Khan may just be one of the most confident debutantes to have graced the silver screen in recent times? She plays the persona of a firebrand, go-getter young girl to the hilt, many a time even overshadowing co-actor Sushant. From the very first scene, her presence electrifies the rather calm humdrum that makes up life in the mountains. Her wit, sarcasm and candor are refreshing in an age where Bollywood projects ‘bubbliness’ and ‘playing soft and agreeable’ as desirable feminine attributes. She is brutal with her insults, unafraid to expose the hypocrisy layering the varied human relations, rash and stubborn, but all heart. Unwilling to be chained to a fate she vehemently disagrees with, she is willing to take the leap and do the unthinkable.

Khan is a natural in front of the camera, and this movie is more an acknowledgment to her acting prowess than the actual impact of the disaster, I dare say. She exudes an easy confidence as well as much-needed restraint, wherever the plot demands it. In fact, as she bounces along the hilly terrains of Kedarnath, an umbrella in hand and all eyes for the porter boy Mansoor, she reminds you of a youthful, cherubic Amrit Singh who played the outspoken, headstrong Chameli in the 1986 Chameli ki Shaadi. At the risk of sounding like I am reading too much into it, Khan’sportrayal as Mandakini may well be a tribute to her mother, an actress par excellence in her time.

Cinematography: To capture the unique topography of Kedarnath, without limiting the brilliance of the characters and the essence of the story, is a feat only the truly gifted could have accomplished. Tushar Kanti Ray’s cinematography is spectacular, as it soaks up the lush and green of the mountainous region, the valleys, little shops lining the pathways, the magnificent river cutting neatly through the landscape and the revered temple standing tall and divine amidst the same. Dark, grey clouds and monsoon’s vibrancy are greeted with a dreamy touch of the camera as is the sunshine, helping in bringing alive the different shades ofMukku and Mansoor’s friendship, before culminating in forbidden love. However, the destruction and devastation captured in the second half of the film are what remain etched in your mind, sending shivers down your spine. ‘Cloudbursts cause mayhem’ no longer remains a fact you’d read in newspapers 5 years ago,  Kedarnath shows you frame by frame the warning signs nature sends out before unleashing its wild side, sparing not one detail. In this respect, it would not be an understatement to also tip my hatto the VFX-team!

The Symbolism

This element is hard to grasp, until after interval. There may be a reason why the writers chose a name like Mandakini for Khan’s character, at a time where tradition or mythology is not considered a worthy recipe for naming somebody. However, when a distressed and grief-stricken Mandakini is forced to marry against her will and invokes “pralay”, an angered Goddess displaced from her heavenly abode hears her prayers and the hushed sounds of her own humiliation. As she wreaks havoc, the Mandakini river rages, and wails, wiping away everything in its path. Mandakini nourishes, but also strips you of everything, if you dare stand in her way.

What’s Lukewarm?

Sushant Singh Rajput: Mansoor, a Muslim porter paired against a high-caste, feisty Hindu girl, it is understandable why Rajput’s character had to be downplayed. And although I found their banter and chemistry easy to enjoy, I felt both the actor and the character were largely overshadowed by Khan’s Mandakini, whose determination to take control of own life seemed to wash over everyone and everything it touched. In fact, at more than one instance, Mansoor’s characterization, especially his dealings with tourists, the nonchalant manner of speaking, the easy shrug of the shoulders, among other mannerisms, looked like unshakeable remnants from his last few performances.

Rajput, however, stands out in the last few minutes, only after the actual crux of the story takes effect.  Call him a savior, a messiah, or what you will, he dives headlong into danger to look out for Mandakini, and bring her to safety, if need be. In the process, he saves many a life, a trait his Ammi (Alka Amin) fears will land him in trouble, just as it did his late father.

The music: Barring Namoh Namoh Hey Shankara blended with the opening credits, Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s composition fails to weave any lasting magic.  

The Lows:

Execution: Kedarnath, despite the obvious premise, leans heavily towards portraying the perils of interfaith love in a Hindu-dominant Himalayan village, rather than the dangers of indiscriminate commercialization and the resulting environmental hazards. Much of it feels like a Romeo-Juliet setup, albeit, amidst tinkling of the temple bells and boisterous shouts of “Bum Bum Bhole” ringing out into the air, which feels like a massive let-down, and creative manipulation on the pretext of cinematically recounting the actual tragedy. There is an unmasked reference to the Hindu-Muslim divide marking the country today and finds a place in Kapoor’s movie as well.

From nudging the audience to embrace  the role of Muslim porters in serving pilgrims flocking to a Hindu temple, to pointedly underlining the co-existence of Muslims in the holy abode since thousands of years, Kapoor has taken great pains to research the subject and underscore what is being emphasized every other day on primetime television –that Muslims are as much a part of this country’s history as the Hindus, and that both the communities can live in perfect harmony. Although stretched too thin, this is a perspective sincerely represented by Kapoor and must be lauded as such.

The movie superficially touches upon the consequences of tampering with the natural terrain of the region and the foundation of the age-old Dhari Devi idol, and although it may not have been feasible to depict the actual uprooting of the latter, a scene or two depicting demolition around the area could have lent more authenticity to the subject. Too much is said, but far less to that effect is shown on screen, which robs away some of the soul from the actual premise. And despite its intended symbolism, many viewers might fail in drawing parallels between Mandakini’s anguish and Dhari Devi’s rage.

As Kullu’s schemes of driving the pitthoo community out of the region are met with a fierce, resolute Mansoor unwilling to leave his ancestors’ home behind, the friction between the two intensifies, driving the Hindu-Muslim divide deeper. The aftermath of this tension is what makes the rift come alive only in the second half, which is disappointing, considering the love story is the vantage point the director uses to contextualize Kedarnath. In fact, too much time is spent in creating the build-up and even then, we do not quite feel for the lead’s romance; a song sequence or two could easily have been obliterated and other necessary elements added to lend a more authentic touch to the story.

Should You Watch It?

Yes, if you are eager to catch Sara Ali Khan in all her glory. And yes, if you really want to see a visual representation of the horrors nature can inflict (which comes about only in the second half).

Kedarnath is certainly watchable, but does not leave an impact, like maybe a Titanic or a 2012 does. Keeping a young, impulsive romance at the heart of it cannot be attributed to the same, considering Titanic thrived on fleshing out a full-length disaster feature, all through the lens of a passionate, young pair. Kedarnathfails to make you feel Mansoor and Mandakini’s angst, and so, while it is heart-warming and even provocative in bits and parts, it fails to stand out as a sum of all these varied elements.

Given that a catastrophe of this magnitude cannot be given a cinematic touch without starting somewhere, and the director has made a genuine attempt of doing so by using love and religious divide as the foundation. A country that thrives on emotion and drama (both valid and unnecessary) and gives filmmakers every reason in the book to capitalize on the same, maybe this is the best we can hope for, at this point in time.

Watch it, to maybe realize the  “small”ness of being human.

Rating: 3/5

Author: Shravani

Content-cum-Copywriter by the day. Dreamer and an idea juggler by the night. Foodie, Movie buff, Bookworm, Chai-holic, - in that order. A truckload of money to throw into that mix, and that's all I'll ever need.

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