Kalank Movie Review: Grandeur personified and needlessly melodramatic sans Bhansali’s magic touch

Kalank is your staple star-studded elaborate cinematic launch that never takes off

Even the best of an ensemble cast does not save Kalank from bombing at the theatres
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Director: Abhishek Varman

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Kunal Kemmu, Hiten Tejwani, Achint Kaur

Dialogue Writer: Hussain Dalal (had to mention this because I cannot fathom how all that Urdu could spout off from the man who made Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani relatable to the millennial audience!!)

The last time Sonakshi Sinha (as Pakhi) was dying of a deadly disease and managed to arouse our heartfelt sympathy was in Lootera (2013). Still recovering from heartbreak and betrayal, and grappling with abject loneliness, her sighs and whispers interspersed between painful bouts of coughing and breathlessness came across as relatable.

This time though, as a stunning Sonakshi (as Satya in Kalank) layered in the choicest makeup and grace fitting for the goddesses, leaves the doctor’s clinic saying, “Marne wale ko karam thik karne chahiye, tabiyat nahin”, we find it less than convincing. As if that is not enough, we are then taken straight to a modest home in Rajputana (Rajasthan) where Sinha makes a rather unbecoming request of Roop (Alia Bhatt) – she only has a year to live and wants her husband Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapur) to marry again. And she wants them married right away, so she can assure herself that her husband’s life will not waste away like she will, very soon.

Now, we are never told, in the course of a whopping 170 minutes of the film as to what exactly Roop owes Satya (even though there are tedious hints throughout the film) to tag along in this bizarre plan; all we know is she reluctantly agrees to this proposal so she can lift her family (and especially, her other two unmarried sisters) off the financial trenches they were living in. If this is not the most regressive of Bollywood plots, then I don’t know what is. But since Kalank is set in the time of Partition, we reason to ourselves that of course, women were not as emancipated back then as they are now!

Fast forward to Husnabad (Lahore), Roop’s life begins on the most unexciting note ever. Dev is prompt and kind enough to let her know that while she will be accorded utmost respect as the bahu of the khandaan, she should not expect love in return from him. He loves his wife deeply, and will never be able to give her that place in his life. Sounds eerily similar to what Paro’s husband says to her in Devdas (2002) right? Fortunately or unfortunately, the references to “Bhansalism” don’t end here.

Trapped in the reality of her youth and her life nipped in the bud, Roop, while gazing out at empty skies on her balcony one day, is intrigued by a mysterious voice crooning out in the distance. It is none other than Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), the songstress and local courtesan who had wowed many a fickle heart (pun intended) and lives in Heera Mandi, the scandalous lanes of Husnabad, “jiska naam lene se bhi log badnaam ho jaate hain.” Or some such. No, I’m not saying it. The characters say it, over and over again, masking it with doom and making it sound as unpalatable as unpalatable can be. There is of course a dreaded link between Heera Mandi and Chaudhry villa, and the same becomes clear as day despite the characters humming and hawing through their lines, steeped in pointless sobriety.

Away from the stuffy, sombre atmosphere at Chaudhry villa, Roop finds herself mesmerized with Bahaar Begum’s singing prowess as she is by her nazaakat. Between working in the family newspaper business headed by Balraj Chaudhry (Sanjay Dutt) and learning music from Bahaar Begum, she gradually finds a purpose to soak herself in. All is decidedly well till she meets Zafar, the local blacksmith, who takes a fancy to her and even ends up grabbing her wrist the very first time they meet. Since this is the 1940s and stalking had not yet found a mention in society’s rulebook, Roop falls passionately for the audacious Zafar, against her better nature and the lines drawn for her as the bahu of the Chaudhry khandaan.

Zafar, abandoned at birth by an unwed mother (Bahaar Begum) and a cowardly father (guess who?) even prior to his birth, now wakes up every morning to be branded as “najayaz” and “haraami” by the local people, practically in every scene. Lives in the gutter (figuratively), sleeps around indiscriminately and throws himself away in murderous bullfights, while seething in rage directed at his mother as well as Sr. Chaudhry (Dutt) for having taken from him a life that could have been. When he meets Roop and finds her besotted with him, he decides to use her as a weapon to destroy the Chaudhry khandaan, to have them suffer the shame and humiliation he had endured all his life. There is a glitch though – and this is embarrassingly predictable – he inadvertently drops his seedy, Casanova image and does fall for Roop – but so does Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), despite the noblest of intentions. And that is exactly where all hell breaks loose, because the filmmakers seemed to have realized that now, hearts must shatter and make noises loud enough to deafen the audience – so that the ornate setting, ostentatious Bollywoodized Urdu, jaw-dropping expensive costumes and heavy, practiced silences can be justified.

Nonetheless, despite director and screenplay writer Abhishek Varman’s tenacious efforts, none of the faux-intensity employed to tackle the project seems necessary or sincere. In fact, what gravely punctures the tempo of the film is the forced drama inserted in every scene (even those that could have done with some cheeriness sans Urdu dripping off the actors’ tongues) that makes it come across as disingenuous. Many a time my mind wandered back to Bhansali’s Devdas and Saawariya, as I found myself drowning in the carefully designed noir-ness of Kalank – made possible with veteran cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s work behind the camera. It is a shame though that the film had none of the urgency palpable in Devdas (well okay, I admit I cannot say the same about Saawariya), despite overt signs of a forbidden love, and explicit scenes of unrest, violence and gory included to render the love triangle more devastating against the context of Partition.

This is not to say that Kalank does not at all have its winning moments; these however, are sparse and stand out in your memory long after you’ve watched the film. For example, the confrontation between Dev and Balraj Chaudhry juxtaposed against the one between Zafar and Bahaar Begum feels mildly thrilling. So does the climax, which the makers seem to have worked hard at to prevent it from veering into the utterly predictable.

The cinematography and the dance performances in both Ghar More Pardesiya and Tabaah Ho Gaye are breathtaking, the only time the extravagant build-up of the movie feels good. Alas! Without a solid plot, the decorative aspects of a film can only go so far.

Barring Alia Bhatt who shines as the gentle yet bold Roop, the performances of the remaining ensemble fizzle without a trace. Varun Dhawan as Zafar is hammy in the first half and a spitting image of most of his previous characters (sans the kajal and the beard) as he rolls off one cliché romantic/cringey dialogue after the other. It’s only in the second half that you begin feeling for his character, even though you do not cross over completely to side Zafar.

Roy Kapur as Dev is restrained and dignified, so much that it robs away from the character’s motivations. I actually enjoyed his conflict with Sr. Chaudhry more than I did his equation with his dying wife and his newly-wed second wife, which were insipid to start with. Sinha has Satya is completely passable, her presence so diluted she might not have even been a part of the project. Dutt as the newspaper baron Balraj Chaudhry is authoritative without the menace that patriarchs don such hats with. He, however, fails to slip into the remorseful old father towards the end, an element that chips away at the core plot tool. And may I add he seems resolutely stone-faced through most of his scenes? Madhuri Dixit as Bahaar Begum is grace personified, but lacks the namak that a Chandramukhi from Devdas was draped in, in addition to the layers of ethnic fashion. Supporting actors such as Hiten Tejwani and Kiara Advani remain just that – on the fringes. Kunal Kemmu (as Abdul, Zafar’s friend) starts out lukewarm but gains range over the course of the film – he is actually more of a surprise element than the film’s plot itself!

One of the cardinal sins of filmmaking is rendering the execution too stretched, too thin, a glitch the makers of Kalank ought to feel guilty about. Repetitive scenes between Roop and Zafar to forcibly create romantic tension between the pair only made it monotonous and yawn worthy after a point. Begum’s well-meaning advice to a young, impulsive Roop could have come about at least ten scenes earlier, and so could the atmosphere of strife in Heera Mandi and their agitation for a separate homeland. At least four of the eight loud, bombastic songs could have been done away with – would have helped lower the budget of the project while saving us recurring headaches. And so could the item song featuring Kriti Sanon and the boys to establish a Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam-esque bond between the two suitors (except that HDDCS was classy, massy and was the ultimate treat for folk-song lovers). Against the setup of the 1940s, why on earth would a garishly-dressed woman be used as a crucial plot tool, is beyond me!!

All in all, Kalank feels stuck in time (was conceptualized fifteen years ago by the late Yash Johar and revived by son Karan Johar, so no surprises there), and pretty darn regressive for a Bollywood seeking fresher, more emancipated subjects to make films on. An exercise to rip off the highlights of Bhansalism, the film, while succeeding in emulating the director’s over-the-top treatment of plots, dives miserably in creating characters that the audience could have truly rooted for. There is awe-inducing grandeur, just no spark.

Or as Bahaar Begum says to Roop in their very first meeting, “Aawaz acchi hai, bas namak kam hai.”

Rating: 2/5

Padmaavat (i): Ranveer Singh’s Khilji steals the show even as you can’t quite take your eyes off Deepika

Hands down, Bhansali’s period drama is a testament to the raw acting prowess of Ranveer Singh.

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You would have to be living under a rock if you still haven’t heard/read/debated the billion controversies surrounding Padmavati, right up to the point of its release where it was reduced to Padmaavat (minus the scintillating ‘i’) with as many as 300 cuts. 

And if your curiosity has not yet been stoked, despite the unasked-for-constant-stream-of-assault-on-the-senses via scathing movie reviews, think-pieces and just plain rants on the magnum opus flooding the internet, know that I envy your aloofness and determination to stay away from this muck, but also know, that you might possibly be missing out on one of the fiercest performances of a Bollywood hero in recent times, minus the excessive praise showered on Rajput valour.

Does Padmaavat cater to the bombastic, upscaled grandeur of Bhansali’s vision and overwhelm you with its largeness? Yes.

Is it an accurate account of historical events? No.

So what can we take away from this semi-historical, sometimes borderline annoying cine fest? Ranveer Singh’s portrayal of the quirky, psychopathic Alauddin Khilji, arguably his career’s best till date.

From the moment Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) steps into the pallid dark grey frame of the betrayal-infested darbar of his crook of an uncle, Jalaluddin Khilji (Raza Murad), with a CGI-constructed humongous ostrich by his side instead of just its hair as asked for, his intent eyes set on the breathtakingly beautiful Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari, playing Jalaluddin’s daughter) and the tantalizing pull of the Khilji throne simultaneously, you get a sneak peek into the evil residing in this man, lurking in every inflection of the words spoken, every twitch of the lips, every gaze lingering a second too long.

And when he mouths this famed line: “Kaynat ki har nayab cheez par bas Khilji ka haq hai”, you know you’re set to witness an extravaganza  of talent-meets-opportunity, in almost every frame Singh inhabits as the tyrant Afghan ruler. You are made aware of the lengths the monster Khilji can go to and the rules he is ready to break to obtain every ‘nayab cheez’ that comes his way. So if it means engaging in semi-adultery right on the night of his wedding, so be it. If it means betraying his uncle and having him assassinated by the very slave, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) gifted to him so he can finally declare himself Sultan, so be it. And in the same vein, if it means he has to endure mountains and deserts and some gauche humiliation for a man in his position, to invade the formidable Chittor so he can ‘have’ Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), so be it.

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This single line of thought defines Bhansali’s Khilji, a man so possessed by an all-consuming desire for a woman whose exquisite beauty he has only ever heard of, but never seen or experienced in person. Granted, this makes Alauddin Khilji look almost uni-dimensional and much like an incensed,  stalkerish lover-boy rather than the ruthless, strategic ruler he was; however, any regular cine-goer and Bhansali’s fan would realize this outright show of villainy and the smattering of barbarism in the character is only an old Bollywood trope of pandering to the good versus evil, Ram versus Raavan Hindu narrative.

In fact, this contrast is ever more apparent when paired against Shahid Kapoor’s Maharawal Ratan Singh’s sobriety and his unrelenting grip on Rajput aan, baan shaan, of which, of course, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) is the center piece.

A couple brownie points for the story though: thankfully, the movie borrows only the romanticized account of Khilji’s conquest of Chittor as narrated in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat (the source 2018’s Padmaavat is inspired by). Had the director chosen instead to adapt the entire poem for the silver screen, we might just have come to know what a dickhead Chittors’s Ratansen was in the first place, given his seven-seas journey to capture Rani Padmini’s heart based on mere hearsay.

Doesn’t make for an epic tale of war and love, right and wrong,  does it, when you have two idiots with near-exact temperaments fighting for the same thing?

And so we stick to Padmaavat, where Raja Ratan Singh happens to be the lucky bloke coming back home with a stunning second wife from the distant land of Singhal, when he was only seemingly on a vacation hunting rare pearls for the first wife. And we have Padmavati who, by the show of it knows how to shoot arrows, knows her mind, and still falls for the douchebag Ratan Singh, making for a love story as cold as the ice in Siberia. From happily picnicking in the jungles of Singhal, the duo go on to get married before the audience could go “wtf!” and return hand-in-hand to the home turf in Chittor, sparking the general praja’s awe, royal priest Raghav Chetan’s (Aayam Mehta) lust, and the first wife’s jealousy.

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Matters move speedily, as the priest is caught snooping in on the king and queen’s intimate moments and is promptly thrown out of the kingdom. The fact that Raghav Chetan is let out alive instead of getting beheaded alludes to Rajput honour, as we first come to know, and, are repeatedly reminded around 145890 times over the course of the movie. This obvious lack of foresight on the part of the Rajputs also drives the rest of the story ahead, as Chetan, on his way out vows to bring Chittor to its ruins, which, as see see over the course of the movie, he succeeds at accomplishing.

Despite the rather quick introduction of the three main characters (Ratan Singh, Padmavati and Khilji), the story doesn’t quite progress as fast as one would have liked it to. Bhansali takes his own sweet time in building up the background and digging into the motives driving each of these three characters, while we are invited to soak in the palette of hues and colors, and the air of grace and ferocity simmering at both ends of the extremely diverse worlds forming the battleground of this epic love triangle.

I say ‘love triangle’ solely because of the almost romantic touch Singh brings to his character – the helplessness, desperation and the heart-brokenness is apparent in a scene in the film when Khilji ends up realizing his near-futile attempt of getting a glimpse of Padmavati after spending a whole night waiting outside his camp dangerously close to Chittor fort. Amidst the manic depravity, ruthlessness, even boisterousness, Ranveer manages to bring out a seemingly softer side of the cold-blooded ruler, which is a major coup in itself and as much of an artistic liberty a director can take when relying on a fictitious tale.

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Padmaavat, in no way is a straightforward saga of love, war and heartbreak though; its inherent turmoils deepened by Khilji’s marriage to Mehrunissa, and a simultaneous relationship shared with the slave-cum-companion Malik Kafur. Hydari enacts Mehrunissa with plenty of vulnerability and tenderness, but we see her largely relegated to the background until after the second half begins.

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With Kafur though, Bhansali seems to have taken a chance, choosing to subtly portray the undertones of a homosexual relationship between the slave and his master, rather than a blatant mention of the same. Jim Sarbh as Kafur is outstanding as Khilji’s homosexual aide, never loud or comical (as most Bollywood movies as wont to portray), with a queer accent and a gentleness characteristic of his position in the Sultan’s life. Sarbh continues to make an impact from the time he played a key role in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, and topped it off with a different shade in the rather disappointing Raabta. In Padmaavat though, he might have taken on his biggest challenge till date, playing a homosexual character without making it raunchy, exaggerated or an outlet for comic relief.

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Kudos to Bhansali as well for crushing ‘gay’ stereotypes and bringing out nuances in Kafur’s character, while lending a fatalistic touch to this behind-the-scenes relationship,  and while it is neither celebrated nor denounced, the mystery behind this amorous chapter adds an extra layer of complexity to Singh’s Khilji – we don’t see him trying to shake off his bisexuality, or deny its existence, even when he is busy raging wars in a bid to capture Padmavati.

As torch-bearers of Rajput pride and valour, Shahid and Deepika nearly fit in the template of grace, magnetism and restraint demanded of their respective characters. In the director’s world of excesses, it is a miracle how they manage to effectively portray their love more through subtle glances and tenderly spoken words, rather than outright expressions of passion. Kapoor however, mostly lets us down after starting off smoothly, as we watch him struggle under the weight of the laden Rajputana values – his stomach sucked in, his lips puckered in an ungainly pout, and his nostrils flaring, we see him reduced to a cardboard character where somehow being robot-like is a substitute for being taken seriously. Stacked against Khilji’s savagery, Ratan Singh’s self-righteous, stern demeanor is reduced to a puddle, blowing off unnecessary steam without causing any real damage to the opponent.

As a sensible viewer, you are appalled and annoyed by how Ratan Singh could pass up decent opportunities to capture the lunatic Khilji when those chances as good as fell into his lap, all because: Rajput pride and honour. You are equally stunned when the king makes a mention of ‘usool’ in the battleground, right before slumping to the ground. And so, you end up mocking Rajput stupidity, and lamenting their absolute lack of war strategy, rather than raising a toast to their pride and glory. The sole thing the movie set out to do, but ironically ends up subverting in these crucial moments. 

However, all is not lost and there is much to Padmaavat than fighting fair and losing. The director fluidly taken you on a journey where pivotal moments in the narration that make it all too clear who the real boss is: it is essentially Padmavati who succeeds in driving the maniacal Khilji mad, shredding his ego down to pieces, making a defeatist out of the invader.

Deepika is grace personified, as she moves about buoyantly, the pleats of her royal sarees/lehengas  tucked in neatly, and her pallu dancing in seductive waves. True to the director’s promise of at least one song the audience cant stop humming to, we are treated to a visual splendour in the form of ‘Ghoomar‘, quite a masterpiece within a masterpiece. It would be an understatement to say the actress has never looked as bewitching in any of her earlier movies.

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Full credit to the director for treating her character as  more than just a cog in the wheel of this epic tale of love and war, when there was a mighty chance of her presence being drowned against the sheer scale of this project, but more so, by the compelling depiction of Singh’s Khilji that seems to tower over the very premise of the film itself.

In fact, much of the second half bears testament to Padmavati’s political strategies meeting with success, in not only avenging Rajputana humiliation and distress caused by instigator Raghav Chetan by having him murdered by the faithless Khilji, but in also  sneaking her husband away from right under the nose of the Muslim ruler. Her decision to not surrender to Khilji’s wily schemes climaxes in the much-debated and (mostly) ridiculed mass Jauhar, a cinematic glorification that has been lambasted by commoners and a few celebrities alike.

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More on this in a different post, but for a cinematic spectacle carved by an artist of Bhansali’s stature, one can hardly expect a dowdy, miserable showdown depicting jauhar as a bawl-fest.
Anyone who has watched the director’s earlier movies – be it Bajirao Mastani, Ram Leela or even Guzaarish – would know the man chooses to portray passion and dignity even in death, and roots for his characters’ abilities to determine their own fates, irrespective of how nonsensical and foolish that might appear to the outside world. I dare say, he probably believes, if one were to be snuffed out, one should exit the mortal world with a bang AND on one’s own terms!
As someone who hates insipid love stories in real and reel lives, I don’t quite mind the dramatic endings. However, in Padmaavat’s case, I quite welcome it because I see it as a powerful show between a man who thinks he can conquer a woman’s body simply because he feels entitled to, and a woman who intends to stand by her choices and not surrender, even if it means losing to death. I see it as a battle of wills. Not the usual Romeo-Juliet, Heer-Raanjha sob-fest, for sure.
I see it as a choice exercised towards freedom rather than sexual slavery when faced with an army of thousands of savage men. This psychological game might not appeal to us 21st century human beings, specially modern feminists, but to ferret and tear apart the motives and ideals that drove people in the 13th century to do what they eventually did, would be a pointless exercise.

So if you wish to partake in the visual expansiveness of the mega project, can allow for a weak plot line and a historically flawed account to consume close to 3 hours of your time, and are content watching Ranveer Singh turn upside down the trajectory of the traditional Hindi film antagonist while Padukone plays to the gallery, albeit, with controlled finesse, go ahead and give this a chance…but make sure you soak in the opulence on the big screen, not on TV!!

 Also, tough luck Karni Sena. Try harder next time maybe? 

Rating: 4.5/5