Here's Why Kalank is a Litmus Test for Indian Audiences' Sensibilities
In Kalank, Varman pays little to no attention to historicity and the cultural authenticity of that time period.
A wife (Sonakshi Sinha) marrying off her husband (Aditya Roy Kapur) to another girl (Alia Bhatt), an illegitimate angsty son of a ‘tawaif’ (Madhuri Dixit) growing up to resent his father, the divisive forces of communal riots turning friends to foes -- these are such annoyingly familiar premises of outdated Bollywood period dramas that one would think Bollywood would be done making them by now.
But here we are, in 2019, with a film like Kalank that amalgamates every clichéd creative tropes of period dramas and tries to peddle a boring romance as an epic saga of love during partition. If this film was made a few decades ago, with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead and Kajol playing the role of Alia Bhatt, this movie would have undoubtedly been a bonafide hit.
However, with Bollywood audiences getting more sensible about their choices and content being the driving force of movies these days, Kalank's box office report will also serve as a perfect litmus test for all viewers and will tell us if there is still a massive audience that would go through 169 minutes of this excruciatingly painful film, just because it features not one or two big stars, but almost a mini Bollywood constellation with actors like Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditya Roy Kapur, Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt playing the lead roles.
Not to be a buzzkill, the film has its own unique selling points. It has grand sets, which unfortunately looks like they have been built from the knick-knacks of old sets stored in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's garage. If Abhishek Varman was aiming for Bhansali's grandeur, he clearly missed it. Kalank's sets just look kitschy compared to Bhansali's. One may say that it looks operatic or like a Broadway show but it is truly doubtful if Varman was aiming for that effect because unlike Bhansali's film Saawariya which not only had a stage-like set-up but also many other elements of opera, Kalank had no such thing and continues lazily as a traditional Bollywood melodrama.
If Varman was actually taking a leaf out of Bhansali's handbook, it would have been wise perhaps to remember that most of Bansali's film work on a very ambiguous timeline. No one could be sure of the time period in which Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Black, Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Saawariya or Guzaarish were set, which gave the filmmaker a leeway to bring together arts, artefacts, and aesthetics from different places and cultures to beautify his film.
However, with Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani, although he took too many creative liberties, he also paid attention to history, and many things are depicted correctly, according to the time periods these films are set in.
The biggest flaw of Kalank is that it chooses the real backdrop of pre-partition India and then tries to set up a fantasia to tell the tale of forbidden love between Roop (Alia Bhatt) and Zafar (Varun Dhawan). The difficulty of making a period film based on pre-partition India is that we as an audience is extremely familiar with this period.
Pre-partition India has been written about extensively in popular literature -- Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, Train to India: Memories of Another Bengal by Maloy Krishna Dhar, Amritsar to Lahore by Stephen Alter and even short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai.
We have seen Bollywood make movies based on that period -- the fantastic Garam Hawa, Pinjar as well as the popular Gadar. Very recently we also saw Nandita Das beautifully recreate the same period in her film Manto in far less budget.
We have also seen serials like Tamas that chronicled the partition riots. Pre-partition India has featured in popular culture so many times that we can easily tell when a recreation of that period works and when it doesn't. In Kalank, Varman pays little to no attention to historicity and the cultural authenticity of that time period.
Manish Malhotra's gorgeous costumes make every member of the cast look like a dream. Sometimes these costumes even match with the characters' feelings -- when Roop is failing in love we see her in pastel shades, and lacey floral outfits -- but these costumes fail to represent class distinctions, religious as well as ethnic backgrounds of that time period.
Varun Dhawan does his hero's strut in fancy chunky boots, which I doubt even existed during that period, let alone how an ironsmith with meagre income can afford them. Despite being from a poor economic background, Varun's Zafar wears kurtas which have exquisite zari works. Aditya Roy Kapur, who plays the role of a Hindu named Dev Chaudhary, wears a white pathani pant with a black kurta as he grooves to 'Aira Gaira.'
During the gladiator-esque scene where Varun fights a bull (such awful CGI!), many in the arena are seen wearing Afghani turbans for some strange reason.
The film is based in the fictitious town of Husnabad, however, it opens with a song-and-dance sequence of Alia Bhatt in Rajasthan, the landscape of which looks very sketchy given there are frozen mountain peaks in the background.
It's not just the locations, the conversations between characters would make you want to cringe, because they sound so pretentious. Every actor labours to deliver those dialogues, as a result, there isn't a single normal-sounding conversation in the film. Let's not even delve into the fact that if people actually spoke like that in 1940's India, although my guess is that they didn't.
While the time period of the film is badly researched and therefore, horribly depicted, what is even more astounding is how lazy and archaic the filmmaking is.
The creative tropes are so outdated that it almost surprises you that one would still choose to use it. Lead characters of the film are introduced with dance numbers like it used to happen in the old Bollywood potboilers. A sad 'mujra' sequence intersects a crying scene of Alia Bhatt. Kalank banks hugely on its star power and melodrama but unlike popular Bollywood melodramas of the past, it lacks a heart and the strong forces of passion and the emotional dynamics of characters that had previously made the audience not dwell much on authenticity and even logic sometimes.
The climactic scene happens to be the one we see in the trailer, where Varun Dhawan is running after a train, and Alia Bhatt is standing at the door of one of the compartment, her arm stretched out so that Varun can hold it and hoist himself up into the train; her other hand is held by Aditya Roy Kapur so that she doesn't fall off --- the very literal depiction of the love triangle. This scene is so long, and parts of it are in slow motion (or so it feels like) that at one point you really wonder when is this train leaving the station and more importantly when do you get to leave this film and step out of the theatre.
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