Set on the precipice of Indian and Pakistani independence, 1940s period-piece Kalank is a far cry from director Abhishek Varman’s debut, romantic-comedy 2 States (2014). His follow-up boasts both an operatic grandeur and an all-star Indian cast, the likes of which producing studio Dharma Productions has been associated with for some time. Though, where it stands apart from most films of its ilk, is how its crisscrossing story — a melodrama steeped in family feuds, with plot twists galore — acts as a fiery, pressurized microcosm of the film’s own historical backdrop.
With independence from the British came Partition (one country for Hindus, one for Muslims) and with Partition came mass migration and untold violence. Kalank frames this outcome as inevitable, opening with brief flashes of the conflict in 1947 before introducing its main characters, who, in 1945, don’t have the same awareness of history as the audience. Yet they wrestle with their own form of inevitability: Satya Chaudhry (Sonakshi Sinha) has a year to live, in which time she hopes to make her childhood acquaintance Roop (Alia Bhatt) fall in love with her husband Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), both to keep Dev happy after she’s gone, and to make amends for the way her family had treated Roop’s. And so, in the final year of Satya’s life, Roop marries Dev and moves in with the well-off Hindu family, in their otherwise working-class Muslim locale, amidst local anxieties about industrialization as the nation braces for change.
Regret is a running theme in Kalank. It trickles down from the older generation as Dev’s father, newspaper owner Balraj (Sunjay Dutt) harbours a secret grudge against Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), the former courtesan from whom Roop now hopes to learn music. This grudge, once its details come to light, complicates Roop’s affair with local Muslim blacksmith Zafar (Varun Dhawan), who seems acquainted with Bahaar Begum, though for reasons yet unknown. The film has musical numbers galore, several of which arrive during key religious celebrations for multiple faiths. Industry veteran Pritam helms the original songs, imbuing them with a rumbling bass and a visceral sense of excitement, while Sanchit Balhara and Ankit Balhara provide a more subdued score to compliment the weighty dialogue.
There’s skilled craftsmanship to be found in every corner of the frame, though there are three reasons in particular to watch the film:
1. The Ornate Sets
Kalank has already been compared to the works of Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Ram-Leela, Padmaavat, Bajirao Mastani), and with good reason. Visual grandeur is Bhansali’s trademark, and Varman’s seeming impression of him follows suit. The film is set in the fictional Lahore district of Husnabad, one part a westernized, “One Nation, One Identity” faux-intellectual hub with a prominent newspaper at its center, one part a Muslim blacksmith town engulfed by concerns of lacking parliamentary representation.
The mansions in which the upper classes reside, away from the “common folk,” have a certain regality to them, albeit a stiffness in equal measure. The frame overflows with detail — one scene in the Chaudhry household is shot from another room entirely, so that both sets can be seen — but the film truly comes to life when it leaves behind the uptight Chaudhrys and their newspaper boardrooms.
The streets of Husnabad skirt, ironically, toward the avant–garde and kitsch, with hillside bullfights, narrow passageways befitting of Harry Potter, and lively, colourful markets that never seem to close. Our introduction to the town comes in the form of the Varun Dhawan-led item song “First Class” — the calm before the storm; Dhawan’s Zafar sings of the Hindu and Muslim festivals of Holi and Eid falling on the same day — in which the alleyways feel like winding sets on a Broadway stage that goes on forever.
2. The Seriously Chiseled Varun Dhawan
The aforementioned cliffside bull-fight has little bearing on the plot, though it feels like the perfect excuse to photograph Varun Dhawan’s too-good-to-be-true physique from every conceivable angle. A blatant closeup of his abs? Check. A shot of sweat and blood dripping from his brow as he catches his breath? Check. A one-of-a-kind low rear-angle where the sun peaks at us from behind his raised arm? Double check — and all this is when he isn’t toiling away shirtless to forge swords from scratch.
Lest it sound like Dhawan is just eye candy (though he most certainly is), he’s also given a large chunk of dramatic heavy lifting. As Zafar, he veers between cucumber cool — even amidst political friction with best friend Abdul (Kunal Khemu) — and fiery to the point of burning out the projector. He harbours a deep sense of abandonment, which he hides skillfully behind his eyes, though his pain can’t help but seep out occasionally and infect those around him. His romance with Roop feels genuine, but he’s driven as much by love and lust as he is by a thirst for vengeance against the Chaudhrys.
3. Madhuri Dixit Is Enchantingly Graceful As The Answer To Ageism
From the late ’80s until 2002, Madhuri Dixit enraptured audiences as one of mainstream Indian cinema’s most prominent leading ladies, known for both her dramatic abilities and her poise as a classically trained dancer. After a hiatus until 2007, she stole back the big screen without missing a beat, and after another four-year gap between 2014 and 2018, Kalank is her third big film in quick succession. At fifty-one, she’s at the age where far too many leading actresses have long-since been phased out (or at best, relegated to minor maternal parts) but here, as if striking a blow against industry ageism, she commands the screen as a dancer once more.
As Bahaar Begum, Madhuri shares her wisdom with Roop, about song and performance, and about tapping into inner joys and deep-rooted pains in order to paint them in living, moving colour. Within the film’s fiction, she’s merely teaching Roop how to tap into her art, while also hinting at her own regrets (revelations the film goes on to explore). Though in a more metatextual sense, it feels like she’s imparting wisdom about being a leading actress in Indian cinema to twenty-six-year-old Bhatt; after all, Madhuri is a legacy unto herself.