If a filmmaker has the ambition to make an epic period drama and gets the production bucks, plus a dream cast, there’s nothing to stop him. But this has to match with vision and content, otherwise, after watching just the promos of Abhishek Verman’s Kalank, it looked like he had aimed for the skies and landed in Sanjay Leela Bhansali territory.
The love story set in Lahore, just before Partition, would have been considered old-fashioned in 1947! Satya (Sonakshi Sinha), dying of cancer, insists on Roop (Alia Bhatt) as her replacement (why her, it is not clear). Roop goes into the emotionally chilly Chaudhary household– the father Balraj (Sanjay Dutt) and Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur) run a newspaper, that supports industrialization and opposes the formation of Pakistan. Both these stances anger Abdul (Kunal Khemmu), who wants to protect the rights of blacksmiths as well as Muslims. In Lahore, Hindus are in the minority as characters point out, and Muslim mobs run riot in the streets.
In these incendiary times, sword-maker Zafar (Varun Dhawan), illegitimate and discarded son of a tawaif, Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit) and a rich man (anyone can guess who!) is busy bedding the women in Hira Mandi (Lahore’s notorious red light area) and singing about being “first class.” (Within the first few minutes of the film’s beginning, there are three song-and-dance sequences). Verman’s Hira Mandi is a grand and garnishes set, with massive havelis, a lotus pond and aerial dancers. Not to mention Bahaar and her girls twirling almost constantly, because those lehengas and dupattas look so lovely.
Roop is rejected by Dev, who does not even glance in her direction; so enraged is she at her sorry state, that she insists on learning music from Bahaar in Hira Mandi and also working as a journalist in the family newspaper. She wants to do a story on Hira Mandi, and Zafar, the kohl-eyed, six-packed Lothario, becomes her guide. He even has a bull-fighting scene, so that he can convey to her his devil-may-care attitude. He lets her know that he is a rogue, but won’t touch a woman without permission or payment. Roop quips that even he must have limits, but falls for him, regardless. (Varan Dhawan playing a part tragic-part despicable man is probably the only saving grace of this film.)
There is no thought expended on the hypocrisy of a man sowing his wild oats, but a woman looking for passion outside of marriage is such a problem, that even the wronged courtesan, Bahaar, wants to nip this romance. Zafar, of course, has a hidden agenda in his seduction (strictly verbal!) of Roop, which is predictable enough to be funny.
What is exhausting about Kalank is the excessive grandeur, the overwritten dialogue, the use of period setting just to have lavish sets, costumes, vintage cars, gondolas and chariots. Even when a woman is having a breakdown, she is prettily arranged on gold flooring.
When Bahaar first hears Roop sing, she comments, that her voice is good, but lacks salt. That is exactly what the film misses too– it is like a banquet without flavour.