Topics KalankAlia BhattMadhuri Dixit

The last time Sonakshi Sinha was heading for an appointment with death was in Lootera, a film in which a whisper was as good as a shout. Sinha is dying again in Kalank, but there are no inside voices used here. Everyone talks loudly and confidently, for the most part in beautifully modulated Urdu. There’s more poetry, good and bad, tossed off as everyday speech than you’ll find in all the Hindi films from last year. Even the street thugs speak in complete, ornate sentences, as street thugs are known to do.

Kalank‘s all-out commitment to a consistently feverish emotional pitch makes it an anomaly. No one, save Sanjay Leela Bhansali, does this sort of gale-force melodrama anymore. In a Bollywood that’s trying to look more self-aware, emotion can be a lead weight. I’d be curious to see what audiences make of the film over the next week or two; the one I saw it with seemed to tire by the end of all the eloquence.

It starts with one of the strangest requests I’ve ever seen one movie character make of another. Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) is sick and only has a year to live. Her soon-to-be-dying wish is that her husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), marry again – not after she passes, but right away, so that she can watch the two of them together as she slowly wastes away (Indian cinema is a trip). So she asks Roop (Alia Bhatt), who’s understandably put off by the idea, but finds herself compelled to accept, since marrying into the Chaudhry family – whose head, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt), is a newspaper baron – will secure her struggling family’s future.

It gets better. One night, Roop, on her balcony, hears a beautiful singing voice. She decides to learn singing from the source, and tracks down Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), a courtesan who lives in Lahore’s red-light district, Hira Mandi. There, she meets an insolent blacksmith, Zafar (Varun Dhawan), with whom she’ll fall in love. Bahaar and Zafar are related. Zafar’s friend, Abdul (Kunal Khemu), is agitating for a separate homeland for Muslims (the film is set in the years before independence), which Dev’s paper strongly opposes. Balraj has history with Bahaar. And there’s a final link, not difficult to predict, that falls into place.

It sounds too convoluted for words, but director and screenwriter Abhishek Varman, working with Shibani Bathija (story) and Hussain Dalal (dialogue), moves the pieces around confidently. It gets to the point where the film can crosscut between conversations for dramatic effect: there’s a smart scene where we move from Dev and Balraj to Bahaar and Zafar and back. There’s evident nostalgia for the heart-on-sleeve cinema of the ‘70s, with all the old chestnuts of that decade dusted off and reassembled: ranting hero, tragic courtesan, labour agitations, estranged fathers and sons. Fittingly, it’s a veteran cinematographer, Binod Pradhan, behind the lens. His use of colour is striking throughout, and there’s a noirish moment with Dutt that would sit well in Parinda, though you’ll have to overlook the shaky CGI (worst bullfight ever) and the occasional stiffness of the digital image.

Though it’s Satya who’s on her death bed, Kapur’s performance suggests he was under the impression that his character was dying instead. Dhawan’s snarling and preening gets old after a while, and is easily undercut by Bhatt’s deftness. It doesn’t matter much – Kalank is a writer’s film. This extends to the lyrics, with Amitabh Bhattacharya coming up with the marvellously syncretic “Mere tevar mein hai tehzeeb ki rangeen rangoli/ jaise, jaise ho Eid mein Holi”.

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