The superstars spanning generations, the deep-pocket budget, the epic sweep of the story—Kalank joins the rank of films that looked like they were poised for greatness only to crumble to poor reviews and ruthless memes on social media. To give a baking metaphor, you can have the best chocolate, the organic vanilla pods, the rare recipe, and yet make a disastrous cake. It’s as puzzling to the baker as it is to those who eat it.
Let’s talk about the cast right away, the best ingredient in this cake, as it brings together a ‘90s hit pair (Madhuri-Sanjay), actors that have been in the industry for almost a decade now (Sonakshi-Aditya), and the relatively new bunch that’s already given two hits together (Alia-Varun).
This is a casting coup, putting it subtly, starting with stellar stars like Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt who gave us iconic films like Saajan and Khalnayak in the ‘90s.
Here Madhuri plays Bahaar Begum, a famous singer-dancer-former courtesan. Now, Madhuri shines the way only she can, but such roles have been done to perfection by her already. As the courtesan Chandramukhi, she danced to ‘Maar Dala’ in Devdas, where her graceful moves still give me goosebumps. In Kalank, we have Madhuri dancing to the words ‘Tabaah Ho Gaye’, where the steps simple massacre Kathak, such that I had to warn my former kathak teacher, sensitive as she is to Bollywood’s portrayal of a dance that she worships. Then Madhuri was given the role of Begum Para in Ishqiya 2, a role involving, again, grandeur and kathak.
Contrasting Madhuri’s full investment into her character and sportingly following the steps she was made to do in the name of classical dance, Sanjay Dutt looks like he just followed instructions to wear a kurta-shawl and show up on the sets.
The second generation of actors is stable. Aditya Roy Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha debuted around the same time (2009-2010), with the latter making more big-ticket films in the years to come. Kapoor offers a subtle performance as a man who marries another woman (Alia Bhatt) at the request of his first wife (Sonakshi Sinha) as she’s suffering from cancer. Sonakshi is very effective in the brief time on screen, but her character’s motivations are never convincing. You can’t warm up to a character that think they’re so indispensable, they buy out a replacement for their partner. And that she convinces her husband and the young bride to go along with this ludicrous (and disturbing) idea is laughable too.
The now-generation romance has Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan, who made their debut with Student of the Year in 2012. Varun Dhawan, looking out of place in the period drama, plays the grey-shaded hero, an act he has down pat. Alia is one of the strongest performers we have today. She’s luminous here as well but the performance is lost in a film that concentrates on how the frame is looking instead of focusing on emotions.
The filmmakers are obviously inspired to make Kalank a Sanjay Leela Bhansali-esque production. Which is why the film has snatches of Devdas, a bit of Saawariya, and the grandeur of Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. Binod Pradhan (cinematographer of Devdas) also wields the camera here. But whether you agree with Bhansali’s films or not, there is emotion, art, and story in every frame. His deep love for aesthetics shines through in his frames, and very rarely, does the visual overtake the drama unfolding on screen.
After recent big-budget debacles like Tubelight, Zero, and Thugs of Hindostan, and several other attempted extravagant sagas, one hopes Bollywood realizes that the stars+visual feast formula can’t work without soulful storytelling.
And an excess of visual razzmatazz can be fatal, like the bull-fight scene which, apart from being unnecessary, was clumsy and unintentionally funny. Save the one spectacular Dussehra sequence (a true masterpiece), all other visual flourish is so over- the top, it distracts from the wonderful actors on screen. You don’t really need a giant chandelier in the foreground when Madhuri Dixit is onscreen. No matter what you do, she’ll shine brighter.
Sonia Chopra is a critic, columnist and screenwriter with over 15 years of experience. She tweets on @soniachopra2