Dir: Abhishek Varman. With: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Madhuri Dixit. 166 mins. Cert: 12A
With this week’s oddly titled Kalank (“Blemish”), we find Bollywood in something of a pickle. Since the runaway global success of the two-part Telugu epic Baahubali, Indian producers have followed a bigger-is-better credo, drumming up a succession of thunderous historical throwbacks, like January’s Manikarnika, which summoned multitudes of extras but precious little of their inspiration’s poetry or wonder. Audiences, understandably, began to gravitate instead towards more personal stories and pithier genre fare, such as surprise-pregnancy comedy Badhaai Ho and horror sleeper Stree. This extraordinarily lavish soap feels like mega-producer Karan Johar’s last-throw attempt to force the issue, recruiting as it does major stars to enact a tangled domestic drama against the backdrop of Partition. Only the opening weekend figures will show whether it’s succeeded.
Writer-director Abhishek Varman has a compelling premise – a household rearranging itself alongside a country – but spends most of the first half trying to bolster his naggingly flimsy narrative foundation. You may simply not buy that, in 1944, the dying wife of a prominent newspaper editor would invite kite-catching free spirit Roop (Alia Bhatt) under her roof to serve as an eventual replacement; equally, that the younger woman would accept, resigning herself to gazing mournfully at the world from a decorous window seat. Offering this self-caged bird some possibility of escape: Varun Dhawan as a hunky, oft-shirtless blacksmith, and local legend Madhuri Dixit, typically captivating as a disgraced courtesan teaching dance out of a studio that makes Kensington Palace look like a two-bed council flat.
That set alone underlines Kalank’s status as a superlative piece of film craft, one that rolls off several of the most beauteous shots the eye will have the good fortune to alight upon in 2019. Whether the human drama scales up to it is questionable: even the intelligent, expressive Bhatt can’t make complete sense of Roop’s self-abnegation. (Her thoroughly modern screen persona isn’t a natural fit with the film’s fusty sexual politics.) With its clifftop bullfights, expansive Pritam songs and squillion-rupee tealight budget, nobody’s likely to emerge feeling shortchanged. Yet the sight of multigenerational superstars navigating a messily unravelling plot suggests Kalank’s lasting value may be as a carefully colour-graded selfie of an industry – and, in this election year, perhaps an entire nation – in flux.
Kalank is now showing in cinemas nationwide.