‘Tainted’ (‘Kalank’): Film Review

Kalank Still 1 - Fox Star Studios Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Fox Star Studios
An arresting, visually sumptuous coming-of-age tale.

An inquisitive young woman finds true love as India gets ready to split in two in Abhishek Varman’s Bollywood musical drama.

Kalank offers unexpected and welcome nuance for a mainstream Bollywood film. Its story, its music and even its costumes are far subtler and more complex than the typical Bollywood fan might expect, while its richly drawn lead character, a headstrong and thoughtful young woman named Roop (Alia Bhatt), leaves a lasting impression long after the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That subtlety may have been its undoing. Kalank’s cast, including A-listers Bhatt (Gully Boy) and Varun Dhawan, and a highly anticipated reunion between 1990s screen pair Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt weren’t enough to pack theaters, and the film only made back around half of its steep production costs on its opening weekend. 

Based on a story by screenwriter Shibani Bathija, who wrote Karan Johar’s moving post-9/11 drama My Name Is Khan, and directed and written by Abhishek Varman, Kalank is set in 1945, at the tail end of British rule. Tensions are growing between Hindus and Muslims in the run-up to the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan; and although the characters don’t yet know that Partition will lead to up to two million deaths and 14 million displaced, the audience does, adding to a growing sense of anxiety.

Roop, a bright and educated young woman from a struggling family in Husnabad, a fictional town outside Lahore, is persuaded/forced to marry into the town’s wealthiest family for an unusual reason: Their daughter-in-law Satya (an elegant Sonakshi Sinha) is dying, and she herself wants Roop to take her place after her death so that Roop can provide heirs to the family’s newspaper fortune.

Roop has no choice but to agree. But instead of playing the part of a devoted second wife to newspaper scion Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapoor), she finds herself drawn to Husnabad’s seedier neighborhood of Hira Mandi, where an aging courtesan (Dixit) holds court teaching music.

One day, after a singing lesson, Roop comes across the fiery and unstable Zafar (noted dancer and comic actor Dhawan), the exact opposite of the stolid Dev. Sparks fly, but a genuine warmth and friendship also blossoms between Roop and Zafar, making it harder and harder for Roop to return to the relative dullness of her palatial but loveless new home at the end of each day. 

Zafar, a Muslim, is poor and illegitimate. He’s also a hardworking blacksmith facing the loss of his livelihood as progress barrels into Husnabad in the shape of a metalworking factory that Roop’s husband wants to open in Hira Mandi.

The storyline with Roop and Zafar is just one strand woven into the film’s tapestry; everybody is "kalank" (tainted) in some way. There's long-simmering tension between the courtesan and the Chaudhry patriarch (Dutt); tension between Zafar and his fellow Muslim blacksmiths, who are bent on rebellion as India lurches toward independence; and tension between Roop’s husband Dev and the leadership of his liberal-leaning newspaper as events make global history. Then there’s Roop herself, coming of age and awakening to the heady realization that she has the power to shape events around her.

Unlike some other films that place the bloody events of Partition front and center, Kalank keeps much of the drama of Partition at arm’s length. Buildings burn and fundamentalists seize power when crisis morphs into opportunity, but the story focuses more on inner conflicts. To these characters, the crushing pressure of family and business obligations, and bitterness over long-ago betrayals, is felt with more immediacy than political events hundreds of miles away — until the chaos of Partition reaches Husnabad.

Bhatt infuses Roop with generous amounts of emotion and smarts, while still keeping the character true to the era (an impressive feat by the filmmakers). Dhawan leads with his usual charisma and wit. Among an abundance of strong performances, Dixit shines in a role originally envisioned for the late Sridevi, her fragile beauty adding a sense of melancholy.

Kalank is also abundant with lavishly mounted musical numbers. Imagine the swirling rhythms of dhol and tabla in the upbeat “First Class,” as Dhawan leads 500 dancers clad in lavishly embroidered linen and silk in shades of sepia, eggshell, mustard and cranberry. The film’s sumptuous art direction and costumes combine Sanjay Leela Bhansali-level theatricality with an absolutely fresh use of earthy, natural colors in scene after scene and song after song, embellishing but never overpowering the drama onscreen.

Production companies: Dharma Productions, Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment
Distributor: Fox Star Studios
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Aditya Roy Kapur
Director-screenwriter: Abhishek Varman
Producers: Karan Johar, Sajid Nadiadwala, Hiroo Yash Johar, Apoorva Mehta
Director of photography: Binod Pradhan
Production designer: Amrita Mahal Nakai
Costume designers: Manish Malhotra, Maxima Basu Golani
Editor: Shweta Venkat Mathew
Music: Pritam Chakraborty, Sanchit Balhara, Ankit Balhara
Choreographers: Remo Fernandes, Bosco-Caesar, Saroj Khan

In Hindi
166 minutes