Yash Chopra examined the Partition of 1947 both directly (Dharmaputra, 1961) and indirectly (Waqt, 1965). In his 1978 film Trishul, Chopra and screenwriters Salim-Javed turned their attention to a more intimate kind of division, one caused by perfidy and cowardice. Amitabh Bachchan played the illegitimate and rejected son of a builder, who exacted his revenge by competing with his father to put phallic symbols of his rage on the horizon and driving a wedge between his siblings.

Kalank borrows some ideas from Trishul as well as Deepa Mehta’s Partition-themed Earth (1998). It also attempts to replicate the epic kitsch aesthetic popularised by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The film has been written and directed by Abhishek Varman (2 States, 2014) and is based on a story by Shibani Bathija.

Kalank is set in Lahore in the mid-1940s. In the city’s Heera Mandi red-light district, blacksmith Zafar (Varun Dhawan) forges swords and fashions his anger at being rejected by his mother, the courtesan Bahar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), and his father, the landlord Balraj (Sanjay Dutt), into a weapon of destruction.

Zafar seduces Roop, the second wife of Balraj’s son Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur), who has been brought into the family on the express wish of Dev’s terminally ill spouse Satya (Sonakshi Sinha). Roop, a reluctant Number 2, falls easily for Zafar (we can guarantee that his tendency to wander around bare-chested has nothing to do with it) while attempting to fit into her new home.

Zafar also flirts with a gang of fundamentalists (led by Kunal Kemmu) and stirs up trouble at the newspaper owned by Balraj. In between, Zafar shares a pillow with a dancer (Kiara Advani) and sings about how he is a “First Class” kind of guy. Meanwhile, the Partition approaches, one nasty brawl at a time.

First Class, Kalank (2019).

The attempt to map melodramatic conventions onto the tragedy of the Partition is as ambitious as it is tricky. In Earth, Deepa Mehta skilfully navigated the ways in which, given the perfect storm, heartbreak could get magnified to monstrous proportions and previously convivial neighbours could turn on one other. Kalank is, however, too inchoate to strike a balance between the personal and the political. It works neither as an unusual love triangle nor a contemporary addition to the Partition genre.

Part of the problem is that the burden of violence is borne entirely by the Muslims of Husnabad, all uniformly depicted as kohl-eyed men with grim faces. The bigger problem is the showbiz flair that is deployed at a defining moment in the subcontinent’s history. So what if the revolution will not be televised? At least, Partition can be glamourised.

Binod Pradhan’s overworked camera swoops around in all directions as it attempts to enhance the grandeur of Amrita Mahal Nakai’s production design. Kalank has grand sets that reach to the skies, gorgeous costumes that will send you scurrying to your tailor (even a housemaid is better dressed than the average movie-goer), and a parade of crease-free faces and epilated bodies. Some faces have trouble moving, such as Madhuri Dixit’s frozen-in-summer visage, while others never betray their medical condition (Sonakshi Sinha, sashaying towards the funeral pyre in an unchanging glow.)

Kalank (2019). Courtesy Dharma/NGE.

However, the sets that are meant to enhance the big-screen experience end up creating a distance from the messiness of the emotional conflicts. Hira Mandi is a fantastical version of Lahore’s famed red-light quarter, where chandeliers touch the floor, lights burn at all hours, and women dance in perfectly symmetrical formations. In this sub-Bhansali world, where people speak in aphorisms, curtains billow on a still day and characters are framed against towering backdrops, Roop and Zafar unsuccessfully attempt to get a fire going.

Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan have been well-matched in previous films, but Bhatt is out of her depth in Kalank. She is miscast as Roop, and cannot do the heavy-lifting required of a woman who is pawn, reluctant feminist, dutiful second wife, philanderer, singer, dancer and, in a hilarious moment of misjudgement, a budding journalist who marches out to document Hira Mandi’s history.

Varun Dhawan fares better as Zafar. His character is the most compelling, and has the only arc worth following through 168 minutes. Zafar also has some of the better lines. When Roop tells him she is married, he slyly replies, who wants to exchange vows anyway? Also to Roop: Don’t worry, I never touch women if there is neither consent nor money involved.

Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan in Kalank (2019). Courtesy Dharma/NGE.

The costumes always match the props, but most of the A-list star cast barely fits their roles. Madhuri Dixit has one good line – those who take seven rounds around the sacred fire lose their lustre, she sagely observes – but she leaves no trace. Sequences are specifically written for Aditya Roy Kapur to prove that he has improved his game, but the result is on expected lines. Kunal Kemmu has his moments as the mean-eyed Abdul. The movie retains its hauteur and attention to period haute couture even as it goes off the rails, finally chugging into its destination after leaving broken hearts and unmet ambitions in its wake.

Kalank (2019).