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Revisiting Karan Johar’s Much Misunderstood Kalank As It Turns 4



karan Johar

Nothing succeeds like success. Nothing fails like failure either. Kalank , said to be Karan Johar’s  most expensive production  to date,  was slammed  savagely  from all ends.

This industry  celebrates the  failure of those who are successful.As soon as  news spread that Kalank, directed by Abhishek Verman,   was  not being appreciated by the critics or  audience, the  industry began  to gleefully write  epitaphs  for Karan’s career.

“He’s finished. Dharma’s Karma is catching up,”a filmmaker told me as  the  world turns into a mob-lynching nightmare for Johar.

He’s luckier  than Sanjay Leela  Bhansali. On  the morning  of  the  release  of Saawariya he was pacing up and down all alone in his home. Everyone  connected  with the  failed film had quickly moved on.

Kalank  true to its title, is a blemish  Karan  Johar’s  cast and  crew would  quickly like to forget.It won’t affect  Karan  Johar’s equity. But it is  a huge emotional  blow for a filmmaker who wanted to scale those steep epic  steps that Sanjay Leela Bhansali has gone  up.

But it’s okay to fail, Karan. Kalank is  not a bad  film. It’s just a failed film. It has plenty  to be proud  of. The scale at which the  sets are mounted  would  put James Cameron to  shame. The affinity to Bhansali’s school of filmmaking  is evident  in many details including the  bromance  song between Varun Dhawan and Aditya  Roy Kapoor which is a  remarkably  faithful  ripoff   of  Shah Rukh-Jackie Shroff’s Chalak Chalak song  in Devdas.

Alia Bhatt’s introductory  kite-flying song echoes Aishwarya Rai’s  introduction in Bhansali’s  Hum….Dil  De Chuke Sanam.As far as homages  go, Kalank is a  decent aesthetic exercise  in derivative  filmmaking.What I really want to  ask you, Karan, is, why did you choose such a negative title   for  your film? Kalank means  a  curse. And now you  know  why.

Years  ago I  remember  Tanuja  Chandra’s Sungharsh  (which incidentally was Alia Bhatt’s first  screen  role, and she played  the child version of Preity Zinta) was  initially called Andhera.

Too negative, said distributors. Did  no one advise  Karan against  calling  his  film Kalank?

It was  the  most expensive Karan  Johar production to date, so  lavish and  costly that Karan’s Dharma  Production had to share  the production responsibility with two other major producers Sajid Nadiadwala and  Fox-Star Studios.

The  film’s stellar cast had undergone many  changes.  Varun Dhawan’s role was to be  originally played by Shah  Rukh Khan and Kajol was  to do Alia Bhatt’s role. Daane daane pe likha khane wale ka naam. Sridevi  was  replaced Madhuri Dixit. The two divas were fierce  rivals  in  their heydays. It is  ironical that destiny willed them  to  swap roles.Only Karan  Johar  could pull   this off.  Dixit’s character  of  the  goodhearted   tawaif  is  inspired  by   Meena  Kumari in  Pakeezah, Rekha in Umrao Jaan and Madhuri Dixit in Devdas. Apparently Ms Dixit Nene’s Bahaar Begum  is a mélange  of all three classic courtesans.    The original  choice  for Sanjay Dutt’s role was Rishi Kapoor who  unfortunately fell ill and  had to leave the country for  medical care. This  is how the original Chandni  pair of Rishi Kapoor and Sridevi converted  into the Khalnayak pair  of  Dutt and Dixit  . Karma comes a   full circle.

Alia Bhatt’s look  was inspired by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in  Jodha Akbar and the  Pakistani  actress Sanam Saeed in  the  television  series  Zindagi Gulzar Hai.

At a running-time  of  2 hours and  48 minutes  Kalank   was one of  the lengthiest  films Karan  Johar has  produced, 3 minutes  longer than My Name  Is Khan.

 Comparisons  with Sanjay Leela Bhansali h haunted Kalank from the  time the  first teaser came out. Kalank is gorgeous  to look at. Every frame is worked out to an eye-catching detail exuding a kind arrested aestheticism that implies a penchant for opulence and majesty that has no parallel in real life.And certainly not in 1946 when the film’s tumultuous romance unravels (not as seamlessly as one would imagine). The sets and the imaginative use of religious symbols in the songs are breathtaking. And put Alia Bhatt in a gondola sailing through this universe caught in the cusp of never-land, and we have a supremely seductive drama where every frame is a pose and every dialogue a poser.

There is a whole lot of posturing in the storytelling with no character remaining consistently in character. Some run out of steam, others bay for blood. Some live, others die while some others die even as they live. But finally the chaos which was India during the months before the barbaric Partition, all comes together in a way that is not fully satisfying either for the characters or for the audience.

At the end of the lengthy but luminous storytelling I was stuck with how unhappy every character is in writer-director Abhishek Varman’s drama of the damned, none more so than Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) and her equally soul-dead husband Dev Chaudhary a man who stands by his beliefs no matter what the cost.

Dev wants to bring industrial development into the town called Husnabad where the story unfolds. But hell, Husnabad is not about growth but arrested development. Over here the characters nestle their fragile oldworld sensibilities in a cradle of curdled dreams. In this world of frozen sumptuousness (shot with a whittled-down gorgeousness by cinematographer Binod Pradhan that reminded me of what Sven Nykvist did to Ingmar Bergman’s decadent aristocracy in Fanny & Alexander) love blossoms — if ‘blossom’ is a correct definition of forbidden passion—when the stately young Bahu of an aristocratic family, a second wife brought to the family by the first, falls in love with a lowly lohaar (goldsmith).

Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan play the star-crossed lovers with an abundance of untamed passion. But somehow the sense of urgent attraction in forbidden love from David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter is missing here.

Whatever the shortcomings suffered in transcreation from its powerful writing to a relatively weak execution on screen, the last half-hour when all hell (of Partition violence) breaks loose is jaw-dropping in its drama and intensity.

The performances range from the pitch-perfect to the mis-communicated (Kiara Advani’s sexy kotha act is a hoot). Varun Dhawan brings an admirable zest to his role as an illegitimate lover. But why the kajal-laden eyes so incongruously contrasted with the gym-toned body?Alia Bhatt is, I repeat, incandescent. In the scenes where she portrays her forlornness in a loveless marriage she reminded me of Madhabi Mukherjee in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. In her rebellious resolution to wrangle love at any cost she was like Nutan in Bandini. Finally though she was all of herself and then some more.

Sonakshi Sinha and Kunal Khemu are also in fine form. Madhuri Dixit dances like a dream. But disappoints in the dramatic scenes which admittedly seem underwritten and ham-fisted talking in riddles that go nowhere. The real surprise is Aditya Roy Kapur. Controlled and steadfast the director makes good use of his temperate personality to denote calm and common sense at a time when the world has gone berserk.Kalank looks beautiful and feels uncompromised.

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