With the 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 such as Manikarnika, which summoned multitudes of extras but precious little poetry or wonder.
Audiences have started to gravitate instead towards more personal stories and pithier genre fare, such as surprise-pregnancy comedy Badhaai Ho and horror Stree.
Kalank, an extraordinarily lavish soap, feels like mega-producer Karan Johar’s last-ditch attempt to force the issue, recruiting major stars to enact a tangled domestic drama against the backdrop of partition. Only the box-office figures will show whether it has succeeded.
Writer-director Abhishek Varman has devised 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 believe 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 her eventual replacement; nor 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 is Varun Dhawan as a hunky blacksmith and 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 technical craft, one that rolls off several of the year’s most beauteous shots. Whether the human drama matches that is questionable; even the intelligent, expressive Bhatt can’t make complete sense of Roop’s self-abnegation. (And her thoroughly modern screen persona jars with the film’s fusty sexual politics.) With its clifftop bullfights, expansive Pritam songs and squillion-rupee budget, nobody is likely to come out feeling short-changed. 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.