Events leading to the 1947 Partition of India serve as the forebodingly serious backdrop for the exhaustingly overextended razzmatazz of “Kalank,” writer-director Abhishek Varman’s lavish but ponderous Bollywood extravaganza, which opened in the U.S. on more than 300 screens the same day as its Indian release. Despite the preponderance of sets and costumes spectacular enough to make Baz Luhrmann weep with envy, and a handful of thrillingly choreographed production numbers that sporadically quicken the movie’s pulse and boost its eye-candy quotient, the attractive yet underwhelming lead players are too hampered by the lethargic narrative to sufficiently distract viewers from their awareness of time passing and interest diminishing.
The action unfolds in and around the city of Husnabad, a year or so before the Partition that eventually led to the establishment of India and Pakistan as independent countries. Newspaper publisher Dev Chaudhry (Aditya Roy Kapur), a well-to-do member of the Hindu-minority elite, routinely editorializes in his Daily Times for continuation of a united India — placing him at loggerheads with increasingly radicalized elements in the Muslim-majority population of the city.
On the other side of the Hindu-Muslim divide, in a notorious working-class neighborhood known as Hira Mandi, there’s Zafar (Varun Dhawan), a hunky, sword-forging blacksmith who’s usually more attentive to female conquests than revolutionary movements. He becomes progressively more outspoken in his opposition to Dev and other supporters of the status quo, especially when The Daily Times proselytizes for the opening of British-owned factories that could drive independent artisans such as himself out of business.
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Of course, since “Kalank” is the kind of movie that it is — namely, a swoony romantic epic that exploits political upheavals only for their value as impediments to lovers, star-crossed and otherwise — Zafar has far more personal reasons to despise Dev. The swaggering blacksmith actually is the product of a years-ago adulterous union between Balraj Chaudhry (Sanjay Dutt), Dev’s father, and Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), a courtesan who continues to operate what appears to be a combination brothel and singing school in an opulent edifice roughly half the size of the Taj Mahal.
Abandoned by both parents, Zafar has grown up to be a prideful rascal who cuts an erotic swath through the female population of Husnabad, fights bulls with his bare hands for sport — one of the movie’s many excuses for Dhawan to doff his shirt and reveal his well-oiled torso — and yearns for an opportunity to take revenge on the Chaudhry family.
The day of reckoning arrives when Satya (Sonakshi Sinha), Dev’s wife, is diagnosed with cancer and opts to ensure her husband is cared for after her imminent passing. Through a carefully calibrated mix of entreaty and bribery, she convinces the beautiful Roop (Alia Bhatt) to become Dev’s second wife — in the mid-1940s, the opening titles helpfully inform us, polygamy was legal in India — so that she can more or less coach her own replacement. Right from the start, however, Dev insists that, while he will pay all due respect to Roop, he has no intention of consummating their marriage. This allows Roop more than enough time to take singing lessons at Bahaar Begum’s salon, where, naturally, she captures Zafar’s fancy even before he learns who she is and how valuable she can be.
Very little of what follows is at all surprising, and quite a bit of it is borderline silly. In his eagerness to make “Kalank” more wall-to-wall glamorous than a vintage MGM musical, writer-director Varman strains to make everything from ostensible slums to sword-wielding rioters appear vividly colorful, if not downright beautiful. The requisite romantic chemistry between Roop and Zafar never really sparks, partly because Zafar’s motivations seem to change arbitrarily from scene to scene, and largely because Bhatt is so unaccountably bland as Roop. And while it’s hardly unprecedented for violent language and actions to be elements in a Bollywood musical, the furious mayhem of this particular movie’s climax feels even more incongruous than usual.
There’s really nothing in the dialogue-heavy sections of “Kalank” that is as impressive and infectiously exuberant as the over-the-top performance of a tune like “Aira Gaira,” an exuberant show-stopper that has a saucy young woman (Kriti Sanon) cavorting with Zafar and Dev (who don’t recognize each other) and a few hundred dancing extras. Indeed, whenever there is a long stretch between the big production numbers here, you can’t help wishing everyone would just stop yapping and start singing and dancing again.