Happy Varun Dhawan Day! Final Review, Most Recent Film, KALANK!!!

Well, that was fun!!!! If it had released 20 years ago, it would be a solid hit and forgotten in a month, and then it would pop-up on TV occasionally and people would say “oh yeah, that movie!” I don’t know how it will do in today’s world at the box office, but at least critically I want to treat it as the nice unambitious pleasant fairy tale it aspires to be, not as the Great Noble Brilliant Movie that it wasn’t even trying to be. I suspect other reviewers might ding it for not being the Great Noble Brilliant Movie they thing it should be without realizing it never wanted to be that.

This really was a multi-starrer!!!! Madhuri and Sanjay were full fledged roles, not just “apperances”, plus Aditya and Sonakshi got really juicy parts, as big as Alia’s and Varun’s. And on top of that there were Kunal Khemu and Kiara Advani with decent parts as well. It’s fun, seeing all these people emoting in big costumes and sharing screenspace and all that.

It’s still not the perfect cast. Karan has been talking about how he wrote this for Rani and Kajol and Shahrukh. And at least with Kajol and Shahrukh, I really miss them. Varun’s role needs that charming but with a depth of anger and danger to him that Varun just doesn’t have, but Shahrukh perfected in his early years of acting.

Varun is a closer fit than Alia though. Alia needs to be that sparkling instantly charming natural actress that Kajol was. Or Madhuri, or Sridevi, or Rekha, or a whole range of actresses. Alia can’t play this role, and I don’t think Rani could either, but Sara Ali Khan could. I saw this with my friend and she put her finger on it, the character has to come across as more emotional than intelligent in order for the film to work, for her decisions to be sympathetic. And Alia can’t play stupid. That kind of “thinking with the heart not the head” doesn’t work for her.

On the other hand, Sonakshi and Aditya are really really good! I think they benefited from their characters not being the initial focus of the concept. There was more space for them to create their own performances and their own interpretations. Their story is lovely, and turns in a way that was completely unexpected.

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They were so good in this, it made me want them to be dating in real life.

Sanjay and Madhuri were also a bit disappointing. Both of them seemed fine, nothing really wrong with them. And then they have their one scene together and it is like they suddenly woke up from sleepwalking. All the emotions, all the chemistry, all the electricity, it is like it is 1994 again and they are both at the top of their game.

The songs were far less disappointing within the film than in the trailers. The Ram-Leela song is just spectacular to watch, Madhuri’s dance comes off better, and Alia has an introduction song which is fine. The visuals in general were far better than I expected. A lot of green screen, yes, but also a lot of imagination. Madhuri’s area in particular is spectacular. And completely impractical, she not only has a ceiling to floor chandelier, and a fountain that is constantly running, and no furniture, she also has a dozen dancers that just show up to dance, all the time, in matching costumes.

If you are someone who looks for realism and logic in your films, or perfect special effects, this is not for you. But if you are someone who is nostalgic for the rough and tumble days of the 90s when it was more about the emotions and the drama than being “realistic”, this is a movie you should watch.

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The relationship angst and the political angst are each so strong that they could kind of be their own movies. So instead of confusing myself by mixing them up in the description, I am going to separate them into their own summaries.

Relationship drama:

Sonakshi is dying. Before she dies, she wants to find a good second wife for her husband. Alia is an educated girl from a poor family. Sonakshi offers to forgive her debts and pay for her sisters’ weddings if she will come live in their house while Sonakshi waits to die and get to know Aditya. Alia is the one who insists on marriage, even before Sonakshi’s death, because she wants to have a safe position in the household. Meanwhile, Varun is a blacksmith who meets Alia when she comes to the bad neighborhood to take singing lessons from Madhuri. Alia is also working at Aditya’s newspaper to get to know him better, and she decides she wants to write an article on the poor neighborhood. Varun offers to be her guide and they slowly fall in love. Until Madhuri confronts Varun and asks him to stop what he is doing, because Varun is Madhuri and Sanjay’s illegitimate son and Aditya’s illegitimate brother. Varun reveals that he is burning for revenge, he has been trying to seduce Alia in order to destroy his father’s family because Sanjay rejected him, and he won’t listen to Madhuri because she rejected him too (she regrets it now, but it’s too late). But Alia slowly wears him down. When she comes to him and offers her love, he turns her away because he is no good for her, he has learned to love her enough to care for her security. Meanwhile, Sonakshi has died and Aditya is sunk into depression because she was his one true love. He goes out drinking and coincidentally meets Varun. Varun and Aditya bond, and the truth is revealed when Alia comes to take Aditya home. Sanjay also learns the truth and goes to Madhuri to ask her to stop Varun from ruining all their lives. Varun finds them together, Sanjay insults him, and then changes course and begs him to do the right thing and leave Alia alone. Varun storms out, but Madhuri is convinced. She goes to see Alia and tells her that Varun was just using her. Alia, heartbroken, goes to Aditya and asks to have sex. The next day she admits to Aditya that she was in love with someone else after marriage but now she wants to try to make this work. And then the political stuff comes to boil.

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Political/historical stuff

Along with seducing Alia, Varun has been trying to ruin Sanjay and Aditya politically. He has cleverly been controlling, without seeming to care about it, the political agenda of his good friend Kunal Khemu. They are both blacksmiths and the blacksmiths are angry about a new steel factory coming to town which Aditya’s newspaper is supporting. Their religion is mixed up in this as the wealthy class of the city, the ones who would benefit from the new factory, are Hindu and the working class tends to be Muslim. Aditya is focused on the future of India and thinks that a new modern factory will help them succeed independently from Britain. The blacksmiths are concerned that they will lose their livelihoods and their community. Both sides are right, in their own way. And Aditya’s focus on an independent united India gets goes against the wish for a strong (socialist) Pakistan where the Muslim workers will be respected. But Kunal starts to question Varun’s loyalty when he sees him dancing with Aditya (not knowing that Kunal doesn’t know this is the newspaper editor who has been printing the articles against their union). He orders goons to beat him up, hoping Varun will think it was Aditya who did it. And then he challenges Varun to come with him and attack Alia and their mansion. Varun refuses and begs him to let this go, admits it was all personal for him but now he has let go of his hatred for Sanjay and Aditya. Kunal is furious, he cares about all of these things and hates Varun for letting it go. He rushes out, and Varun rushes to Alia’s house and admits his love and then drags her out ahead of the mob. They arrive at Aditya’s newspaper office just in time to save him from a mob lead by Kunal. The three of them, united, fight their way to Madhuri’s house for safety, but she turns them away, says that they will not be safe even here because the mob is searching houses. And she will not leave with them, because she has to stay and protect her Hindu sex workers. They go to the train station instead and Varun offers to hold off the mob so Alia and Aditya can escape because they are “his people” and will not hurt him. Alia and Aditya get on the train, Varun runs after, but at the last minute Kunal stabs him and he dies looking at Alia. 10 years later, Alia and Aditya are living in Amritsar and running another newspaper and tell their story to a reporter. They are both still grieving their lost loves, but tentatively united. The last line, the message of the movie, is Alia challenging the audience to remember the love, not the hate.

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The historical stuff isn’t terrible, but the relationship stuff is more original. I really like the relationship twist of Alia forcing her own self into this marriage, only to end up with a nice husband who doesn’t love her and falling in love herself with someone else. It would be like if Rani guilted Kajol into marrying Shahrukh in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, only for Kajol to end up falling in love with Salman after the wedding. I could see a modern rom-com with a similar spunky small town girl who is pressured into meeting with a married man in return for money at the behest of his dying wife, and she instead insists on a marriage, only to fall in love with someone after the marriage. Although I would also need a little more clarity even in my remake on why Alia was so angry about this marriage when she is the one who made it happen. Sonakshi wasn’t even threatening their family, just offering more money. And would it really have been that awful for Alia to stay at their house for a while and get to know Aditya before deciding to marry him? That was just a script failure. Sonakshi has to be saintly but Alia is acting like she is pressured, maybe they needed a third character like Sanjay to come in and be the threatening person without Sonakshi knowing about it?

On the historical side, I like the narrow secular line Karan follows with this plot. One small thing, there is almost no Muslim on Hindu violence shown. Varun is beaten up, and Aditya’s managing editor who is also Muslim is brutally killed. And then Varun is killed as well. There are so many films that delight in orgies of images of ravaging Muslim hordes carrying off Hindu woman, this movie avoids those images. Plus, I love the way it shows the class/money aspect to communalism. We even see Varun be angry with a wealthy Hindu merchant who refuses to buy swords from him because he is Muslim, a little microcasm of why the lower class struggling Muslim community resents the entrenched wealthy Hindu class.

We also see the Hindus and Muslims of the neighborhood celebrate both Diwali and Eid together.

But yes, all of it could be better. It’s perfectly fine and very entertaining and all of that. But there were a few sections in the second half that just dragged, really needed to tighten it up there. The performances were a little hit and miss, Sonakshi was lovely and heartbreaking, but Alia went between being confident and intelligent and emotional and impulsive and just came off as “spoiled” some of the time. Madhuri didn’t have that spark I was looking for from her role. Sanjay was kind of dull too.

The biggest problem is, the Alia and Aditya relationship is too strong. There were delightful little moments showing Alia and Aditya slowing coming together. He is impressed by her intelligence at the office, she appreciates his kindness and honesty. With the way Alia comes off onscreen, her burning intelligence feels like a better fit with Aditya’s calm than with Varun’s sexy “let me take my shirt off constantly” kind of vibe. Sonakshi was right, it appears, to bring Alia into the household. Alia and Aditya make love towards the end of the film, and it is a real love scene, softly lit and gentle feeling. There is a real tension between whether Alia will choose her kind faultless husband, or the troubled dangerous sexy Varun. And then Varun dies and we jump forward 10 years to find Alia and Aditya living separate lives, no children, no light in their house (literally no light, all dark versus their nice white house in Lahore). It would have made more sense to see them with a kind of calm loving understanding, and perhaps a child named for Varun. The choice to show both of them still sunk in depression retroactively cheapens the sacrifices of both Sonakshi and Varun for their happiness, plus doesn’t even make sense based on the sweet slowly building relationship we saw between them.

Oh, and it is also a terrible message for young people. Teenage Girls of India! When Madhuri says “Is ‘nice’ enough to make you happy for the rest of your life?” the answer is “Yes! Yes nice is enough!” Your only chance for happiness is not, in fact, the sexy bad boy who constantly insults you and takes you to dangerous places. It might be the guy who wears glasses to read books in bed and has only had sex with one woman before you and leaves his shirt on until you ask him to take it off, at which point he reveals a shockingly good natural torso. What I am saying, Teenage Girls of India, is that maybe it is okay to get over the dangerous bad boy and move on and have sex again with your hot husband. At least at some point in the 10 years you have been living together.

Actually, all of the love stories are twisted and terrible! Madhuri explains that she had Varun thinking it would keep Sanjay with her, but then Sanjay was ashamed of his love child so she dumped Varun in the street so Sanjay would stick around. That didn’t work either, so she went looking for Varun claiming that she loved him to which he said (justifiably, I think), “suck it Mom, you abandoned a small child in the streets in order to please your married boyfriend, I owe you nothing”. Sanjay explains that he resented being forced to marry without love, so he went looking for love with Madhuri, but was ashamed of her and left her, and yet still resented his wife for not being her. Sonakshi and Aditya are sweet and perfect, got married at 18 and loved only each other. But Sonakshi is forcing him into a new relationship against his choice, and he is falling in love at least a little bit with Alia before Sonakshi is dead which hurts Sonakshi even though she brought it on herself.

I like that the film is clear on what marriage does and doesn’t mean, there is no real judgement on Alia and Varun for falling in love just because she married a stranger. But I don’t like that the only form of love which seems to be real according to this film is mad passionate love at first sight. Aditya and Alia can never really grow to love each other, Madhuri could never get over Sanjay, and on and on. And instead of blaming them for being so selfish in their own emotions, the film honors them as noble and pure and better than the unfeeling folks who haven’t experienced this kind of love.

There’s also no judgement on Kiara or Madhuri for being courtesans. Kiara is a sympathetic character, worries about Varun and Alia’s love story. And at the end, it is for the Hindu courtesans like Kiara that Madhuri stays in Lahore, choosing to protect them over her son. That’s a nice message! Sex workers are people with value.

But, on the other hand, there is that ending. The whole message of the film is to honor all these love stories, Sanjay and Madhuri, Alia and Varun, Sonakshi and Aditya, to remember those good beautiful moments and forget the ugliness and hatred that came after. I can get behind that, that’s a message that has value. Even if it is wrapped up in a smaller message of First Love=True Love=Only Love.

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