When the first rushes of Kedarnath were released, it was aptly clear that the heart of the film lies in a troubled love story set in the gorgeously pristine locales of the pilgrimage site, which is likely to use the lifestyle traits and the pulse of the region to garnish its story; and the catastrophic tragedy of the 2013 floods will only be an extended climactic plot point of the film. And not surprisingly at all, the film delivers exactly that. Hence, why the focus of the film is on other things and why there is very little focus on the tragedy was a mute point for me. What was important then is whether the film effectively told the story that it intended to tell in the first place, and how strongly did it draw its inspirations, if at all, from any of the other tragedy movies like Titanic.
Reminiscent of the old school tales of romance of the 90s, writers Abhishek Kapoor and Kanika Dhillon spin their story around a firebrand, spunky, well to do Brahmin Hindu girl and an altruistic, shy and ever smiling Muslim boy who is a hardworking pitthoo by profession. She is Mandakini – the rebellious , free flowing gushing stream of water, touching every life that comes her way. He is Mansoor – the man is blessed by the divine, and has dedicated his life to facilitate the journey of travelling pilgrims at their comfortable best. It doesn’t matter if he practices another faith, he is well entrenched in the bhakti and shraddha of the larger community he feels to be an integral part of. ‘Hum to hamesha se hi yahaan hain‘ he says. They are opposites in every way, she is clearly the more dominant force of the relationship, she is the pusher, she wants to challenge the societal status quo, and in the process takes him along to earn his conviction for the tumultuous path forward. Kapoor and Dhillon create some beautiful moments of tenderness between the two, occasionally spiking it up with some cheeky humor, or a nostalgic memory of the past. The chemistry between Mansoor and Mukku is fresh and striking just like the air it breathes in. Tushar Kanti Ray‘s brilliant camera work to capture the sweeping beauty of the breathtaking landscape makes them even more gorgeous and further decks up this budding romance, clearly amongst the strongest tracks of the film. The brilliantly designed and placed Qaafirana will hence stay with you for long, with the star crossed lovers cruising along in a charming world of their own. Little do they realize that their surroundings the people residing there are quickly falling out of sync from their journey.
And that is where most of the problems of the film lies. The Pandit family where Mukku belongs to clearly seems to be part of some other film from many years back. Their tonality or the way they react to things is way too dramatic. No amounts of pressure can logically explain why any respectable family would happily plan on wedding off their younger daughter to the same man who has broken his engagement with the elder daughter. Nitish Bharadwaj is completely wasted as the father, and Sonali Sachdev breaks no ground as the eternally irritated mother. The motivations of the elder daughter, played blandly by Pooja Gor is equally skewed off, and within one scene she switches sides from taking her vengeance out on her sister to cursing her mother for not standing by her. And then there is Nishant Dahiya who plays the evil and highly dated fiance, who is far more driven by his ego than any emotions for the Pandit family. Its a poorly written character, and hence no sincere efforts of Dahiya can salvage it from wasting away. Alka Amin who plays Mansoor’s mother on the other side, and is equally melodramatic. That someone in today’s times could write a scene of her trying to set herself on fire if her son does not abide by her, is such a step backward for today’s language of cinema. This entire track of the melodramatic family feud that heavily dominates post interval till the eventual tragedy strikes significantly pulls down a lot of the good work done pre-interval, and is honestly disappointing. It does not allow some of the important issues of environmental imbalance and rampant commercialization of faith find their necessary closures, and they get reduced to token issues. It even pulls down the charm of the lead pair, and even they are made to speak cheesy lines like ‘itne me mar jayega to aage jhelega kaise‘ or dance to the tunes of completely out of character ‘Sweetheart‘!
Thankfully (for the film’s sake), the third act of the film happens and the impending tragedy strikes. Those final twenty minutes of the film or so are stunning, and in spite of some weak SFX, it is hard not to be awed by the ferocity of the wrath and the scale of devastation that unfolds on screen. Such is the force of nature, and the power of pralay that it consumes everything that comes on the way. Buildings collapse, villages get washed away, and humanity is left helpless in front of nature’s fury. Ultimately it is the shelter of faith that unites them all and provides them the only safe abode amidst the gravest tragedy. There is some excellent choreography of the scenes here, and brilliant low light camera work coupled with in sync sound design will leave the audience soaked and drenched in shock, and silenced in the gravity of the tragedy. Some much needed recovery there done well!
Given all this, there are two ways to look at Kedarnath. Yes, it could have been a much better film had the screenplay been tighter, the treatment been more contemporary, the over stuffed dramatic moments been mellowed down, and the recovered time invested in the pristine romance or the monumental tragedy. Given the way it draws its motivations from Titanic, it should have ideally struck all these boxes.
But in its current form, it could have been a much worse film as well if it didn’t have the strengths of the spectacular cinematography (Namo Namo he Shankara gives such a solid start to the film, I literally had goose bumps in one scene when a sweeping shot gradually zooms in to the temple shrine for the first time over the gorgeously flowing Mandakini), well integrated background score of Hitesh Sonik along with a couple of good songs from Amit Trivedi, but most importantly the excellent performances of the leads here.
It is difficult not to fall for the performance of Sara Ali Khan in the film. She looks far more mature than what many leading actors of today were in their debuts, is a spitting image of her spunky mother (in looks and also in her style of acting including dialog delivery), and easily slides into the multiple emotions that the role demands. She is given some well written lines and some rather cheesy lines at the same time, and she tries to make best use of the material as a pro. Other than a couple of scenes, her rough edges do not show. Sara’s is easily one of the most assured debuts of recent times and she seems all set to go a long way.
But the real star of the film, and clearly by a mile, is Sushant Singh Rajput. It is easy for Mansoor to get overshadowed in front of Mukku, but Sushant shines bright and solid in his well restrained performance full with depth and a very graceful poise. His charm is overwhelming even in his sobriety, his eyes speak volumes and his emotions shine past the inherent awkwardness of the character. He stands tall as Mansoor, you feel his earnestness as he croons to ‘Phir aapke naseeb me yeh baat ho na ho‘, and you understand his complete submission to the piousness of the valley through the happiness he spreads or the righteous stands he takes. The pre-interval confrontation scene where he stands for Kedarnath especially stands out because of the gravitas Sushant is able to induce in a deftly written scene. It is one of my favorites from the film, I wish the film had more of such moments to cherish.
When water plays such a recurring motif in a film to depict all emotions of love, pain, anger, wrath and trauma, it is somewhat frustrating that the same film eventually falls short of leaving you majorly teary eyed as the lasting emotion. Like its protagonists, you also want to get completely drenched in the bauchhar of emotions to the levels of ‘poora asmaan pee jaoon’, but Kedarnath ends up leaving you partly wet in occasionally drizzling spells of ‘mausami boondein‘!