Bri Lafond re-views the first Bollywood movie she ever saw, Shah Rukh Kahn’s Kal No Naa Ho, with some of the most thorough free-floating thoughts we’ve ever seen.
Kal Ho Naa Ho Re-View
By Bri Lafond
Ten years ago, I was in the midst of actively trying to broaden my horizons in terms of cinema. I’d dragged my friends to screenings of indie flicks and foreign films all over Southern California, but as I walked through my local mall one Saturday afternoon, I realized I had one huge gap in my filmic experience.
The thought came to me as I passed by a little boutique in the mall called Ruby’s Bangles. Ruby’s wares included the titular bangles—from ornate special occasion jewelry to more basic bangle bracelets—beautiful silk saris, henna application, and eyebrow threading. I was first drawn to the shop by the lovely pashminas, but once I was in the store, something else caught my eye. Behind the counter were rows of DVDs for various Bollywood productions.
Though I was a complete novice to Bollywood cinema, I was immediately intrigued, but I had no I idea which movie to choose. The shop owner finished up with another customer and walked over to me.
“Eyebrows?” she asked.
I must have looked confused because she quickly clarified: “You’re here to have your eyebrows threaded, right?”
In retrospect, I probably should’ve been offended that my eyebrow game was so blatantly called out by this woman, but, then again, I was the only non-Indian person in the store and she must have been used to white women wandering in for Eastern beauty treatments.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” I finally stammered. “I was wondering if you could recommend a movie for me.” I gestured to the DVDs behind the counter.
The woman raised a perfectly-sculpted eyebrow. “You want a Bollywood movie?”
She walked behind the counter to the shelves of DVDs. “Do you want something new or one of the classics?”
“Whatever you recommend. I’m open to anything.”
The woman consulted the DVDs for a moment before finally pulling a thick red and white DVD set down from the shelf. “I’ve always been partial to Shah Rukh Kahn. This is his latest film.” She handed it to me.
I left Ruby’s that day with Kal Ho Naa Ho and watched it at home by myself.
It was wild.
What I found in Kal Ho Naa Ho, and what I’ve found in the many Bollywood movies I’ve seen since that first encounter, is a wide-ranging experience that hits a gamut of emotions.KHNH, for example, starts out as a fairly standard romantic comedy with two best friends Naina (Preity Zinta) and Rohit (Saif Ali Kahn) who seem destined to end up together from their first onscreen appearance. Then Shah Rukh Kahn’s Aman appears, sparking a love triangle. Who will Naina end up with? The first half of the film is filled with light-hearted song and dance numbers—including a memorable version of “Pretty Woman” with a multicultural ensemble doing gymnastics and dancing in front of a giant American flag background—as the trio navigate friendship and attraction in turns.
But halfway through the movie, there’s a major tonal shift. Aman rejects Naina’s affections and pushes her toward Rohit. Aman plays a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac role bringing Naina and Rohit together. But why is Aman interested in getting Naina and Rohit together? What is Aman’s secret?
At Naina and Rohit’s engagement party, during the climax of the film’s high-energy song “Maahi Ve,” Aman collapses, and it is subsequently revealed that he is slowly dying of plot convenience disease. Though he has been attracted to Naina all along, he pushed her to marry Rohit so that she wouldn’t fall for him only to have her heart broken. After the collapse, it’s a slow burn to the finish with lots and lots of crying and melodrama.
As cheesy as some of the performances are and as over-the-top melodramatic as the film gets, I really enjoyed KHNH from the first time I saw it. I watched it again a half-dozen or so times in the next few years, but I haven’t seen it at least five years. In fact, in preparation for this review, I pulled out my old copy of the DVD only to find it unplayable, inspiring me to pick up the 10th anniversary Blu-Ray release of the movie.
KHNH was my introduction to Bollywood movies and it got me hooked to the genre. I’ve seen several Bollywood productions over the years, including more classic films as well as newer releases, and I’d have to say that KHNH is still one of my favorites. Even if things veer wildly between various flavors of over-the-top, the performances sell everything that happens in the film. There are a few subplots that could easily be cut from the movie without losing anything and the cheese factor is considerable in parts, but it’s still a fun watch.
[Editor’s note: Super-thorough edition!]
We open in New York! Statue of Liberty! Central Park! The Empire State Building! In a voiceover that codeswitches freely between Hindi and English, Naina (Preity Zeinta) tells us that New York is a city on the move and that there are so many Indians in New York (“they say every fourth face in New York is an Indian’s”) that it’s a kind of Indian city despite being far from India.
The city has taught Naina many things, but can it ever teach her to love?
Cut to Naina’s mother—Jennifer (Jaya Bachchan, wife of legendary Amitabh Bachchan)—on the phone begging a Mr. Shah for an extension on the loan for the family restaurant. The restaurant hasn’t been doing so well since Naina’s father died.
Naina’s grandmother Lajo (Sushma Seth) gets a grand countdown introduction from a group of teenagers playing basketball, a gospel choir, and a garage band. Lajo and two friends sing (horribly) to Goddess Saraswati. Apparently Lajo has been sending away to India for potential husbands for Naina.
Next up are Shi and Gia, Naina’s little handicapped brother and adopted sister. Lajo dotes on Shiv as the only male child and hates Gia for being adopted.
After a blowup between Jennifer and Lajo over the children, Naina storms out to go meet her best friend, Sweetu at Starbucks. Sweetu’s sister Jazz is Jennifer’s restaurant partner who’s at war with the Chinese restaurant across the street for being so successful.
Finally, we have Rohit (Saif Ali Kahn), Naina’s good friend whom she goes to business school with. Rohit fancies himself a ladies man, but we see him get shot down by one woman then choked by another woman’s husband after he tries hitting on her. He brags about being in bed all weekend with “Laila,” but when we cut to Rohit in bed calling out the name “Laila,” it turns out Laila is his golden retriever with a pension for licking Rohit’s face.
Back at home, Lajo smacks Gia across the face for accidentally tripping Shiv. This erupts into another fight and we learn that Naina’s father committed suicide. As Jennifer consoles the crying children, Gia asks when “will our angel come” to save the family? Cue several shots of Aman (Shah Rukh Kahn) on a boat in New York harbor. The family prays together for salvation when Naina suddenly remembers that a man bumped into her that morning causing her to spill her Starbucks espresso all over herself. Why does she suddenly think of him? Well, the fact that he turns out to be the family’s new next door neighbor is probably a big part of that.
The next day, a multicultural group of children and teens plays outside the Kapur’s house while Shiv and Gia watch. Aman introduces himself to the children then calls out Lajo and her friends for their terrible singing. Naina pops out to break up the fight, leading Aman to launch into what sounds like a classic Bollywood musical, but turns into a riff on “Pretty Woman.” The whole neighborhood starts dancing and singing in front of American flags, twirling ribbons, playing drums, breakdancing, performing rhythmic gymnastics… it’s quite the spectacle. The cheesiest part is a reggae-infused rap break.
Interesting, too, about the spontaneous song and dance break is that it feels very summery with the bright colors, shorts, and sleeveless tops everyone is wearing. This is interesting because the night before—during the prayer scene—it was snowing outside.
Aman invites himself to dinner at the Kapur’s, so Naina and Lajo go on the offensive: Naina invites Sweetu and Rohit while Lajo invites the flirty Jazz and calls a local marriage broker to send over a prospect for Naina. Sweetu can’t come since she has a blind date. This, of course, leads to a humorous misunderstanding when Rohit and Sweetu’s blind date, Guru, end up going to the wrong houses. Shenanigans ensue.
Since most of the dialogue codeswitches freely between Hindi and English, I noticed a lot of differences between the subtitles and the spoken dialogue. Most of the changes make things more conservative: changing “sexy” in the spoken dialogue to “hot” in the subtitles, for example.
Through some contrivance involving getting a date for Sweetu with a DJ named Frankie, Aman, Naina, and Rohit end up at a 70s-themed club where Naina does several shots then starts another spontaneously-choreographed dance number: “It’s the Time to Disco.”
There are apparently several strategically-placed fans in this ‘70s club, and they’re all placed so as to blow wind through the leads’ hair during close-up shots.
Naina and Rohit end up drunkenly confessing they like one another, but it’s Aman who ends up sleeping over at Rohit’s house. This leaves to further shenanigans when Rohit’s maid finds Aman and Rohit in bed together.
Over a montage, Naina explains that “Aman’s magic” has changed everything for the better, but there is still a looming problem: at the end of the montage, we see Aman and a woman we’ve only seen in photographs so far—Priya—sitting at a restaurant having an intense conversation. Aman says he came to New York “only for her,” but Priya says she “needs more time.” It’s implied that the two are married and that Priya may be considering divorce.
One other problem is the ongoing financial troubles of the family’s restaurant, but Aman has a solution in mind. He suggests changing the restaurant’s concept from standard family diner to Indian food. Thus a re-decorating montage begins and Aman’s mother teaches Jenny to make some traditional Indian dishes. These scenes are intercut with shots of the Chinese restaurant owners across the street looking frightened at the new competition. The change is instantly successful, of course, because goodness knows there’s nowhere to get Indian food in New York. This is also the last we hear of the restaurant in the film. So long, subplot!
It’s this last bit of “magic” that leads Naina to admit to herself that she’s falling for Aman.
Naina hints to Rohit that she’s falling for someone. Of course, Rohit thinks she means him. Cue another musical montage: Naina and Rohit dance through the city intercut with shots of various couples all over New York, including interracial and same-sex couples.
When Naina goes to confess her love to Aman, he cuts off her confession by talking about his wife, Priya. Naina, heartbroken, runs out into the rain. Aman’s mother confronts him and we learn for the first time that Aman is not, in fact, married, but is dying of a “weak heart” and that Priya is his longtime friend and doctor. What a twist! Just in time for the intermission!
We finally see a full conversation between Aman and Priya. Aman admits that he loves Naina, but that he refuses to break her heart again: Naina’s heart broke once when her father died, and he refuses to break it again with his impending death.
Rohit, heartbroken over losing Naina’s heart, ends up at the world’s tamest strip club with his father. Apparently Rohit’s maid called in his father worrying that Rohit is having an affair with Aman. This, of course, calls for fully-dressed strippers half-heartedly dancing around poles. This strikes me as particularly ridiculous considering how sensual the dancing gets during the other dance numbers in the film.
Aman tells Rohit he has developed a “six day plan” to make Naina fall in love with him. The plan basically consists of making Naina jealous, then buying her a red dress and inviting her to salsa dance class. It works? I guess? She begrudgingly agrees to go to the class with him so there can be another choreographed dance number, this one making slightly more sense than the others as it does take place at a dance class.
This leads into another montage of Naina and Rohit dating while Aman sings the title song of the movie “Kal Ho Naa Ho” which roughly translates as “Tomorrow May Never Come.”
In another standard romantic comedy trope, Naina finds out about Aman and Rohit’s “six day plan” and runs off mad. Aman gets her to stay by reading from Rohit’s secret diary, but ends up using his own words to get her to stay.
Rohit proposes to Naina in an elaborate setup involving a flock of backup singers dressed in gold, a small orchestra, and someone working a series of spotlights.
There’s a subplot involving the fact that Rohit’s family is Gujarati and Naina’s family is Punjab, leading to a series of small conflicts between the different cultural traditions. When Rohit’s parents come to meet the rest of the family, another fight between Lajo and Jennifer is set off. Lajo blames Jennifer adopting Gia for all the bad luck that’s come upon the family, including Naina’s father’s suicide. Aman bursts in to reveal what he has learned from a misplaced letter: Gia is actually the offspring of Naina’s father and his mistress. Though this whole scenario is supposed to emphasize Jennifer’s selflessness and the revelation leads to Lajo accepting both Gia and Jennifer, if you think about it, this is actually really problematic. The only reason Lajo ends up accepting Gia is because she is a blood relation, so what if Gia really had been adopted? Would that make her worthy of disdain? Well, I guess it’s best not to think too much about it: the movie certainly doesn’t.
The engagement party features the best song and dance number in the movie: “Maahi Ve.” After an embarrassingly cheesy ditty from Rohit’s parents and the Gujarati community, Aman leads the Punjabi family in an elaborate performance, one of the more traditional in the film with everyone in traditional Indian garb.
There are also a few cameos in this sequence from some big Bollywood stars. I remember watching the movie for the first thinking that it was strange that there were a few moments where Aman and Rohit are featured dancing with some woman not seen in any other part of the movie. It turns out that this inexplicable featured dancer is Kajol, a Bollywood star I’ve since seen in quite a few movies, including Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) opposite Shah Rukh Kahn. Rani Mukherji also makes an appearance during this sequence.
In the climax of the performance, Aman collapses to the floor, his weak heart finally catching up to him. He is rushed to the hospital.
When Aman’s deception is revealed, Naina flees to the place she and her father used to go together on the shore of the Hudson River. Aman shows up looking very, very rough to explain why he has set her up with Rohit. This is the film’s emotional climax with both Aman and Naina sobbing in one another’s arms.
Despite the admission, the wedding festivities proceed, but now with an undercurrent of sadness. Those conveniently placed fans also make several appearances so that Naina’s hair can blow dramatically around her face.
Aman ends up walking Naina down the aisle with Jennifer so that there can be several dramatic shots of Aman and Rohit looking meaningfully at one another. I guess the opportunity for drama overrides tradition.
Shah Rukh Kahn does this shaky thing with his head and hands when he’s conveying major emotions. I attribute this to Kahn and not Aman since I’ve seen him in other movies since and he always gets to this quivering state at the most emotional moments. And I have to give it to the guy: he is not afraid to look ugly when he cries. He sobs like a champ.
Some time after the wedding—there’s no clear indication of how long afterward—everyone stands around Aman’s hospital bed to quietly weep and say goodbye to “their angel.” Aman tells Rohit that in this cycle of life Naina belongs with Rohit, but that in the next life, Naina will be promised to him. The two men embrace as Aman slips away.
There’s a short epilogue at the end of the film showing Naina twenty years later recounting the story to Gia. I’m not sure why Naina is telling Gia the story seeing as Gia was around for the events of the film, but she was only six years old, so maybe she needed reminding.
I still think it’s criminal that no one thought to call Shah Rukh Kahn when it came time to cast Kahn Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness. I adore Benedict Cumberbatch as much as the next gal, but that was some Racebending nonsense of the highest order.