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In a Karan Johar film (he produced) starring Shahrukh Khan, there are many givens— seamless production contours, an abundance of upscale gloss, exotic settings. Other givens—unusual story lines, knockout performances and music—on the other hand, can make or break a film. For an entry that desperately wants to be a New World comedy borne out of an Old World tragedy, Kal Ho Na Ho narrowly misses bull’s eye.
Aman (Shahrukh Khan) is the quintessential Man With No Past. He descends on a Manhattan desi neighborhood and, as if endowed with divine foresight, sets about righting several wrongs. Aman must somehow rescue the motherly owner (Jaya Bachchan) of a midtown eatery from shutting down and rid the hood of a couple of bullies. While doing so, he must also perform romantic CPR on a love triangle involving the restaurant owner’s daughter Naina (Zinta), her Gujarati New Yorker classmate Rohit (Saif Ali Khan), and himself.
So what’s not to like? The storyline, for starters, gets uncomfortably close to Rajesh Khanna hits Safar and Anand. The soundtrack, secondly, faults by reaching for a cute-but-no-cigars bhangra version of Roy Orbison’s rock classic Pretty Woman. Finally, it’s the man-attraction Shahrukh Khan, whose angelic persona is defined by the same facial expressions and much the same motivations as in his first hit Deewana a decade ago.
What does make Kal Ho Na Ho noteworthy are Johar and Khan (intentionally?) championing a cause seldom witnessed in big-budget Hindi films. To convince Naina that deep inside she really loves Rohit, and vice versa, Aman opts for temporary cohabitation in Rohit’s Manhattan loft in a right-timing comic setup that firmly convinces passersby that Aman and Rohit are bisexual. For that reason alone, Kal Ho Na Ho is a must-see. Otherwise, it finishes several rungs below Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Johar-SRK’s best joint work to date.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.