When off-screen couples play leads opposite each other, the curiosity factor can be quite high. Dharmendra and Hema Malini took their but-he’s-already-married off-screen romance to huge box-office successes in the 1970s. Fast forward to 2004. Vivek Oberoi is the relative newcomer who splashed far and wide with both Company and Dum. His off-screen paramour Aishwarya Rai, the reigning queen of Hindi filmdom, was recently placed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Together on screen for the first time, Rai and Oberoi—okay, with a little help from Bachchan—turn a ho-hum potboiler into a scintillating romance dripping with old-world charm.
As a precursor to finalizing an arranged Indian marriage, the bride-to-be is often sent to briefly live in the household of her potential in-laws. Under the watchful eye of the purported future in-laws (to ward off any hanky panky, no doubt), the would-be spouses advertently or inadvertently (they were not always informed of the romantic roulette their parents were tossing dice for!) batted eyelashes at each other and often consented to the marriage more readily when the question was eventually popped.
Which brings us to KHGN, which has Diya Malhotra (Rai), on the pretense of preparing for a grad school exam, being sent to live with a family that just happens to have an eligible scion Arjun Khanna (Oberoi). To foil the master game plan, Diya is suddenly faced with the prospect of, egad, rejection by Arjun. Unable to confront rejection, Diya moves on to lend a hand at a remote orphanage run by Chauhan (Bachchan), an older, tightlipped bachelor.
There are two overlapping stories—or two stories that appear to share the same script. On the one hand there is the intense, and at times intensely bittersweet, romance involving Arjun and Diya and another mystery man in Diya’s life (this particular cameo is fun to watch) and on the other there is Chauhan’s struggle to make the orphanage a comfortable existence for its young residents. Bachchan hasn’t looked so good surrounded by kids since his 1978 hit Mr. Natwarlal. It’s the hilariously funny lighter side of life in the orphanage that gives KHGN some extra bounce.
Oberoi, still a little camera shy (and who wouldn’t be, in front of two world-famous co-stars?), decently plays the slightly absentminded eligible bachelor. His chemistry with Rai is steamy and fresh. Rai, all coy and smooth, has perhaps not looked this ravishing since Taal and Devdas. With so much star power at his disposal, director Karnik treads cautiously by trimming the usually strong presence of both Puri and Agnihotri (as Arjun’s parents).
Music trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy provides a tight musical framework for both Oberoi and Rai to revel in. The up-tempo score rhymes with a youth-oriented script. Richly detailed, lushly captured, and convincingly paced—except for the contrived ending—KHGN makes watching movies fun all over again.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.