While there have been a few Hindi-language films I have liked the past year, on the whole I was about to write off 2003 as a fairly lackluster year in the world of Bollywood. But that all changed a few short days before the beginning of 2004 when I saw first-time director Nikhil Advani’s beautiful love story “Kal Ho Naa Ho” (“Tomorrow May Never Come”)–which not only helped redeem the year in Bollywood in my hopelessly tear-drenched eyes, but the year in cinema as a whole.
This is not to suggest that the film is particularly innovative or groundbreaking. Advani and Karan Johar’s screenplay begins by hitting beats familiar not only to Bollywood but movies the world over; the film’s New York City setting (it was shot entirely on location) drives that point home. Naina (Preity Zinta) is the sensible, no-nonsense center of her barely-together family–a disabled younger brother, an adopted youngest sister, and a constantly bickering Catholic mother (Jaya Bachchan) and Punjabi paternal grandmother (Sushma Seth)–which has been in disarray since her father’s passing. Enter Naina’s new neighbor Aman (Shahrukh Khan), whose ever-helpful attitude and infectious joie de vivre quickly endears himself to everyone he meets, including Naina’s best friend Rohit (Saif Ali Khan). Of course, Naina needs more convincing than most; after all, not even the chipper Rohit has much success in bringing a smile to her sullen face. It’s no spoiler to say that Aman eventually succeeds in winning Naina over and giving her a positive outlook on life; it’s even less of one, perhaps, to reveal that Rohit develops more-than-friendly feelings for Naina himself.
There are further complications beyond that inevitable triangle, ones (which I will not divulge here) that would have come off as too much the stuff of maudlin soap opera had Advani and Johar not taken exquisite care in developing the characters and their relationships. The three characters are all fully drawn with distinctive personalities, and each enjoys a unique link with the two others. While Naina and Rohit’s bond is warm and deep, she and Aman have a more impetuous passion; the two guys are brotherly buddies. Factor in the highly natural chemistry between the Khans (no relation) and Zinta, and as such, the deck isn’t predictably stacked in favor of one of Naina’s suitors. Unlike the case of many screen triangles, either pairing is an equally viable one, which contributes to the film’s mounting emotional impact as it heads to a conclusion–one comes to feel as if one truly knows these people, and one doesn’t want to see anyone hurt.
Lest anyone get the wrong impression, however, this is a classic masala film experience through and through. It’s not nearly the overly serious watch the plot description would suggest; all the buoyant music and broad comedy that one would expect from a Bollywood film is here in full force. However, this is masala in the best sense, as Advani is able to blend together the ingredients into a smooth consistency. It certainly helps that actors such as the two Khans are equally adept at cutting it up as they are at handling drama; even better is that Johar’s script never gets too carried away with the silliness. Some double entendre/misunderstanding gags somewhat recall the “Three’s Company” line of humor, but if you ask me that’s definitely not a bad thing, as it’s genuinely funny. But what makes the juggling of tones work is that the mix of light and heavy is established from the outset; while the post-intermission half is definitely more serious and ultimately becomes rather intensely emotional, the film as a whole is quite, for lack of a better term, fun–reflecting the charming playfulness of all three central relationships. Advani obviously has fun himself, at times playing around with film devices in a way that is in line with the mood; for example, in one particularly lighthearted stretch, “day one,” “day two,” etc. labels that are usually reserved for on-screen text cards are instead verbally delivered by passing extras who directly address the camera.
For all the fun and laughs to be had over the startlingly easy-going three-hour-plus run time, as I noted from the outset, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” is, above all, a beautiful love story. While the music does provide the foundation for expectedly extravagant production numbers–from a rousingly rhythmic Hindi cover of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to a self-explanatory dance floor ditty called “It’s Time to Disco” (yes, it sounds cheesy, but it works in context)–the most memorable tune is Aman’s gorgeously bittersweet title number, in which a rueful look at what-might-have-beens makes way for a cautious, but contented, optimism. The film is also beautiful in the most literal sense, as its Tinseltown-level of production polish marks a giant technical leap for Bollywood; Advani and cinematographer Anil Mehta make expert use of the Big Apple locations, from a beguiling, besotted prance along the sidewalks of Manhattan to a heart-wrenching confrontation set against the Brooklyn Bridge.
But most beautiful of all is its look at love: not only in the romantic sense, but love between friends, love within a family, and its power to make one selflessly sacrifice and forgive. “Kal Ho Naa Ho” may be shameless in its heart-on-sleeve sentimentality, but I am not ashamed to admit that it left me crying along with the rest of the audience, for its sincerity and craft earns every last tear.