kal ho naa ho (2003)

I don’t love this movie. I think it’s likable, the plot line kinda made me cry when I was a kid, but the depiction of Indian Americans has always made me feel empty and I don’t find the ending to be as emotional as something like Veer-Zaara (2004).

On the other hand, I think this is the Shah Rukh Khan movie I grew up with. Every Indian American has one. Not a movie that they saw a lot when they were young, but a movie that follows you through your life and you experience differently every time.

The first time I watched this movie, I was 6 and my mom took me to the theater with a friend she had recently met. I don’t think there were any subtitles and I didn’t understand Hindi, so I did whatever I could to make my mother’s life hell during that 3 hour runtime. It’s a wonder she liked it — I guess when you’re a parent, you have to tolerate your child constantly interrupting a movie.

I rewatched it a year or two later with subtitles and liked it. I think I cried at the ending, but I don’t think I truly loved it more than any other film of that era. However, the fact that I took the film so differently from the ages of 6 to 7 or 8 was an interesting treatise on my own rapidly developing maturity. We rewatched films a lot, but they were films we owned. We tended to own more comedic films, or if I had owned Kal Ho Na Ho, I probably would’ve only watched the more comedic parts and then turned it off before the end. Rewatching a serious film from start to finish twice in such a short span of time was interesting.

The third time I saw Kal Ho Naa Ho was in my early teens. I think it may have been 2012 or 2013. Netflix streaming had burst onto the scene and I think we were generally disappointed with the amount of Indian content on the platform, so I decided to one day rewatch Kal Ho Naa Ho. I was suspicious that I’d still like it and found it to be a total cheesefest.

I thought that would always be my final opinion on the movie — I had matured way past the cheese of the early 00s and liked my gritty American Beauty (1999) or my witty Band Baaja Baarat (2010). I yawned my way through the end and didn’t think of it much after.

It re-emerged on Netflix a few days ago, in a totally different world and a totally different era of my life. I decided to watch it because I’d been thinking about it a bit more now that I’ve been in my parents’ home for a month. And, well, things changed.

I still don’t love it. I found the first half of the movie to be charming. I no longer had that empty feeling that I felt when I was a kid. I think the biggest change in my relation to this movie is that I’ve grown to understand why an adult like my mom in 2003 would like this movie. I can’t put this into words too well, but I’ve grown to understand the cinematic sensibilities of the era. It’s a mix of Anand (1971) (find me one person over 50 who doesn’t say this movie is amazing) and new-school cinematography and storytelling like Dil Chahta Hai (2001). It’s an objectively good film… if you understand the zeitgeist and cultural sensitivities of that era in film.

I thought it was really depressing that Naina’s only friend was someone she met at night school and she ends up pity marrying this only friend. I thought being family friends with your neighbors was also pretty depressing, too.

Now, I don’t think it’s as depressing… I kind of envy it since I don’t have any particularly physically present friends. I can’t imagine having the kind of friendship where you meet almost every weekday, by choice. That’s sweet. But, there’s other things I noticed.

They cry constantly. The mixing of a raised-if-not-born Naina and a raised-if-not-born Rohit with a straight-from-India Aman as if there’s no friction between them is pretty weird. Sweetu seems more clearly raised-if-not-born than all of them. Why does Rohit have Kantaben in his apartment in Manhattan? Where does she live? Is she a slave?

I think the most important question of this movie is why does no one even give Naina a chance to get over Aman? Everyone looks at this 23 year old and is like “Oh, well, her one true love is married. She knew him for a few months. She needs to be forced into love again.” I know the premise of the movie centers around Aman and his limited time, but dude… a rebound marriage when you find out that your one true love is married is the premise of a comedic disaster.

I love the racial comedy in this movie. I love Indian racial comedy in general. I just love it more when I, a Gujarati, am mentioned. Satish Shah and Ketki Dave are hilarious, and I think their comedic genius could only ever truly be represented by Gujarati actors. Every single scene with Rohit and his parents is without a doubt the funniest part of the movie.

I need to take a moment to talk about the perfection of the GUJJU song in general. This is iconic, I mention it constantly. I am convinced that if I am ever able to officiate a sangeet, I will get every Gujarati uncle & aunty I can to sing and dance to this song.

Other than that, Lajo calling Kuwari Kudi to get Naina a Punjabi munda is hilarious. Rohit’s parents calling him a GCGC — Good Catch of the Guju Community, I love it. His first born will be named either Jignesh or Jigisha so the pet name is going to be Jiggy… sounds exactly like every Guju I know.

I generally prefer the NRI politics of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), but I can’t deny this is the only significant NRI movie that’s in the US (movies about American terrorism aren’t NRI movies). It’s also the only significant NRI movie that has Gujaratis and inter-intra-racial marriage. Maybe it’s a little too close to home…

This movie is an interesting contrast to the films centered around the UK — and maybe a contrast between US and UK NRI culture in itself, because it feels far less conservative than any UK-centered NRI films. In DDLJ, Simran is arranged to marry a guy in India she’s never met, and the central conflict of the film can be said to revolve around her dad reconciling the fact that he’s not as traditional as his nostalgia held onto. In Namastey London (2007), Jaspreet is literally tricked into marrying an Indian guy to stabilize her “wildness” and the only way out is to beg her friend for help. Both movies involve Punjabis marrying Punjabis, although Namastey London brings up the interesting point of Indo-Pakistani friendships between NRIs.

There’s so many example of progressivism in this film. Naina’s already mixed race, or at least of a mixed religion, with her mom being Christian and her dad being Sikh. She doesn’t see a difference between different kinds of Indians, and although her Dadi wants her to marry a Punjabi boy, she’s indifferent. Her mom, already having a mixed marriage herself, doesn’t care at all.

Rohit also doesn’t seem to see a difference between Gujarati girls and other kinds of girls. One of the most interesting scenes in the film is the first time Rohit meets his dad. He’s been talking to Kantaben and she tells him that his son is in a gay relationship. He’s a little taken aback, but he eventually says “I wanted a bahu. Instead, I got a jamaai.” He’s a bit taken aback and disappointed, but he’s not as disappointed as you would expect. They chose not to include a comedic scene with his parents where they walk in on him and Aman and ask what the hell is going on. He’s just kind of chill about it, because it’s America, and whatever.

Rohit, Naina, and their parents also have a pretty accurate response to arranged marriages. Naina isn’t opposed to arranged marriage, she’s just opposed to marriage in general. Rohit isn’t opposed to arranged marriage (and he even gets arranged engaged), he’s just in love with Naina. Dadi and Rohit’s parents are just trying to set them up to speed up the process of meeting someone, and everyone is totally thrilled at Rohit and Naina’s engagement. No one really bats an eye at this interracialness. This isn’t 2 States (2014). How could it be? This is America. We’re all just Indians here. Plenty of NRIs even go as far as “We’re all just South Asians here.”

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that I think Rohit is the most interesting character in the film. He’s rich, moderately good looking, silly, and a little dumb. He’s dated both non-Indian and Indian girls casually. I don’t think we ever really get to hear his politics on his own marriage. Would he ever marry a non-Indian girl? We know he doesn’t differentiate between Indians, and even dated a divorcee. But, would he have married her? I want to be in Rohit’s weirdly progressive rich Gujarati family. Who is he?

The racial differences pale in comparison to the actual family issues in this movie, including class differences. I find that to be pretty accurate.

I think in the end, the almost forced marriage Naina has is just super unappealing to me. She gets bullied into this marriage by her dying love, and Rohit knows he’ll never live up to the memory of what Naina and Aman could’ve been. In the future, they seem to have gotten past it, but I don’t believe it.

The love story is the weakest quotient in this movie. The true ship is Aman and Rohit. But, the family dynamics are interesting enough and the comedy is super memorable.

I don’t have any grand ending here. I can’t believe Kareena Kapoor turned down this role. Would she be married to Saif Ali Khan still if she took this role? Would Taimur Ali Khan, international treasure, ever be born if Preity Zinta wasn’t Naina? I guess we’ll never know.