Infidelity and divorce are ok, if it’s all for love (not merely sex).
Contrast that with the “Family is family” mantra that Dev (Shahrukh Khan) and Maya (Rani
Mukherjee Mukherji), the emotionally unfaithful spouses, repeat half-heartedly to each other, as if aware that they’re mouthing a bad knock-off of a Karan Johar film tagline.
I’ve wondered a lot in the past 10 years how middle class India would handle the MTV-ization of their increasingly consumerist, globalized segment of society, particularly vis-a-vis the long-held assurance that high divorce rates are a Western problem only. In Karan Johar’s long-awaited Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, the puckish filmmaker comes down hard on the side of love over the rigid expectations of traditional Indian society.
And who better to help him get that message across than Amitabh Bachchan?
The man who is the Voice of God in Indian film (and also in a hellva lot of advertising), is the widowed father of Rishi Talwar (Abhishek Bachchan). After catching daughter-in-law Maya in an illicit clinch with Dev, and ending up in hospital shortly afterward, he intones to her alone: “Leave my son. You don’t love him. By staying with him, you are denying him someone else’s love and yourself true love. These unfulfilled relationships don’t make anyone happy.”
Of course, for Bachchan Sr. to say this, Johar had to make him a Hugh Hefner-lite figure, livin’ large in The Big Apple, far, far away from the prying stares and meddling relatives that help keep everyone in line back in Bharat Mata. Such a directive would never had come forth from the mouth of Yashovardhan Raichand, the stern patriarch AB played in K3G.
The story, for anyone who hasn’t read the million + 1 articles that have already summarized the plot, centers around two couples: Dev (Khan) and Rhea (Preity Zinta), and Rishi and Maya.
Khan and Zinta, in the very early part of the film seem to be ok, but not without problems. He’s an aspiring soccer player, on his way to the A league and a big contract, and she’s an ambitious fashion magazine editor, who reports to the very deep-voiced Arjun Rampal. (Forget about him being a former model, he’s still handosme, but my Gawd, with that voice, I wish he did books-on-tape, or at least better dialogue in his starring roles.) Dev and Rhea have a young son, Arjun, about whom the young girl next to me at the cinema declared “he looks like Chicken Little”, likely because of the big round specs.
The crack that is starting to appear in their relationship is Rhea’s excessive attention to her career. The day of Dev’s big match, and her big job interview at DIVA magazine, she’s completely forgotten about what her husband’s up to, even though the match is playing on a flat screen TV at the magazine. (Why is that anyway? Because the boss is a guy? I doubt Anna Wintour had the World Cup matches on over at Vogue this summer.) In all fairness though, Rhea catches Dev out when she wishes him “Happy Anniversary” and we realize that he’s forgotten that important fact.
Before the opening credits even finish scrolling, we see Maya in bejewelled, red sari finery, looking uncertain about the impending wedding to Rishi, the affluent son of Samarjit – Sexy Sam – Singh Talwar. Sam is a bon vivant, and when we first catch a glimpse of him, he’s not quite ready to depart for the wedding, still wearing the fur-lined handcuffs from a night with a gorgeous twenty-something (Angrezi, of course) hooker, to the mild dismay of Rishi, who refers to him as “Dude”, not “Dad”.
In the Manhattan ImaginAsian cinema where I saw this movie yesterday (the 300-seat theater was sold-out), there was an audible gasp when everyone saw the Godly son of the poet Harivanshrai looking very comfortable as a man who enjoys a little cuddly S & M with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. To his credit, AB has such a refined air about him, that his obvious enjoyment of all things pleasurable in life, especially young chippies, does not come off as the least bit sleazy. And if anyone had any objections to the dignified Big B behaving like this, he is redeemed a few scenes later when he tells a crowd at a party he’s hosting (during the Rock and Roll Soniye number) how much he misses his late wife and how he regrets not having seized more moments when she was alive to tell her how he felt.
The other couple, Rishi and Maya, do marry, in spite of her doubts, and when the opening credits have finished, are now married five years, and living an uncomfortable existence. They both look the picture of beauty and wealth and success, but Maya is unreceptive to the adoring Rishi’s many, many advances, and hiding behind the fact that she is unable to bear children, she takes on a quasi-mother role, treating her husband like a hyperactive, misbehaved son.
As fate, or the scriptwriter Shibani Bhathija would have it, Dev and Maya, who met and conversed briefly the day of her wedding, meet again in overdone slapstick circumstances (of which there are too many), and after a few more meetings, where they initially try to help each other repair their failing marriages, they fall in love, thereby setting up several big will-they-or-won’t-they questions that carry us through to the last scene of the film.
During that three-hour-and-twenty-minute journey, while we collectively ponder how unbreakable marriage vows really are, we are treated to some breathtakingly adoring shots of New York City, luxurious, gorgeous sets (I’d love to know what the budget for the flowers alone was), and wardrobes fashionable and Vestern enough to satisfy every upwardly mobile, urban Indian who spends hours at the mall getting moist over the recent arrivals at Armani Exchange, as well as the more traditional trappings for every NRI or firangi who gets a thrill at the sight of expensive, perfectly accessorized saris. Overall, it’s all good, from the pastel Burberry scarves to the autumnal amber Crate and Barrel hurricane lamps, though in one scene SRK wears an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt and all I could think of was a line from an old episode of a sitcom where interior designer Grace says to her handsome-but-insecure, gay friend Will: “Your youth called and it wants its t-shirt back.”
The one big problem I had with the story is the relationship between Dev and Maya. Remember how back in school when you did algebra problems on a test, you couldn’t just state the answer as being ” – 3 “, but rather you had to show your work, leaving the detailed explanation of how you arrived at that point? KJo has not done that here.
I get that they are two hurt souls. Dev has turned into a sour, bad-tempered man with a limp after an accident cuts short his soccer career aspirations, and Maya’s dying a little bit every day because she went ahead with a wedding that she should have fled from, but, but, but, there was no proof of what it is that made one so lovable to the other. There wasn’t any thunderbolt of love-at-first-sight attraction, and the let’s-fix-our-marriages montage was not enough to convince me that this was such an earth-shattering love that developed over time.
If you want to play the Moral Police and consider Dev and Maya’s situation, you could say “O.k., she was never in love with Rishi when she married him, and unlike arranged marriages where the love is supposed to come afterward, it hasn’t here. Then she falls deeply in love for someone who is her real “soulmate”. Can she be forgiven if she walks away from her marriage? Maybe. Maybe AB is right, better to free AB 2.0 to find someone who’ll appreciate him and stop making the guy’s life a mess.”
But what about Dev? To go by what we see on screen, it seems that he did love, and was in love with, Rhea before his accident, though the encroaching professional ambition of hers has worn the feelings of love down. As the Moral Police, do you say “So, he’s gotten so mad at Rhea for her professional success and his own perceived failure that he’s cauterized his own love for her. Is he entitled to a ‘Get out of jail free’ card and to just walk away because someone else makes him happy? And what about their son? Should he be allowed to just dispose of Rhea and Arjun in the pursuit of his own individual happiness?” If we, in the Moral Police role, answer “Yes” to that and let Dev limp away into the sunset with Maya, then one of us may well ask about that slippery slope “Where do you draw the line? Does anyone who’s feeling a little bored or unhappy have the right to pack it all up and go to IndianDating.com to find something better?”
Past experience would cloud any objective answers to those questions, so I won’t weigh in, but I do think that now Karan Johar has floated this story onscreen across India (and the UK and US), and soon to a DVD player near you, he’s further opened up a Pandora’s box of questions and issues that no developed country has found the answers to yet, nor likely will for the forseeable future.
On the whole, the performances are unbalanced. Shahrukh Khan, who is in such a crucial, central role in this film, is as over-the-top as I first saw in Pardes nine years ago, which is such a pity, because this part called for far more nuance, and less large open-arms-in-a-football-field gesturing. If only he was more of his “real” self when he played this part, he would have been great. Just watch him in any TV interview, where he is low-key and sober, and the gestures are minimal.
Rini Minkiji, or however she’s spelling her name these days, is beautiful to behold and able to cry at the drop of a hat, and not the “ugly cry” that Oprah talks about, but rather the don’t-my-feline-topaz-eyes-look-even-more-gorgeous-with-a-single-tear-rolling-down-my-cheek kind of cry, but she seemed to me often as bewildered by her love for Dev as she did by why she married Rishi in the first place. Proof of this to me was a scene after the Interval where she comes home from work one day and sees Rishi, and I honestly thought the plot was going to go off in a different direction. Like SRK, she is capable of more.
Preity Zinty plays Rhea well enough (for a character who’s sold to us as a careerist harpy in the beginning), though for every article that’s been touting Preity’s reduced bubbliness, I still find her too over-caffeinated, except now instead of being bubbly about love, she’s screeching and gesticulating to her staff at DIVA.
It’s the Bachchan men who give the two stellar performances. AB v1.0 has a considerably less taxing role, but even so, he’s able to go from over-sexed philanderer to morose widow to loving father seamlessly, and making all believable. As Rishi, AB 2.0 has done the best onscreen work seen so far. While he hasn’t totally filled his father’s shoes yet, he’s got the right one on and is easing effortlessly into the left one. If he doesn’t implode as the victim of his own good looks, lineage, wealth and fame, and manages to work at this level over the next few decades, we will be fortunate indeed.
His scenes as the happy-go-lucky fella who’s got the world on a string are what we’ve come to expect from the guy who’s been Rakesh Trivedi and Roy Kapoor recently, but it’s in the scenes where he plays the madly in love, yet sexually and emotionally rejected, husband that he seals the deal, with a subtle balance between seething anger and soul-burning anguish. And that’s without even taking into consideration his hospital scenes with his father and Rani.
The Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy music underwhelmed me when I first heard it earlier this summer. I was disappointed that while it had one passably good dance number (Where’s the Party Tonight), it didn’t have the sort of tear-inducing, heart-string-pulling slow number that KJo’s previous films have had.
That said, it’s all grown on me somewhat and I even enjoyed the over-sweet Tumhi Dekho Naa picturization. Come on, what girl, who’s a New Yorker and who likes color-coordinated ensembles, could resist it?
Rock and Roll Soniye is KANK’s Shava Shava (complete with a special guest shimmying in front of a piano) and it’s what we’d expect it to be. I’m amazed that Amitabh Bachchan, who in most dance numbers favours a few stock hand gestures over too much fancy footwork, manages to look suave and elegant in this number and not at all out of place, in spite of being in his 60s. We should all be so graceful at his age.
Where’s the Party Tonight (also with a special guest, though to judge from the excessive right eye squinting, was being hit just a wee bit too much by an off-screen fan) is another big production number typical of Karan Johar and Farah Khan, though in addition to Abhi looking very yummy in a bright red, crushed velvet blazer, this one has the added detail of interlacing an important plot development while everyone’s hoofing it up.
Lest I sound like I’m kvetching too much, allow me to mention just some small, small things that bugged me, then I’ll move on to what I loved.
Why did all of Sexy Sam’s babes have to be pros? There are tons of beautiful goris in Manhattan who would have happily accompanied him home for free. Was this Karan’s way of saving the image of firangis in the eyes of lesser-traveled Indian audiences, so that they don’t think all white women are sluts, by convincing them that the only ones who’d take old Sam to bed are working women?
And speaking of white women, why did the hospital nurse have to be such a nutcase? First of all, if he wanted to be a little more authentic, she should have been Filipina or Caribbean. Secondly, it’s a tired old chesnut that all Hindi movies (save Rang De Basanti) make white folks out to be unnattractive spastics, and I would have expected more from a sophisticate like KJo. But then again, as the NY Times reviewer mused this morning, maybe it’s because Karan’s trying to even the score for all the bad portrayals of onscreen Indians over the years.
I also wasn’t wild about all the fur in many of the costumes, and shame on the make-up team for allowing a five-year-old with a Magic Marker do Kirron Kher’s eyebrows, but these are picayune things. And lastly, I thought that the treatment of the impact of Dev’s frequent angry outbursts and the parents’ marriage problems on little Arjun were given short shrift, probably because it’s a hard sell to say that maybe all infidelity isn’t inherently evil, while also implying it’s a victimless offense.
All that said, there was much that I loved. In a large part the appeal of Hindi movies for me is the fantastic musical spectacle and escape that they often provide, and no one does that better than Karan Johar right now.
It was magical to watch this story unfold in places that I know well, from the meatpacking district, to the Columbia University grounds (leave it to an ambitious Indian to shoot on the only Ivy League campus in Manhattan), to the shores of Brooklyn, Jersey City and Liberty Island, all looking lovingly toward the Manhattan skyline.
I was aghast at the beauty of some of the settings, the rich reds and golds of the flowers in the wedding and party scenes, the green lawns and the burnt marigold shades of the autumn leaves, and don’t get me started on the night Maya comes home to the apartment that Rishi has covered in candles and flowers. I’ll easily bet good money that 99%of the women in the audience yesterday afternoon wished someone would do that for her at least once. (I’m allowing for the possibility that the remaining 1% may actually have a love who has done something like that for her already. If she does, I’d like to know if there’s also a similarly inclined, eligible brother-in-law in the hubby’s family.)
What kicks it up for me a notch higher is when a Bollywood movie is also able to touch on some difficult or meaningful aspect of contemporary life and do that well, and I think Karan Johar deserves praise for what he has attempted here. For what does save this film, in spite of its flaws (too crammed, too long and unevenly acted), is the fact that it’s a darker shade of Karan Johar’s depiction of Indian romantic life thus far.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham stretched what could be acceptable to a traditional Indian family (unsuitable choice of spouse and defiance of parental authority), Kal Ho Naa Ho still had the self-sacrificing for love common in so many Hindi movie love triangles, but it also had sly, accepting references to alternative lifetsyles (a gay couple in the Kuch To Hua Hai number, and the whole SRK-Saif-Kantaben breakfast scene), and now Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna sells the idea that people should be able to question if they have to stay in an unhappy marriage.
See it or skip it?
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s an important one for the subject it broaches and the position that Karan Johar takes at this time in 21st century popular Hindi movies, and on a more superficial level, it’s beautiful to watch.
See it, but bring a hankie and do get up and walk around during the Interval, otherwise you’ll have a sore tush by the time you leave the theater.