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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ (2003): Shah Rukh Khan the Matchmaker


Directed by: Nikhil Advani || Produced by: Yash Johar, Karan Johar

Screenplay by: Niranjan Iyengar, Karan Johar || Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, Jaya Bachchan, Sushma Seth, Dara Singh, Reema Lagoo, Lilette Dubey

Music by: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy || Cinematography: Anil Mehta || Editing by: Sanjay Sankla || Country: India || Language: Hindi, English

Running Time: 188 minutes

There are few melodramatic romantic tales in film that the King of Bollywood has not covered. In Shah Rukh Khan’s 75+ roles in Hindi cinema, the one and only King Khan has seen so many lost loves, heartbreaks, over-the-top soap-opera deaths, and at least 247 gallons of human tears, that’s if often difficult to discern one role from another.

That’s not to say Shah Rukh Khan’s (SRK) performances are boring or uninteresting, as the man has clear talent for commanding the spotlight, and knows how to use his inherent likability to his advantage time and time again. The towering figure of Bollywood has, perhaps more than any other figure in recent cinematic history, singularly defined an entire industry within one persona. With that said, I would be negligent in not saying how I feel that one SRK performance feels decidedly similar to almost every other. His role in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) feels decidedly like his turn in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), which also feels quite similar to his showcase in Devdas (2002), the overall varying quality of those films notwithstanding.

kal ho naa ho

A great shot from the titular musical number.

What’s noteworthy about Kal Ho Naa Ho (KHNH) is that the primary romantic attention of the plot is not focused on the King of Bollywood. Though SRK’s personal romantic touch and trademark likability are the main advertisements for this movie, the actual focus of the romantic narrative is on SRK’s supporting cast members, Saif Ali Khan (SAK) and Preity (Pretty!) Zinta. SRK plays the matchmaker, the love-doctor if you will, as he orchestrates a passionate romance from a pair of longtime school-friends. The switch from primary lover to behind-the-scenes puppet master is a move that pays off for the movie, as SRK shows he is more than capable of playing the unorthodox role in this Hindi romance. He fleshes out the role enough so that the film feels decidedly refreshing.

But how good is the movie as a whole? As expected, the story’s success and emotional impact depends on the performances put forth by SAK and Zinta. Both can hold their own in their respective roles, thankfully, and their chemistry, especially in the second half of the movie, makes the movie flow as their relationship transitions from friendship to something else. Bolstering the trio of performances by SRK, SAK, and Zinta is an admirable team effort from the remaining cast, including a spiteful grandmother (Sushma Seth) and a notable appearance by Jaya Bachchan. The would-be depressing familial subplot prior to the principle romance adds depth to the story, and offers a satisfying conclusion that compliments the primary love triangle.

The soundtrack to KHNH is strong. Almost every track, from the celebratory “Maahi Ve” to the lighthearted, playful “Pretty Woman” to the melancholic, introspective titular song is a joy to listen to and to watch on-screen. Cinematographer Anil Mehta’s beautiful slow-motion photography and sweeping wide-shots of New York’s skyline emphasize the pulsating emotion of each melody and every chorus. The titular song, which takes place primarily on the Brooklyn Bridge, is the film’s standout sequence and remains iconic among new millennium Hindi filmmaking. The music presents a welcome break from some of the cheesier sections of the movie, while at the same time celebrating them.

Speaking of those cheesy parts, KHNH has its share of soap-opera moments that can test your patience for overacting and over-the-top melodrama. None of it as unbearable as anything in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), but the artificiality of some of the tearful breakdowns can still be too much at times. You will, quite often, find yourself laughing at (not with) the movie during some of the story’s most serious moments. It’s good fun, in some respects, as anyone who knows Bollywood is aware that almost every Hindi flick will have scenes where everybody’s crying so much you laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s all a question of how distracting the overacting and melodrama are compared to the genuinely serious, heartfelt emotions that need to hit. At times, KHNH walks a fine line between tiresome cheese and moments of genuine, tasteful character drama, but the movie keeps its balance enough to make the story swim.

The screenplay isn’t a resounding success by any means, but it has enough moments of real emotion, and is carried by a strong cast of performances, lead by a versatile SRK in a refreshing role. SAK and Zinta deliver as the central romantic pair, and their romantic growth is satisfying. The well written subplot concerning Zinta’s dark family history adds much needed depth to the story, and its conclusion fits well with the primary love-triangle.

The story can drag at times, and its cheesiness and overacting can be distracting like most SRK flicks, but altogether, the film’s stronger parts and a great musical score from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy override them. It’s a nice excuse to showcase the one and only King Khan in a role where he isn’t one of the primary love interests, and the story lets him shine using a different skill set. You’ll certainly laugh at many of the tears in KHNH, but you’ll also cry along with the characters just as much.

Left: Preity Zinta stars as the female lead of Kal Ho Naa Ho’s principle love triangle. Right: The most energetic song is played near the end, the melodic “Maahi Ve.”


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Kal Ho Naa Ho acts as a sort of new millennium Diwale Dulhania La Jayenge and, for the most part, it succeeds in droves. SRK and company are a likable ensemble effort who are aided by strong musical numbers and a well paced script.

However… the film’s first act is slow before the big twist is revealed. While not as distracting as some Bollywood flicks, many of Kal Ho Naa Ho’s cheesy moments are tiresome.


? A Super Bollywood Moment = They cry so much that you laugh.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


6 thoughts on “‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ (2003): Shah Rukh Khan the Matchmaker

  1. Regarding films like KHNH, directors like Karan Johar and actors like Shahrukh Khan, viewers unfamiliar with Bollywood should think of these films in the same way we look at US films from the 40s and 50s. The stars contracted to particular studios never really left behind their real identities in the dressing room, and cinema audiences wanted that. It’s a similar situation with Indian cinema (Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and other studios included). Audiences want to see SRK visible in the character, they like the regular pairings (SRK + Kajol, SRK + Dixit etc). Only in recent years has this convention been breaking down, but the links between certain actors, studios and directors still persists.

    KHNH was one of the first Bollywood films I ever saw. I soon went off Johar as a director, but SRK’s charm was always difficult to ignore. Even when he played a nutter like Don his grinning persona was still there. And the fact that he made it to the top without any family connections like the Mukerjees, Bachchans and Kapoors, makes him all the more remarkable.

    Posted by theopeningsentence | July 30, 2014, 2:14 pm
    • I’ve noticed that actually, that a lot of these mainstream Hindi romances from the 90’s onward remind me a lot of Hollywood’s Golden Age before the birth of the 60’s/70’s counterculture and the rise of American auterism in the American New Wave movement. Particularly if you compare them to the droves of popular Hollywood musicals from the 30’s, 40’s, and ’50’s (e.g. Singin in the Rain [1952]) you see a lot of resemblance in story structure and star persona.

      I definitely give SRK credit for making it big without any industry family connections, particularly when so much of Bollywood is based on blood-tied clans as if it were the Sicilian Mafia. He’s grown on me over the years and I definitely think the guy does a good job of combining a respectable acting range while also maintaining his likable persona. My main problem with a lot of his films though is that he tends to gravitate toward these really over-the-top, very cartoony (even by Hindi blockbuster standards) films that I just don’t care for. Even a lot of my South Asian friends feel that a lot of SRK’s films reach a breaking point in terms of over-acting and whimsical, quirky attitudes.

      With most Bollywood films in general though, I usually determine whether I like a movie if I can laugh and cry WITH the characters on-screen, rather than laughing AT them. If the melodrama is effective so that I’m crying (but also laughing) with the story, than that’s a good thing, but if things are so over-the-top and dumb that I’m laughing at the characters, then that’s cause for concern.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | July 30, 2014, 4:48 pm


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