There is something idiosyncratically disturbing about Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH, 1998). It is a morbid, neon-coloured Manish Malhotra fest, which is packaged as an innocuous love story between two college friends, and has an eight-year-old girl saddled — by her dead mother — with the questionable task of setting up her father with his college-era best friend. Welcome to the heterosexual purgatory that is KKHH. Yes, there’s a love story and it is, in flashes, still charming, but two and a half decades later, there are subtexts in this film that evoke retrospective horror. In fact, even its text does this. Is the charming, Vogue-magazine-esque, glittery cast of Karan Johar’s world in KKHH enough to dull the blow of truisms like “Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ho sakte (a girl and a boy can never be friends)”?
From the beginning, we see Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), inconsiderately flitting from one love interest to another at his college — this butterfly-mind is characterised as harmless boyishness. “Pyaar dosti hai (Love is friendship)”, Rahul tells Miss Braganza (Archana Puran Singh) on Valentine's Day as a summation of the film’s operating philosophy. This, right after we come to know that he befriends women with the purpose of seducing them. Soon we are introduced to the two women who will be his major love interests: Tina (Rani Mukerji) and Anjali (Kajol), whose virtues are built up in opposition to his inadequacies. He might be promiscuous, but their yearning for him is singular. Mercifully, it spares us a catfight between the two women over Rahul, but KKHH does insist that if a woman expects to be the heroine of a love story, she needs to be unquestionably feminine in the most conventional way. This is why the basketball-playing, hair-in-a-bob tomboy Anjali will channel her heartbreak into transforming herself into the saree-wearing instructor who is effectively a stand-in mother at a kids’ camp.
There is a reason why Anjali’s makeover from dungarees to saree chafes: It romanticises Rahul’s inability to really see Anjali, despite having access to her interiority by virtue of being her friend. For him to desire her in physical terms, she has to change her appearance. When he does register her as a romantic prospect, she has conformed to traditional, heteronormative femininity — which, not coincidentally, makes her a dead ringer for Rahul’s dead wife, Tina.
That one is helpless against love and thus, the relationship must be accepted with its caveats, whether it is class or culture-based difference, is a theme that runs across Joharverse. There is no such perceivable social difference between Rahul and Anjali. Johar’s other films have a different Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan, K3G) abandoning his family for romantic love, a Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani) unlearning his entitlement, and learning Kathak and Bengali, his lover’s language, in one of them. A different Aman (Shah Rukh Khan, Kal Ho Na Ho) helping his object of affections’ mother turning her business around. In KKHH, it has the male lead turning up on the day of his love interests’ wedding to ask her to choose him instead of her fiance, and she does.
But the horror of KKHH is not only stitched into this makeover and the way a woman is handed over from one man to another like the Olympic torch in a relay race, but also in how it fashions the other friendship in the film, between junior Anjali (Sana Saeed) and senior Anjali. Friendship is a ruse to ultimately fold the characters into the traditional familial, rather than allowing for a more expansive understanding of relationships and family. One, for example, in which a mother does not have to be substituted because she is no longer present. This is unsurprising since the family structure is what pumps up Johar’s filmography, even if he introduces unconventional ways the structure can be formed, but in KKHH, the promise of a less traditional family is dangled before us when the two Anjalis develop a friendship that isn’t obviously maternal. It holds out the hope of a love story between two people who really know each other, rather than view one another through the trappings of gendered conventional. The film seems to be Anjali’s story as much as Rahul’s, until she gives up her agency and lets her fiancé become the one who effectively permits Anjali to be with Rahul.
Paromita Vohra says that even if a romantic story is sexist, it is a woman’s genre, because she is a participatory agent in it. Even if Anjali is gleeful about her marriage to bare-minimum Rahul, what does that mean if the film doesn’t chip away at the “men being men” conviction?