Ask any moviegoer whose childhood was shaped by Nineties’ Shah Rukh Khan, and one reaction echoes above all: Nothing like Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994). It occupies the VIP section of even the most jaded Bollywood-loving hearts. Kundan Shah’s dramedy, which completes 29 years today, is nearly everyone’s favourite Shah Rukh Khan movie – including Khan himself. But the love for this film is a story in itself. It’s a story of slow-burning companionship, not instant passion.
For many of us growing up in the decade, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa was an awkward title to place. It rarely made our top five (or even top 10) SRK lists. This low-key tale of an average boy striving for average love and acceptance in an average setting came three months after Baazigar (1993), two months after Darr (1993), and a little more than a year before Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). In an age of commercial Hindi cinema that framed young desire and aspiration as lofty life-and-death battles, here was one that said: It’s not the end of the world. (Trust old Goa to sustain such a uniquely susegad message). Middle-class Indian kids like myself weren’t conditioned to process this. Even missing the bus felt like the end of the world. Averageness was a sin, and popular culture merely fetishised our manner of living – academics, family, infatuation and everything in between – as do-or-die themes. In the midst of all the romance and rage of other SRK hits, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa felt like the boring uncle who left the party early. In terms of Khan’s distinct vocabulary of heroism and antiheroism, the floppy-haired protagonist of KHKN felt like a non-hero. The mental reasoning was simple: If nothing is damaging – if it’s okay to lose at studies and love – then where are the stakes?
Yet, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa was in fact the cool and laidback uncle that everyone confided in. He’s the only person who listened, smiled, and never made a big deal of things. Perhaps age has much to do with my ever-expanding affection for the film. The transition from adolescence to adulthood is defined by the recognition that every problem is, truly, not the end of the world. The sun will rise, tomorrow will come and the heart will heal. My father was the one who kept trying to convince me of the film’s greatness. Back then, I never understood why he swore by a movie that challenged the very norms of Indian parenting; Sunil’s (Khan) blow-hot-blow-cold nature could easily be interpreted as the license to fail. But it makes sense that my father rooted for the movie – unlike me, he had lived enough to see its truth. It’s where I am today, in the position to admire a Hindi film that discredited the role of knives in the proverbial slicing of life. Which is to say that classics like Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa don’t grow on us – it’s we who grow on them.
Loving such films demands the sort of wisdom that comes with experience, but also the sort that goes against the grain of dramatic storytelling. Every element of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa summons a popular trope – until it doesn’t. Every theme promises a movie, until it disintegrates into life. It’s this anticlimactic tone that fuels our relationship with the film. Take the premise. Sunil is the underdog in a love triangle; he lies a lot to trigger a rift between Anna (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi) and Chris (Deepak Tijori), going as far as character-assassinating her to turn Chris away. He even takes pleasure in their pain of being unable to transcend their rich-boy-poor-girl story. Sunil often sounds unhinged, only for his obsession to become an antidote to the Darr(s) and Anjaam(s) of the era; he eventually atones for his sins through his songwriting talent. When Sunil comes clean about the fake mark sheets to his father, his public humiliation sets the stage for the narrative of an errant rockstar – the kind where a wasted artist goes on to milk the misery of banishment. But Sunil only reaches the gate before his father is softened by the (musical) pragmatism of adulthood. Don Anthony Gomez, too, arrives with mainstream Agneepath-like swag, only to reveal himself as an emo gangster with unresolved grief. Anna’s wedding cannot proceed without Sunil, except he’s not the one she’s marrying. The only way he gets the girl is by letting her go. His fate – where he wins the day by losing the moment – conveys the essence of not just the Baazigar catchphrase but also the famous DDLJ one: Big countries, small things.
The sociocultural steadiness of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa – which sees Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Konkanis and Gujaratis co-exist in humorous harmony – feels more relevant in this age of digital hyperbole and keypad anxiety. It’s easier than ever to prey on the fragility of doubt, but this entire film is centred on the benefit of the doubt. Sunil is not a great guy, but everyone sees in him the potential to be one. His mistakes are treated as just that: Mistakes. As a result, his redemption retains a language of logic that’s all but extinct in a world that lives and dies with 280-character tweets. He is innocent even when proven guilty, because his guilt is the silhouette of belonging.
It’s why the most memorable scenes of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa feature glimpses of Sunil yearning for more. Like when Anna pretends to have forgotten a gift for Sunil: His face falls, but he’s so bad at hiding his disappointment that his eyes light up – with the kind of delight that, in Darr, was presented as delusion – once she surprises him with a harmonica. Or when, at a band meeting, Sunil pretends to be dispirited so that Anna ruffles his hair like she did for Chris. Or when Sunil’s heart sinks at the sight of Anna tearing up his new song: It cuts so deep that all he can do is nervously fiddle with his navy cap. Or when Sunil kneels before Anna’s parents while asking for her hand: He is so sincere that his eyes glisten agonizingly with both madness and joy.
And most of all, when Anna’s wedding ring goes missing in church. Sunil spots it before the others but he feigns ignorance, knowing that the wedding cannot happen without the ring. Perhaps it’ll give Anna a few more seconds to reconsider. Perhaps he can hope a little bit longer. Perhaps she will notice that his longing always stopped short of morphing into sociopathic thirst. For a generation that views evolution as a state of progression, Sunil becomes a reminder that most journeys go somewhere under the illusion of going nowhere. He starts off as an underdog and ends up remaining one. But in doing so, he proves that coming back to square one is sometimes a subset of coming full circle. If Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa were a person, at 29, he would finally be old enough to get this. He would finally be distant enough to enjoy this. And he might finally be mature enough to admit that it’s not the end of the world if Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is his all-time favourite film.