Once upon a time — meaning 1998 — there was a college. Attending that college were Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Anjali (Kajol), and they were best friends. Even if you haven't watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), you know what happens next because there's a well-established trajectory for college romances. The best friends will end up becoming lovers, but first, they must navigate past a love triangle and a dramatic transformation. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the love triangle was created when Tina (Rani Mukerji) walked in and away with Rahul. A heartbroken Anjali uses this emotional setback to transform herself from a short-haired tomboy to a sari-clad vision of Indian femininity (with long hair, naturally).
Ten years later, another film would begin with a college romance that had echoes of the one in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na's (2008), Aditi (Genelia D'Souza) is best friends with Jai (Imran Khan). Enter Meghna (Manjari Fadnnis), who becomes Jai's girlfriend. Like Tina in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Meghna is less a character and more of a plot device to make the lead pair realise their actual feelings for one another. Initially, the Anjali of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Aditi of Jaane Tu… also seem similar. They're both outspoken and tomboyish. There's a belligerence about them that feels refreshing.
However, the differences are perhaps more important than the similarities. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a cultured, well-dressed Tina stands in stark contrast to an athletic, short-haired Anjali. The movie accepts Anjali for who she is — until she tries to be more feminine while still within her tomboy body. Her neon pink and orange outfit is a target for mockery, making even the kind-hearted and genteel Tina laugh at Anjali. In sharp contrast, Meghna from Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na is not that different from Aditi. Neither of them feel limited by stereotype.
For Anjali to become 'worthy' of the heroine's position in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, she has to undergo a transformation. When Anjali emerges from her metamorphosis with waterfall-straight hair, lip gloss and diaphanous saris, it seems as though her arc is finally complete. Once, she was proud of not being like the "stupid" girls Rahul chased in college; eight years later, being ultra-feminine is an indication that Anjali is secure in herself. There is a grace that comes with self-confidence (and saris). Kuch Kuch Hota Hai's preference for traditional femininity has been skillfully shrouded under the guise of time — eight years is sufficient for one to become a different person altogether. Anjali could have grown into becoming anyone, but she surrendered to a template and her reward is that she gets Rahul, who falls in love with the new Anjali practically at first sight. Perhaps the real tragedy of the film lies not in Anjali's suffering or in the eight years of yearning that went by, but in the knowledge that Rahul only really noticed Anjali once she started grooming herself to look like his late wife.
On the other hand, Aditi in Jaane Tu… is self-assured right from the very start, even as a young adult. Despite being foul-mouthed and aggressive, not once do those traits seem to alienate her from being feminine. Maybe it's because her younger avatar has long hair? Is it worth noting that the long hair is curly, as though refusing to be tamed, unlike the unrelenting straightness of Anjali's long hair? (The older Aditi gets, the more straight her hair becomes, which is why it's a relief to see her with a really short haircut in the last scene of Jaane Tu….) Maybe it's her chic beret? Or the way the film shows Aditi as someone who defends Jai's virtue as well as the one who is avenged by him? By the end, Aditi is considerably less bellicose and being grown-up seems to go hand in hand with a certain disillusionment about finding a partner. One cannot help but pity her for being hopeful.
With 10 years between them, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na reflect the difference in the way the urban youth was perceived and how femininity was idealised in Bollywood films. Come to think of it, there's a noticeable difference in how the men are written too. The characters in both the movies were around the same age, but Aditi and Jai appeared significantly more mature than Anjali and Rahul. However, on our way to them, we came across Naina (Preity Zinta) from Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Sanjana (Amrita Rao) from Main Hoon Na (2004), both of whom transformed from one cliche to another. Much later, in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), we see another Naina (Deepika Padukone) go through a similar makeover – from a spectacled nerd to the archetype of femininity, as Zinta's Naina did. Anjali and Aditi, on the other hand, cannot be compared with such simplicity. Aditi is what Anjali could have been, but they both were — as we all are — a sign of their times.