The Subtle Pleasures of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa

I use Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa as a test of a person’s tastes: like it? We can talk Hindi cinema. Don’t know it? Still an amateur.
The Subtle Pleasures of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa

There is a curious fate to the popularity of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, directed by Kundan Shah. Ask someone mildly educated in Hindi cinema about Kundan Shah and they will tell you they remember Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro as his most popular film. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa starred Shah Rukh Khan, whose monumental popularity over 3 decades means everyone has an opinion about his first successes as an anti-hero in Hindi cinema. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa was released in early 1994 after Baazigar and Darr in 1993 and before Anjaam later in 1994. Music by Jatin-Lalit, between Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) and the ultra popular Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). In almost every aspect of its post-release life, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa seems to suffer from being just short of popular nostalgic attention. Let me emphasise this point further. Farah Khan was the choreographer for the film. What was her other credited release for 1994? 1942: A Love Story. You see what I mean.

The problem with Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is that it is often difficult for me to remind someone who was around at the time of this gem of a small film. And each time I recommend it to someone younger, they find the prospect of the journey back in time just a little beyond obscure. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is like the second ranker, the silver medallist that earns you no quiz points for remembering. Yet there is something worthy about this film, even if it doesn't fit neatly into the popular patterns for such things.

Let us start with Kundan Shah. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is nothing like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The satirical tone of Yaaro is somehow morphed into something less biting, sweeter even. For instance there are the loveable goons in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, like in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, but they never turn hurtful monsters. The lesson for the audience, if any, comes by staying with the redemption of Shah Rukh Khan's Sunil, and the loveable comical don remains a joke. Kundan Shah retained the small film charm for Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, which actually benefits from a lack of budget. Shot mostly in Goa, perhaps for budgetary concerns, it manages to add Goa as a character in the film. It is a movie that is set in Goa and looks like it is set in Goa.

Then there is Shah Rukh Khan's portrayal of Sunil. He would always say this was his favourite film whenever they asked him about such things. It might be because Sunil seems very much like the young SRK: ambitious, energetic, smooth-talking, wildly talented and yet hurting. There seems to be less separating SRK from Sunil than anywhere else in his other films. But Sunil has his flaws: he lies, he manipulates and he is obsessive about getting the girl. Taken out of context, these last characteristics belong more to Baazigar and Darr. Yet Shah Rukh reins it in, channels it and keeps Sunil firmly within the realm of a boy next door who deserves sympathy.

Then, the music of Jatin-Lalit. This film has no perennial favourites like 'Pehla Nasha' or 'Tujhe Dekha', but the music of this film has the one quality it should have: it fits. If music in a Hindi film is supposed to amplify the emotion without pulling us out of the moment, Jatin-Lalit's score met the brief perfectly. Take 'Deewana Dil Deewana', about a boy waiting for a girl and composing a song on the fly. It goes fast and it goes slow, a composer trying to impress, a lover sharing his dreams, words and music gently moving the story along, establishing a rivalry that is going to be important. Or 'Sachi Yeh Kahani Hai', which references Boney M's 'Rasputin', and uses the form of a folk tale to talk about the unfulfilled life of a Don, in the process introducing a character without an introduction. Incidentally, this song is also the first time that Farah Khan staged a song in a film telling a story – something she would do again in Om Shanti Om.

And this is what I realised: Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa isn't in popular memory because there is something distinctly subtle about its pleasures. It was as if these bunch of young, talented folks got together and ended up making something quiet, toning down the loudness they needed elsewhere to be noticed. Knowing this has made me calmer and somehow more self-assured when talking about this film. I now use Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa as a test of a person's tastes: like it? We can talk Hindi cinema. Don't know it? Still an amateur.

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