The price of being a superstar is that the favoured image that gave you initial success becomes the only template that defines you for a big chunk of your career. Shahrukh Khan became everyone's favourite romantic hero after the thumping success of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. The formulaic image was reincarnated with mild differences in his subsequent works that have all become widely loved performances, enhancing his enigma as the King of Bollywood.
Then, a year before he would give one of his most acclaimed performance in the terrific Chak De! India, Shahrukh Khan starred in a film directed by Karan Johar. This was the time when the image of Shahrukh Khan had become bigger than the actor Shahrukh Khan. He had become the King, but the failure of Swades and the success of Main Hoon Na a year ago had proved that the actor in him, despite still there, was becoming prey to commercial expectations.
In the midst of that came Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Johar's bravest and in my opinion most accomplished film till date. It had a large cast of actors we had been familiarized with over the years. The hype around the film was immense, and the backlash it received post-release for showing a happy ending for an extramarital affair was equally extreme.
Now the film is remembered mostly for its wonderful soundtrack and a terrible climax that ruined all the good work that it did before that. Sadly, in the ruins of that film, we have forgotten one of Shahrukh Khan's most evolved, mature performances, showing a side to his romantic hero prototype that no one dared to unleash before. It was no mean feat then that the person who brought a greyer Shahrukh Khan character in a romantic movie was Karan Johar, who in his previous two movies benefitted by furthering that image of Khan to his advantage.
He plays Dev here, an ex-football player whose career was cut short after a road accident. Quite early in the narrative, the film juxtaposes Khan's charm and Dev's nihilism in the scene where he meets Maya (Rani Mukerji) on a bench in a park. The scene plays out like a normal romantic movie, but what makes it unique is Dev's refusal to be the romantic prototype of a Karan Johar narrative. Yet, we decide to side with him. After all, we see that charming dimpled smile of Shah Rukh Khan before he meets the life-altering accident.
Walking with a limp, the Dev we meet next is the epitome of an apologist. Johar derives humour from Dev's narcissism and internalized ableism. He is uncomfortable in his own skin and is therefore everything that a Shahrukh Khan character is not meant to be. He is unlikeable, and to top it all, he falls out of love out with Rhea (Preity Zinta), his wife.
This is where the film becomes interesting to look at the deconstruction of the idea of Shahrukh Khan. During the songs, quite obviously Dev's imagination, the limp disappears and Dev becomes Shahrukh Khan. He sings 'Mitwa' as if he is imitating Aman from Kal Ho Naa Ho, and romances in 'Tum Hi Dekho Na', as if the grasslands of Germany have suitably replaced New York and Dev is in his own video of 'Dholna' from Dil To Pagal Hai. It is an idea that Johar uses to sink his teeth in the psyche of Dev. Here is a married man, frustrated with his disability, and tortured by his nihilistic gaze, both outwards and inwards, but he carries in himself a Shahrukh Khan, like most people in that era did.
For Dev, his romance is like a typical Shahrukh Khan romance, but for the first time, we see a character in him who is more than just his best self. We see an obsessive-compulsive man who treats life as a curse and relationships as a burden. He is unhappy, doubtful of his wife's loyalty, an unsatisfied father, and an unsocial presence beyond the four walls of his home. He is, in essence, the most realistic, relatable hero Shahrukh Khan had played in years. He was not an "angel" who saves a woman from a dysfunctional family; nor was he a crusader for love, teaching lessons through music. He was a middle-aged man, frustrated with everything around him, and yet showing the capacity to love the woman he falls for, passionately.
Of course, this gives us moments of pure joy that are reflective of the brilliant actor that Khan is. A scene where he accuses his wife of being selfish, only to be reminded by her of his own frustrations and failures shows the best of Khan, ranging from aggressive and offended to vulnerable in seconds. That scene alone heralds one of the forgotten moments of brilliance by him, which captures the crisis of Dev so beautifully, that he quickly goes from someone we despise to someone we understand, even if we do not like.
Dev, like a lot of us, is a character who wants to embody the image of Shahrukh Khan, but fails to match the cinematic aplomb in his imperfect, fractured life. He becomes that image when in love, but he cannot escape his reality. It is a bargain, a tussle, between being that image and dealing with a discounted life. It all becomes more interesting when it is Shah Rukh Khan embodying the crisis of a middle-aged man trying to find love, enamoured of the very idea that he has propagated in his previous films.
Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna provides a rare glimpse of an actor and a filmmaker reflecting on a brand that they have created and developed over the years, by mirroring it from the viewpoint of the mundane reality of broken relationships. Of course, there is a lot of melodrama here that falls flat, and the narrative, like life itself, is not evenly paced. But in the middle of all the chaos is a performance by Khan that disintegrates the idea of Shahrukh Khan, while keeping the actor in him alive. It is one of the most accomplished and brave performances of his illustrious career.