Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa begins with a dream sequence straight out of a Fellini film.
Sunil (Shah Rukh Khan) arrives late for his wedding with Anna (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi). As he is just about to slip the ring onto Anna’s finger, he drops it. The ring rolls off the floor and is lost.
After some searching, Sunil finds it, and just as he picks it up, he finds himself transported from the church to a deserted beach. Sunil spots Anna at a distance, waving at him. He starts running towards Anna, but the distance between them doesn’t diminish.
Sunil wakes up and realises that it was only a dream. He assures himself that one day, Anna would surely fall for him.
Such entwinement of the real and the surreal, the objective and the subjective, is present throughout the film.
The narrative kicks off with Anna returning to the town of Vasco. Chris (Deepak Tijori), Anna’s love interest, is supposed to receive her at the railway station, but Sunil punctures a tyre of Chris’ car so he can receive Anna instead. From the get go, the film makes it clear that while Anna really likes and cares for Sunil as a friend, she doesn’t reciprocate his romantic feelings.
Sunil is introduced to us as a person who lies and deceives everyone around him. Kundan Shah, the director, juxtaposes the likability and childlike innocence of early-period SRK with the greyer shades of his character and gives us a remarkably complex character.
While we feel for Sunil’s profound love for Anna, the film never fails to underscore the fault in his actions. At one point, Sunil slanders Anna to get Chris to leave her. He gets Anna to go to the carnival ball with him by lying to her.
This culminates in the film’s first splendid musical number – ‘Ae Kash Ke Hum’ – which sees Sunil have the time of his life with Anna at the carnival ball. The fact that the song is set right after Sunil lies his way to a date with Anna points to how fickle his happiness is.
The lyrics literally translate to “how I wish this dream would never end”, and the whole sequence is unmistakably tinged with a sense of melancholy because we know that even though Sunil is practically living his dream, it’s just that – a dream. Much like the surreal scene that opened the film, we know that the dream will soon come to an end, that his lie will be caught, and that Anna would resent him.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is a rare Bollywood film whose protagonist is a deeply flawed human, but the film it out in a way that never feels entirely objectionable.
While the film follows Sunil’s subjective perspective throughout, it extends utmost respect to Anna and Chris, and doesn’t short thrift their desires. It understands that Anna doesn’t have to love Sunil back, Chris doesn’t have to leave Anna just because the film’s hero is smitten with her; it is Sunil who needs to learn to overcome his foibles. It also makes for far more interesting drama than, say, an Article 15 (to give a recent example) which, despite saying all the right things, never feels engaging in the same way because its protagonist is so spotless that there’s no room for his growth.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa explores the more tender-hearted and vulnerable side of masculinity through its other male characters. There’s Anna’s father Simon, a diabetic confectioner who furtively requests Anna to give him pastry; there’s small-time gangster Vasco who lets Sunil slip away because he doesn’t want to interrupt the dance he’s enjoying with his girlfriend, and there’s the film’s most endearing character, Don Anthony Gomez.
The film introduces Anthony as a dreaded gangster. Patel’s bar Chinatown is frequented by boorish mafiosos who throw glasses in displeasure at the music played by Patel’s band. When Patel is forced to give Chris’s band a chance at pleasing the hostile audience, they perform a musical number, led by band-outcast Sunil, which takes everyone by surprise.
‘Sachi Yeh Kahani Hai’ is all heart – as spectacular in its staging as it is overwhelming in the kindness and warmth it packs. Shah stages the song sequence as an allegory for cinema itself – a performance depicting the life of a Don that extends empathy to him, but also gently raps his knuckle for choosing to inspire fear instead of love. At one point during the song, we see Don Anthony pensively looking at a photo of his lover he carries in his wallet. By the end of the performance, he’s moved to tears.
Anna forgives Sunil after this, and the film takes a turn towards a strikingly complex exploration of the love triangle at its centre. Unlike Anna, Chris comes from a rich family, and his parents want him to marry a girl of a similarly affluent status. It’s remarkable for a Bollywood love triangle to make the viewer root for a character who stands between the hero and the heroine’s union.
Contrast this with the portrayal of, say, the foolhardy Kuljeet in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or the possessive Rohit in Dil Chahta Hai. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa doesn’t give us a reason to root against Chris. It understands that Chris is the man Anna loves, and that’s what must be respected above all else. By not belittling Chris over Sunil, the film builds a love triangle that progressively grows more nuanced and while we feel for Sunil, the film never asks us to root for him over Anna’s desires.
Also crucial is the subplot about Sunil getting a fake marksheet with Don Anthony’s help. Sunil has failed his exams yet again, and knows that if his father finds out, he’ll put an end to Sunil’s music venture. We always see Sunil as a guy who picks the easy and convenient way out, even if it means doing something immoral. At first, when he presents the forged marksheet to his parents, they are immensely proud of him. They arrange a party to celebrate Sunil’s success, and heap praises upon him in front of all the guests.
But this moment harks back to ‘Ae Kash Ke Hum’, and Sunil knows that while he has made his parents proud by producing a fake marksheet, it’s only a dream and his happiness is unearned. For once, with the help of Father Breganza (a delightful Naseeruddin Shah,) Sunil decides to face and embrace the truth. It leads up to the magnificent tear-jerker ‘Woh Toh Hai Albela’, a song where everyone present appeals to Vinayak’s sensitive side to embrace Sunil for who he is. This subplot also shows Sunil’s growth as a person in other ways than just romantic.
So, after Chris’ parents announce his wedding to another girl without even seeking his approval, Anna is dejected. Her father encourages her to consider marrying Sunil instead, especially given the newfound respect he has earned with everyone. Anna accepts, but we sense that something is off.
In a later scene, when Chris tells her that he’s even ready to leave his family in order to marry her, Anna responds saying that it’s too late, and that her wedding with Sunil has already been fixed. In a stunning reversal of the usual dynamics between love-triangle, here, we see that the hero has got the girl, but she doesn’t seem happy. Sunil overhears this conversation in a shot that makes brilliant use of triangular mirror framing, and again, has a tough choice to make.
Mirroring the wedding scene that opened the film, we see everyone assembled at the church for the wedding, and Sunil is late. Only this time, it’s Anna getting married to Chris, and Sunil is the best man. His dream of marrying Anna that kicked off the film hasn’t come true, but he has also learnt to embrace reality, more importantly, embrace himself the way he is, than continuing to live inside his dreams.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is more of an anti-rom-com – it’s the story of a guy who does not get the girl, and yet, life goes on. In an ironic bit of casting, Sunil is played by Shah Rukh Khan, the star who would later go on to embody and redefine the quintessential romantic hero in Bollywood.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa was made when Khan was still at the stage in his career where he was experimenting with villainous roles – in his filmography, it comes right after Darr and Baazigar, and precedes Anjaam. But in Sunil, we have a romantic hero who loves the girl undyingly, but must learn that it’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. 25 years later, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa still stands as one of the most progressive romantic films to have come out of Bollywood.
Mohit Patil is a writer, film critic and photographer based in Ahmedabad.