The most anticipated Bollywood release of 2006 hit the screens on Friday, and I got to see Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) Sunday evening, along with about 300 other filmgoers (!) at the Showcase Cinema East Hartford. Once again, I and my companion were the only white people in the house, again creating the impression that I am privy to a little cinematic secret which I get to share with about a billion other people. The movie, which cost a record reported $15 million to produce, and which was shot in New York City, Connecticut, and Philadelphia (along with soundstages in Mumbai), clocks in at 200 minutes - typical for a Bollywood film. It stars a virtual pantheon of Bollywood stars, including Amitabh Bachchan, his son Abishek, Shahrukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, and Kiron Kher. As is usual in these Karan Johar directed extravaganzas, there are some "special appearances" in a couple of song sequences: no less than Kajol and John Abraham.
First, the sad news...it became apparent to me as the movie progressed that the scenes I personally witnessed at the New Haven Amtrak station would constitute the dramatic final act of the movie. Sadly, neither I nor my daughter can be seen in the film presentation. But I swear we were there.
I haven't seen all of Johar's films, but I have fallen in love with Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), his previous work in New York and Connecticut. And in many ways, this new movie is a continuation of themes and styles apparent in KHNH. The knowing playful use of music and set scenes from earlier popular films, which allow the audience to wink at each other, continues in KANK (here it is a hilarious 10-second send-up from DDLJ). The first half of KANK has some infantile humor, often at the expense of bumbling Americans, just as in KHNH. But the second half of the movie (for some strange reason we were deprived the obvious intermission, and were forced to sit straight through) is all serious. And the "controversial" and serious point of this new movie is marital infidelity and divorce, which will certainly disturb some traditionalists.
The good news: the music is fantastic, and the visualizations are every bit as good as the songs. From the haunting theme song to the boisterous "Where's the Party Tonight?", each are moving in different ways. Just to see these fantastic scenes, I will have no problem whatsoever going back for a second viewing.
All the stars are in top form. SRK is called upon to temper his usually playful screen persona with a strain of bitterness and self-loathing, and he does so with great aplomb, primarily by injecting a gravelly tone into his delivery. Amitabh plays a grandfatherly playboy (aka "Sexy Sam"), but rises above the stereoptype in one incredible dinner scene. Abishek, who I have not been a great fan of, is impressively emotive in his own right. Preity and Rani are wonderful - Preity as a successful career wife, Rani as a distanced sophisticate. Anytime they are on the screen their beauty only adds to the first-class cinematography.
If I have any complaint, it is that this time Johar has not used the outdoor and indoor sets of the East Coast as masterfully as he did the first time out. Johar seems to return to certain locations he used so well in KHNH. But there are many other beautiful locales in the city to be plumbed. For those of us in America, there are ridiculous misappropriations of exterior shots. Grand Central Station becomes New Haven's Amtrak station; trains supposedly in New York City carry the SEPTA markings of Philadelphia; there is an exterior staircase to GCS that we would all be hard-pressed to find. But that is all artistic license, and matters not the slightest for the story.
The story is somewhat linear, and is missing the kind of surprising twists in plot we sometimes marvel at in Bollywood scripts. The central story is the love between two married people, each trying to save their failing marriages while drawn inexorably to another. What happens when (as at the end of KHNH) you marry your best friend - but then love appears somewhere else? What do you do with - as one of the characters puts it - "an incomplete relationship"? It is an adult story, and it asks questions that can be real for anyone who is married and yet remains open to the possibility of further romance.
All in all, this film is highly recommended. It may not be up there with my all-time favorite, Veer-Zaara, but it is certainly the best Bollywood film of 2006.