When you watch Shah Rukh Khan as filtered through Karan Johar’s gaze, it’s hard not to be quietly respectful, even if the film is inherently crappy. Here is one of the purest of all love stories, and we are privileged to be alive to see it unfolding before our eyes, in air-conditioned multiplexes. Johar’s adoration of Shah Rukh, the way he lovingly places him at the centre of every frame and gives him God-like status, is truly marvelous to behold. There’s something at work here that far transcends the usual ways we are expected to respond to a movie.
I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours about Johar and SRK – I tend to take celebrity gossip (especially the type where people smugly claim to know something “for a fact”) with a large tub of salt. But I’m now convinced that KJ is in love with SRK. I don’t know what kind of love this is – platonic, sexual, unrequited, whatever – but there’s no mistaking it. Among the great director-actor synergies, it’s more potent than Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. The only other relationship I can think of that matches it is the one between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. (Herzog once said of Kinski, “From the moment I first saw him, I knew it was my destiny to make films and his to act in them.” I don’t know if young KJ had the sophistication to think such thoughts, but I’m guessing he at least went “Woo hoo Bollywood, here I come!”)
Karan Johar’s last three films have been gorgeous love letters penned to SRK, even though at least two of them have been mediocre films. As studies of adulation, of the immortalizing of one person by another, they will live forever, longer perhaps than all those sonnets Shakespeare addressed to his Muse. We may now reasonably refer to them as great art.
You know what else is Great Art? The endless close-ups of Rani Mukherji’s face with a single teardrop coaxing its way out of just one limpid eye (it’s always the right eye) and rolling tragically down a cheek. Her makeup is never besmirched and this combination of pain and gloss is achingly beautiful. I’m no connoisseur, but on the great art scale I’d place it somewhere between Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Guernica”.
Rani’s one-eyed crying is almost symbolic of the many half-measures in a very uneven, very unconvincing film. I thought Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna was quite bad, though thankfully it was bad enough to be entertaining in parts. Not reviewing it, but here’s one observation at risk of sounding moralistic: some bits in the first half are downright distasteful. I’m not easily scandalized, but the scenes where Shah Rukh and Rani counsel each other on how to save their marriages – using this as a pretext to, for instance, feel each other up on a bed in a furniture shop – are sleazy beyond anything David Dhawan or many other much-maligned directors have yet managed. Worst of all, this scene – and the ones where each of them tries to act on the other’s advice – are played as slapstick comedy, and bad slapstick comedy at that. (Watch the sequence where Shah Rukh offers his wife a massage, or when Rani enters her husband’s flat dressed up as a dominatrix, complete with whip, and bear in mind that this is a film that has set itself up as a “mature” study of adult relationships – of people making honest attempts to save their marriages and failing.)
In this fine piece, Baradwaj Rangan notes one of the more interesting things about KANK (though in my view it’s interesting only on paper, not in Johar’s treatment of it) – that the “hero” and “heroine”, played by Bollywood’s biggest male and female star respectively, are wimpy, whiny, uncharismatic losers; their spouses, played by Preity and Abhishek, are much more proactive and likable. That’s certainly a first of kinds, though it also caused a problem of acceptance for me: the two leads are so downbeat and disaffected and masochistic, I had a hard time believing they would ever find happiness, even with each other. So it’s difficult to think of the ending as a happy one.
P.S. Each time I contemplate some of the other homosapiens sitting in the movie hall around me, I remember that we really do get the cinema we deserve. One man spent half the film with his cellphone aimed at the screen, taking photos or videos; he recorded the entire “Where’s the Party Tonight?” song and then, irritatingly, played it back later, drowning out the sound from a subsequent scene.
Young boys in my row burst into orgasmic yelps each time there was anything resembling an innuendo in the dialogue, or if a woman appeared in a low-cut blouse. At one point Rani tells Shah Rukh, “Sorry, galti se dab gaya.” (She made an unintended cellphone call.) “Galti se dab gaya!!!!” screamed the lads ecstatically, and the collective outburst reminded me of Arthur Clarke’s short story “Love that Universe”, wherein billions of people are asked to synchronize their love-making so that the combined orgasms send out a crucial energy signal to a distant civilisation. Which is fitting enough, because when you're sitting in a PVR hall, you're very far from any sort of civilisation.