Kal Ho Naa Ho

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I had my first ever Bollywood experience tonight. I went with one of my colleagues to see Kal Ho Naa Ho (IMDB).

After a delicious dinner at Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant, we headed out to the ‘burbs for the movie. I knew that Bollywood films tended towards melodrama and that they usually (always?) have several musical sequences, but I’m not quite sure I was prepared for the emotional roller coaster ride this film provided. The story is narrated by Naina, a twenty-something Indian woman living in New York. She and her best friend, Rohit (in full metrosexual mode), banter back and forth, but Naina, still emotionally scarred by her father’s suicide, is closed off to love. Soon, the charming Aman (played by Bollywood star Shahrukh Kahn) arrives and Naina relaxes, losing her bookish eyeglasses and letting her hair down. Naina slowly begins to fall for Aman, who is dying of an unexplained heart disease, and the film then traces the romantic comedy and the family melodrama.

What I found fascinating about this film was the treatment of sexuality. There are several scenes in which the fashion conscious Rahit and the playful Aman are caught (by someone who appears to be his maid) in scenes of homosocial bonding. These scenes cause the maid to faint in shock. These “homosocial” moments are generally contained by the end of the film, but the ways in which the film plays with this tension really struck me. Of course, because of the way in which the “competition” between the two men over Naina is framed, Naina essentially loses her agency in choosing which man she’ll marry.

In general, the film’s ambivalence about New York also stuck with me. Early in the film, Aman performs a Hindi version of “Pretty Woman” on a New York taxi in front of an American flag, and the opening shot of the film incorporates the Statue of Liberty, but this celebration of New York becomes a little more muted as the film progresses. There is certainly an American Dream subtext to the film (both Rohit and Naina are seeking MBAs at the “University of New York”).

I’m also somewhat surprised by my own investment in the narrative. For whatever reason my emotional defenses weren’t quite as strong as they might have been had I been watching an American film. Still trying to think through that aspect of my experience, but maybe I need to see a few more Bollywood films to see if my experience of them changes.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (roughly “There May be No Tomorrow”) was playing at Galaxy Cinema, a suburban Atlanta movie theater that specializes in international cinema, especially Bollywood films. Galaxy Theater, was reviewed a couple of years ago in a Creative Loafing article, which presents many of the difficulties of sustaining a cinema showing mainstream international films, including the problem of competing with pirated copies of even the newest films. It also notes the fascinating population shifts in the Atlanta suburb, Norcross, that have created a market for mainstream films from Third World countries.

I’m way behind on my film reviews, but hopefully in a few days, I’ll catch up….I actually really miss writing about movies here, so I’m going to try and get back to it soon.


  1. George Said,

    December 11, 2003 @ 8:51 am

    Wow, Chuck. Really interesting. Was the film in English, or was it subtitled?

  2. chuck Said,

    December 11, 2003 @ 11:00 am

    A little of both. In fact, characters would slip in and out of English in the middle of conversations, but as I recall, the younger characters tended to use English more frequently.

  3. weez Said,

    December 12, 2003 @ 12:04 am

    Okay – I’ll bite.

    What’s bollywood?

  4. chuck Said,

    December 12, 2003 @ 12:57 am

    “Bollywood” is the name for the Indian film industry, which I believe is the 2nd largest in the world (behind Hollywood). Most of the films have lavish settings, melodramatic plots, and musical interludes.

    According to my colleague, most Bollywood productions run around three hours, usually with a brief intermission. The intermissions are so common that even in shorter US films (of 90 minutes or so), it’s customary to have an intermission.

    To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Bollywood, but as a film scholar, I guess I feel like I should have always already seen everything, but the “Cinemania” entry I’m about to write might change that…

  5. Clancy Said,

    December 16, 2003 @ 10:51 am

    Wow, Chuck! Great review. I really want to see that movie after reading it. When I lived in Knoxville, TN, I used to go and eat at this Indian restaurant that had TVs with Bollywood movies playing all the time. They didn’t have subtitles or any English that I caught, so I didn’t really know what was going on, and with the lavish settings you mentioned (for the uninitiated, these settings have all kinds of bright colors and shiny costumes), I always just thought they were extremely campy and never intended to convey the kinds of emotion you described.

  6. chuck Said,

    December 16, 2003 @ 4:37 pm

    Based on conversations with my colleague (who knows Bollywood a lot better), I *think* the melodrama is supposed to be genuine. The “Pretty Woman” sequence had a certain excess (American flags, Statue of Liberty) that seemed to border on camp, even if the film ultimately affirms the American Dream. Despite some very funny moments that test social norms, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” seemed to reinforce conventional gender roles, especially (at least in our reading of the film), muting some of the camp.

    By the way, I lived in Cleveland, Tennessee, for a few years in the late 1980s, so I used to visit Knoxville occasionally. In fact, I think I still have an oustanding Knoxville parking ticket or two….

  7. chuck Said,

    December 21, 2003 @ 1:42 am

    I found this quotation in a CFP on Bollywood cinema. I’m not sure if it adds specifically to the discussion, but thought it might add an interesting frame (it will also remind me to keep an eye out for journal articles on it).

    “The sense of belonging that Bollywood films foster –
    the sheer sense of security and shared joy, … the
    commonality of experience despite the geographical
    separation of so many thousands of miles – is second
    to none. It works more because Bollywood is one of the
    things that bind us together as Indians, never mind
    where we live.”

    Soumya Bhattacharya (Hindustan Times 1/25/03)

  8. Isha Said,

    December 28, 2003 @ 9:56 am

    Just saw the film yesterday. I thought it was very good. Your review was absolutely right.

    Just thought I’d mention that Bollywood is actually bigger the Hollywood though many people do not know that.

  9. chuck Said,

    January 12, 2004 @ 2:30 pm

    Hi–I’ve been meaning to respond to your comment for a while. Thanks for confirming my reading of Bollywood in general and of “Kal Ho Naa Ho” in particular. I’ve been going back to Bollywood a lot lately, especially as a way of rethinking how divergent viewing practices developed in response to Hollywood and Bollywood cinemas.

    Hopefully I’ll get a chnace to sit down with a few major Bollywood films soon.

  10. RYP Said,

    February 13, 2004 @ 12:30 am

    Hi Chuck,

    I saw the film a few months ago, and I just got the DVD. I agree with your reviews, that is, that this movie, is one of the top tier created by Bollywood. I’d like to agree with Isha on the fact that indeed Bollywood is a lot bigger than Hollywood.

    If you’re looking for more top tier Bollywood movies, keep an eye out for LOC: Kargil, Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, Lagaan, and The Legend of Bhagat Singh.


  11. chuck Said,

    February 13, 2004 @ 12:43 am

    Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve come close to renting Lagaan several times (several of my students have recommended it to me), but I have to be in the right mood to watch such a long movie.

    I’ve read some film criticism on Bollywood that confirms Isha’s statement about Bollywood; unfortunately, because of the dominance of Hollywood in US markets, many US filmgoers can be rather oblivious to what is out there.

  12. ash Said,

    November 8, 2005 @ 11:33 pm

    hi chuck

    its realy nice to know u liked our bollywood film. Well this is only one movie. there are a lot better than this. do watch SWADES, Lagaan, Black.

  13. Chuck Said,

    November 9, 2005 @ 1:56 pm

    Ash, I’ve been planning to see some of those films for a long time. In fact, your entry has reminded me to put some of them (Lagaan, especially) on my Netflix cue…

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