Happy Friday! I think this can legitimately be considered a classic, don’t you? Not a perfect movie, but one that is also a little bit better and a little more interesting, and a little more memorable, than the run of the mill films. And anyway, it’s Preity’s birthday week.
I remember when this movie came out, and I remember being disappointed in it. I think most people were disappointed at the time. It wasn’t the movie we were expecting, not from Karan Johar and this cast. We wanted another Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Or, to be more accurate, we expected another Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. This was too far off from what we expected to accurately gauge whether we enjoyed it or not.
To put it simply, we expected another Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and instead we got Silsila. Adult, complicated, heartbreaking, and a little bit bitter. There were no easy answers and no good people and bad people. It broke the cardinal rule of Hindi film, and suggested that sometimes things DON’T turn out all right in the end.
And what was most disturbing is that our actors, our pretty happy dancing singing Hindi film actors, also turned in adult complicated heartbreaking and a little bit bitter performances. Top to bottom, they did an amazing job. An upsettingly amazing job, making you wonder how they feel being in all those other movies where they don’t get to play nearly as interesting a character.
I’ll start at the top with Amitabh. Partially a caricature, the randy flirtatious old man surrounded by call girls and sexy young things. But at heart, something a lot more complicated. A widower hiding his grief in shallow affairs, only able to connect with his son on this superficial level, and wise enough to see the truth everyone else is hiding from, that his son’s marriage is failing.
And then there’s Abhishek. The guy who always has a smile on his face and refuses to face up to, or even admit, that he has problems. Which just lets them grow and grow in his life and he refuses to hear what people are saying to him, refuses to try to be better or do better.
Rani, the co-lead of the film, is on the surface a typical heroine. Mature, sensitive, kind, loves children. But what makes it different is that this film shows underneath that perfect sweet heroine is a person with needs and desires and fears. She wears the mask, because she is afraid to show herself or anyone else the truth, the truth that will ruin all their lives.
Shahrukh himself, of course, the center of the film. And the most upsetting character. He is wrong, he is mean, he is unpleasant. And it’s not because he is hiding a golden heart, or even because of his hidden pain. It’s because he is wrong and mean and unpleasant and not willing to do the work to make himself any better.
And finally, Preity. Who I find most fascinating out of all of this. Because she hasn’t done anything wrong! She is doing the best she can for everyone around her, not lying about who she is but also not being selfish about it. And, remarkably, the film lets her keep that, lets her know that even as her world comes crushing down around her that it is NOT her fault. That she is the real “heroine” if virtue makes a heroine and deserves to get her reward in a happy life, a happier life than she had before.
(See her determinedly not letting her sulking husband ruin her fun? I love it!)
Maybe the film would have done better and been better if it focused on Preity, the blameless one, instead of the other characters. But then, it wouldn’t be as memorable, it wouldn’t be remembered the way it is. And perhaps Preity wouldn’t have stood out as much, not if she was surrounded by purely “bad” people making herself shine through as perfect, instead of surrounded by complicated people with shades of grey.
The thing is, this movie is about people trapped in an untenable situation which is forcing them to do things they know and feel are “wrong”. And Preity is the only one who resists that urge, resists doing anything she finds “wrong” no matter the temptation. It makes her even more notable, to see how she is surrounded by weakness and remains strong.
Strong, but still herself. She smiles, she dimples, she laughs. She doesn’t play the tragedy queen or change into a depressed housewife, she is always still “Preity”, the actress persona of joyful happiness, and the character Karan wants her to play, unapologetic about her life and her person.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna has a deceptively simple plot. Two couples, both struggling with marital issues. The husband (Shahrukh) of one and the wife (Rani) of the other become friends, and friendship leads to an affair. They decide to end it and tell their spouses the truth. Shahrukh’s wife (Preity) and Rani’s husband (Abhishek) both decide to end their marriages in response. Shahrukh and Rani do not stay in touch or even see each other until over a year later. At which point Rani learns that Shahrukh is divorced and runs to meet him, finally finding him in the train station where they used to meet, and he kneels down and proposes to her.
(Also, this wonderful song happens)
But what makes it complicated is the careful way in which these relationships are built so we see that there is no simple answer, some things just happen. Preity and Shahrukh are best friends who decided to get married, they enjoy each other and have a casual happiness with each other, and are both happy with their small son and Shahrukh’s mother Kirron Kher who lives with them and helps out. But then Shahrukh is in a car accident. He can’t work any more, goes from a high powered athlete to a part-time children’s soccer coach. And Preity, whose career used to be as good as his, is now the primary wage earner in the household. Which she accepts without bitterness, and also without guilt. She enjoys her job and her success in it, and also enjoys being married to Shahrukh. He may have problems not being the “man” of the house, but she does not. Besides a few small moments of feeling disconnected with her son.
Rani and Abhishek, on the other hand, grew up together. Rani’s parents are dead, she feels like Abhishek and his father Amitabh are her family. And Abhishek is passionately in love with her. She doesn’t feel the same way, but agrees to marry him anyway. Only to realize as time goes on that she loves him, but is not in love with him. She sees him as a little boy she has to clean up after not a grown man and a partner, and is incapable of feeling sexual attraction to him. It’s not Rani’s fault that she just doesn’t feel that way. And it’s not Abhishek’s fault that he is so in love with her he was willing to marry her knowing she didn’t feel that way. And Abhishek is still happy now, happy just having her around, doesn’t even care that she is unable to have children. But Rani cares.
The female characters are so much more interesting than the male in so many ways in this film! Rani is infertile, and she and Abhishek talk about wanting a child. But what is not talked about is that she wants a sex life, a satisfying sex life. Because that is not something a woman is supposed to say. So she avoids the topic and avoids her husband and doesn’t examine her own feelings.
And Preity, what she doesn’t say, is that she knows her husband is putting his unhappiness on her, and she will not accept it. She doesn’t say it, but she shows it, through every determined smile and brisk announcement, and putting on a good face for outsiders. What she also never says, but shows that she knows, is that Shahrukh has never loved her as she loved him. They were best friends, but she was the one who proposed to him, and she is the one who is in this marriage no matter what, while he is the one looking for an escape.
The affair starts with Shahrukh and Rani, finally, acknowledging the problems in their marriage and suggesting a partnership to help each other solve them. Rani acknowledges that her sex life is a problem and looks for a way to improve it. Shahrukh acknowledges that he needs to be more supportive and involved. But it doesn’t matter what they do, their marriages are already broken. They were broken as soon as Rani and Shahrukh found it easier to talk to a new acquaintance about their problems than their own spouses.
Abhishek has a similar problem, he can relate more easily to his father than to his wife, is more likely to look to his father for sympathy and support. It’s not a cause of problems in his marriage, but it is a symptom of it.
But Preity, she has no one. Her son is closer to his father than his mother. And her mother-in-law would, presumably, always pick her son over her daughter-in-law. And so Preity keeps working, and keeps smiling and hides her pain away. The one person in her life she could share it with, her husband, is the one who is causing it. And so she shows it to no one. Only, briefly, sharing her joy with Abhishek, a random stranger, when she thinks her marriage is having a rebirth and she is determined to make it better.
The triumph of the ending is the triumph of Preity. Shahrukh goes to her to tell her what he has done and we, the audience, almost think she might forgive him. She so clearly loves him and was happy at one point in her marriage (unlike Abhishek and Rani who were never happy), and they have a child, and she is the wife, the wife always forgives. But, she doesn’t!!!!! Karan and Preity remained true to the character they had built. This woman can take care of herself and she can forgive a lot, but she also knows her own worth. She will put up with a husband who doesn’t support her, a son who doesn’t know her, but she will not be cheated on, will not sink to that level. She is the better person, she is the wrong woman, she is innocent.
I can’t help comparing her with Jaya in Silsila. Jaya is similarly strong, refusing to reveal her hurt to the general public. And she is brave in telling her husband that she has come to love him. But she doesn’t slap him, she doesn’t leave him. She doesn’t take a chance and branch out on her own rather than staying with a man who doesn’t love him.
(This song just makes you want to slap Amitabh, doesn’t it? Both in the film and in real life)
Preity takes that chance. And is rewarded for it! Perhaps my favorite thing about this whole film is when Kirron tells Preity that she is staying with her. Preity isn’t alone after all, Shahrukh can’t take her family away from her. All her lonely strength and struggle with a smile didn’t go unnoticed, and isn’t unrewarded. Kirron stays with her, the real heart of the household, and her son stays with her too. A working woman can still be a beloved daughter-in-law and a needed mother. Even a woman who separates from her husband can still be a mother and a daughter-in-law.
And she is rewarded immediately. While Shahrukh and Rani go through their lonely exile, and even Abhishek has his period of sadness, we see Preity smiling and laughing with her son, happier already now that she is not carrying the weight of an unhappy husband around with her. She does not need a new husband or a new relationship to make her happy either, she is and always has been able to take care of herself, Shahrukh was more a burden than a joy.
At the end of the film, Abhishek has moved on and is getting married. This seems right, he never experienced even a temporary joy in marriage, Rani was unhappy and out of love with him from the very beginning. He needs that, a woman who loves and desires him, in order to complete himself. But Preity, it seems right that only know at this wedding is she beginning to consider the possibility of a relationship with her handsome editor and good friend of many years Arjun Rampal. She is not unlovable and she deserves to have that part of her life fulfilled. But she doesn’t need it, not the way the other 3 leads do. She is stronger than that, and wiser than that.
At the end of the film, Preity is the only character who was and is wise enough not to be stuck in an unhappy marriage. She kept going so long as Shahrukh was willing to stay with her. She fulfilled her own needs and kept her promises to him. But once he broke those promises, she threw him out. She wasn’t like Abhishek, desperately trying to make a woman who was uninterested in him pay him attention, or like Rani desperately denying her own unhappiness, or Shahrukh bitterly acting out his misery instead of trying to resolve it.
Preity is also the best example of the meaning of the title of the film. It’s not that Rani and Shahrukh are fated to be together and therefore can never say good-bye. It’s that you can’t say good-bye, not really, to the people in your life you once loved. Abhishek, he seeks out Rani and invites her to his wedding, having realized that she will always be a part of him. But Preity and Shahrukh knew that all along. They had a child together, they had a long life together, that will always be there and they will always care for each other. One of my favorite moments in the title song is when we see Preity, happy, and Shahrukh looking on with a sad smile. Sad for himself, but still happy for her, because their bond is never really gone.