Full disclosure, I love this movie. In all its cheesy ridiculous glory. This is the most early-2000s or all early-2000s films. And one of my all time favorite Bad Hrithik performances. It’s not even so-bad-it’s-good, it is a level higher, so-bad-it-is-more-entertaining-than-if-it-were-good. Can you imagine this movie if Hrithik’s role had been played straight and serious? Blech! BOR-ING!
This is one of those movies that is fascinating to think about in terms of why it WASN’T a hit. It seemingly fits the hit formula (Stars + Songs = Hit), great songs, great cast, the kind of family-romance plot that ruled the 90s, and the Yash Raj glitz behind it. And yet, it did not do well. Why?
I think because it was just a little too melodramatic, and at the same time not dramatic enough, for the 2000s. This was the year Company came out, and Devdas, and Saathiya. These movies took the seeds planted by films like Mujshe Dosti Karoge and brought them to fruition. Company gave us the international style filmmaking that first came to India through the efforts of rom-com directors to make a global reach in the 1990s. Devdas gave us the over the top luxury and fantasy version of India that the diaspora and non-desi overseas audience was craving after getting their a taste of it in K3G and others. And Saathiya gave the audience the really-real kind of romance, between two characters who felt lived in, that they had been missing since DDLJ.
And then there’s this movie. The filmmaking is high quality, good camera work, all that professional international style directing. It has a fair amount of luxury, imported clothes and fancy houses and big dance numbers. And the main characters are young and charming. And yet, it’s all just not quite as much as the other movies of the year. Not natural enough, not dramatic enough, not cutting edge enough. A masala movie, but a mild masala, where instead of each spice standing out and making the others stronger in contrast, it’s more kind of a Chai effect, where everything blends together and kind of smooths out the rough edges to make it bland and soothing.
(Not “ek garam chai”, more “ek lukewarm chai”)
That bland and soothing effect is what the audience wanted in the 90s. The diaspora and growing urban audience, not to mention the TV audience and the growing non-diaspora global audience, wanted this kind of happy easy to swallow fluff. And Yash Raj built its studio on these films, from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Dil To Pagal Hai to Mohabbatein. But in 2002, the slightly riskier proposition for Yash Raj of Saathiya, with an almost unknown male lead and a slight plot, and a setting among the middle-class of Bombay, was the big hit. While Mujshe Dosti with it’s Major Star male lead, glamorous international settings, and complicated melodramatic plot ended up sputtering out.
I just called it “bland”, which sounds bad. But it wasn’t meant as an insult. To put it in dessert terms, my favorite Indian dessert is Jalabis. I love that almost-coma-inducing amount of sugar and fat. It’s delectable and delicious and extreme. It is K3G in food form (and the really good Jalabis, with that hint of turmeric and other spices to cut through the sweet and make you think, that’s DDLJ). But my second favorite Indian dessert is Kheer. Soothing, mild, creamy Kheer. That’s Mujshe Dosti Karoge. It takes skill to blend everything together so seamlessly. And to scatter in enough little pieces of flavor (the raisins and almonds in the Kheer, as it were) to keep the audience interested.
Which brings me back to my starting point! Hrithik, going manic in the second half! The initial set up for the film sounds pleasantly interesting, a mistaken identity and 15 years of letters resulting in a love triangle with an inevitable conclusion. But the interval point suddenly shifts everything, from Shimla to London, from one love triangle to another, and from one conflict to a very different one. This is where you leave the creamy rice pudding part of the Kheer, and suddenly go “Oh! There’s a little cinnamon in this! And some nuts! Oh, this is kind of intriguing!”
(Now, who really really wants Kheer? Is it just me?)
Really, the performances in general, and the songs, are what provide all the flavor in the film. Which is as it should be, again, the film formula is Stars and Songs. But what people sometimes forget is that the Stars and Songs are supposed to be there to support the plot, not the other way around. The overall narrative is where the cohesion of the film comes from. Mujshe Dosti Karoge may have had one of the biggest star casts and best soundtracks of 2002, but it just didn’t have the kind of ground-breaking narrative on offer to audiences elsewhere.
But I can’t talk about that narrative, and the specifics of the performances, without getting into SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
The first half of the film is really just place-setting. It hits the standard beats of all Indian films, including opening with a childhood flashback and an international connection. Lil’ Hrithik, Lil’ Kareena, and Lil’ Rani are best friends in their happy childhood home in Shimla. But Lil’ Hrithik’s Dad Kiran Kumar (that same year he played Amisha’s Dad and Hrithik’s enemy in Aap Mujhe Acche Lagna Lage) has decided to move his family to London to work in “the Dot Com”. Hrithik asks Lil’ Kareena, the “pretty” one, to email him while he is in London. She agrees, and they arrange for her to get the emails from Lil’ Rani, the “nice” one, since she has a computer and Lil’ Kareena doesn’t.
(Speaking of formula movies….)
Naturally, “the pretty one” gets bored with email, and “the nice one” can’t stand to let them go unanswered, and so decides to respond under the name of “the pretty one”. Fast forward 15 years, everyone is grown up, and Hrithik is now in love with his imaginary “pretty one” from childhood, who has also shared all his hopes and dreams and secrets through letters for the past 15 years.
Meanwhile, back in India, Rani is all nervous because Hrithik is coming home for the first time and will see her again. She begs Kareena to pretend it was her writing the letters all along, “it’s just for 2 weeks.” Of course, Hrithik is too stupid to figure out the charade, and also of course he falls in love with Kareena. And Rani is just happy to stand back and watch them together.
Until she shows up in London for a university interview, and spends time with Hrithik, and there is the first TWIST. And the first moment when I went “huh, underneath all this pleasant gloss, there is some interesting character work happening.” Hrithik finally figures out what happened, and explodes at Rani in anger and betrayal. Not for taking Kareena’s identity back when she was a little girl, but for not telling him the truth now. And Rani explodes right back! Reminding him that he had promised he would recognize her “in his heart” as soon as he saw her. And instead, he stepped off the train and walked right up to Kareena, the “pretty” one, and ignored her entirely, just as he did when he was a little boy.
This is a fun glossy movie, so the whole argument is ended with a love song, and it never comes up again, but in a different movie, this could have been a whole drama on it’s own. Because it is a fascinating situation in which both characters are right and both are wrong. And it’s one of those dialogues that make you look back at everything that happened before in a new light.
(I can’t help but hear “The power of Christ compels you!” in my head with the opening shot)
Rani, her whole life, has been the over-looked one. Not because she isn’t “pretty” (really, in this movie, Rani is much prettier than Kareena, more flattering hair and make-up and all). But because she doesn’t present herself as pretty. She is happy to sit in her room and read and write emails and do all of that. She likes standing in the background, being sweet and helpful and kind. But she has a little pain of insecurity inside of her, about her “pretty” friend Kareena who all the boys like, going all the way back to childhood. And that insecurity is what lead her to beg Kareena to pretend she wrote the letters, because she was afraid Hrithik would reject her if he knew it was her. That’s what she throws in his face in their confrontation “would you have written back if I signed them in my name?”
But then there’s that moment at the train station, where Rani had hope in her eyes that he really would recognize her “in his heart”, just like he promised. It wasn’t an impossible task, the two girls were standing right next to each other, he hadn’t seen either of them in 15 years. But he went right to the sparkling out going flirty one, not to the quiet one standing in the background. And Rani lost interest in him, or told herself she had lost interest, because clearly he didn’t “really” love her. From Rani’s side, she did everything right. She gave him a chance, he failed, and she didn’t hold it against him or resent it, she just closed that door in her life. But from Hrithik’s side, he never really got a chance. He went there looking for sparkling outgoing Kareena, all grown up, because that is who he thought was writing to him. Can he be blamed for taking so long to figure out that it was really Rani when it was her initial lie, and her continuation of that lie, which got him so confused?
In one of those modern movies, like Dum Laga Ki Haisha or Happy Bhaag Jayege, the tight 120 minute movies with the stripped down cast and time for character development, this could have been the whole plot! Hrithik coming to terms with his shallowness in only seeing the surface, and Rani with her insecurity which makes her make herself be hard to see. But it’s not a modern movie, so we just skip past this bit and on to the next twist.
(Thank goodness it’s not a modern movie! Then it would have to put the only real song over the end credits, blech!)
Hrithik and Rani are all happy and in love, and arrive home to explain what happened to their families. But, DEATH!!! Kareena’s father has died, apparently while Rani and Hrithik were all happy in London, and Kareena is all drained and sad and in white. And she goes running to embrace Hrithik, while Rani quietly removes her hand from Hrithik’s.
Boom! Second half! Everything kicks into high gear!!! The first half was kind of light weight, the love triangle was a pretty standard nice one-pretty one-hunky guy thing. It got a little interesting right at the end, with the nice one pointing out that the hunky guy was supposed to notice her, and the hunky guy pointing out that he never got a chance. But once that was resolve, blah again.
But the second half, wow!!! Rani’s character, “the nice one”, is the only one who doesn’t really change. Hrithik is the funnest to watch, but Kareena’s character goes through the biggest transformation.
It goes back to the what I was talking about, her just being “the pretty one” because she was so sparkly and flirty and outgoing, not because of her actual beauty. The second half of the film lets us go just a little bit under the surface of that, to ask if maybe she was always “the pretty one” because she didn’t feel like she had anything else. Her family was poor, we now learn, compared to her friends. Her mother is dead, maybe she always had to charm her friend’s and their families to feel like she “deserved” their love. And maybe she seemed selfish in the first half, but that was just because she didn’t feel like she had anything to give her friends. And really, while she ended up “stealing” Hrithik from Rani, initially she was doing Rani a pretty big favor by pretending she wrote those letters, and spending time with some guy she didn’t even really know.
(I kind of hate her here for being all sparkly and center of attention. But, on the other hand, this is her one chance to shine, the annual concert where her lack of family and money and scholastic ability don’t matter. Also, it’s Christmas themed? How have I never noticed that before!)
In the second half, we get to see poor Kareena’s heart laid bare in this first moment of grief. She doesn’t bother with the make-up or the sexy clothes, she doesn’t even want to eat, and she is pitifully grateful for any small kindness shown to her. Not to mention the touching scene when Hrithik’s parents and Rani’s parents come together to reassure her that she still has a home and family, even if she is now and orphan and about to lose her home. It retroactively explains why “nice” Rani has been such a good friend to her all along, and why her family and Rani’s family put up with all her shenanigans. We, the audience, only got to see her for a brief moment when she was at her worst, all over-confident and over-shadowing. But we can now fill in the gaps that the rest of the people in her life know her in other ways.
And we also get to see her being a remarkably generous and caring friend, once she feels she has something to give. Back in Shimla, Rani was the good student with the bright future and the wealthy loving parents. But now in London, Kareena is the one planning her wedding to the man of her dreams with her whole life falling into place. And she immediately starts moving to get Rani all the same things she has, finding her a delightful potential suitor, striving to push them together, encouraging her to reach for her own happiness in a way that is really kind of sweet. Even to the point of wanting to share all her wedding festivities, the one moment when most women become their most selfish, with her best friend.
(Any normal woman would be angry at her best friend stealing the spotlight at her own engagement party. But Kareena is delighted!)
Oh, but I skipped past Hrithik going INSANE. Really, this character shift makes NO SENSE. He goes from this fairly sweet but dim guy in the first half, to this manic genius in the second half. It starts when he confronts Rani the night they arrive in India, asking her when they can tell their families the “truth”, that he loves Rani not Kareena. And Rani declares it is “too late”, they can’t break Kareena’s heart.
I can kind of see Rani’s point, it was her lies that got them into this, and Hrithik’s blindness to the truth, why should Kareena be punished for just going along with both their sins? And Kareena, as mentioned above, is now a penniless grief-stricken orphan, it would be kind of beyond the pale to abandon her.
But, on the other hand, Hrithik is right with his point of “This is NUTS!” He and Rani are in love, and Rani is talking about a lifelong charade that he loves someone else, just because they don’t want to have an awkward conversation right now. Not only will this mean misery for them, it probably isn’t sustainable long term. Especially because, as Hrithik points out, he was never actually in love with Kareena, it’s not a matter of forgetting his love for Rani in order to re-discover his love for Kareena, Kareena was never the one to begin with.
But, Rani is all about self-sacrifice and ignoring her own desires. So she forces Hrithik to swear he will marry Kareena. But she can’t stop him from also swearing that he will only do so on the day she marries someone else as well, making the same sacrifice as he. With the awesome line “It will take more than one ring to hold me.” Ufff!
And the “Uff!” effect continues with basically all of his scenes from now on. It’s kind of a Jane Eyre effect, this really sweet unassuming unnoticed heroine sparking CRAZED DESIRE in a super tortured and attractive man. Okay, in real life I would say she should get a restraining order (I would possibly say the same thing to Jane Eyre), but in fiction it is super romantic. Hrithik locks her in the room with him and twists her arm and declares she must marry him, or someone else, or else he will tell Kareena everything. He arranges for another man (Uday Chopra, looking like a frog, as always) to meet her so he can supervise her romance. He stalks her on dates. He threatens her with a smile in front of her friends and family. It’s very unhealthy. But so much more entertaining to watch than when he was just the silly happy guy in the first half!
(This guy. Eh. Also, bell-bottoms? Really, Hrithik?)
Until he all of a sudden gives in. It feels very sudden, but I think it kind of works thanks to Kareena’s character work. Initially, Hrithik was ready to throw her under a bus if it could save his and Rani’s happiness. But now he has spent time with her, seen her kindness and good heart, and he can understand why Rani is willing to do what she wants to do.
(This is, of course, the most important part of the movie. The thing that gives it a place in film history and popular consciousness. But it’s also important for the character work. Hrithik and Rani are having their same old argument, but off to the side Kareena is working through her sorrow at leaving home, her passionate devotion to Hrithik, and her concern that her friend share in her happiness)
I think maybe it culminates right before the wedding, when the 4 young people (Hrithik, Uday, Kareena, and Rani) are talking, and Kareena rolls over Rani’s objections and insists on telling Hrithik the truth, that she didn’t write those letters. She is scared and guilty and apologetic, and she feels bad for breaking Rani’s secret, but she still tells him because she wants them to start their marriage right. It’s a good sign for the ultimate success of their marriage, and a sign of how much Kareena loves him, and maybe it finally gets through to Hrithik a little that this is a good person who doesn’t deserve to have her heart broken just because she was trying to help a friend.
And then God takes a hand, as he so often does. Hrithik meets with Rani the night before the wedding and tells her he is okay with everything now. But on the day of the wedding, just as Kareena is learning the truth through finding Hrithik’s family heirloom bride gift in Rani’s jewelry box and sized to fit Rani’s hands, magical God-wind blows the little dish of sindoor over just as Hrithik’s hand brushes past it, knocking it into Rani’s part.
But forget God, Kareena was going to do the right thing anyway! Just as soon as she changed out of her bride clothes make-up and hair and put on her self-sacrificing woman outfit instead (really, this is on the costume person, they should have realized that people would notice Kareena went from fully brided out to not brided out at all in the space of a few minutes). Again, the second half is all about Kareena. Rani was willing to make the sacrifice for her, when it just meant breaking up a secret engagement. Kareena is willing to make the same sacrifice when it is just minutes before her wedding, and it means she will be losing everything in her life.
Or, maybe not! Finally, the title of the movie makes sense! Kareena points out that just having two friends who care for her this much is all she needs to be happy. She isn’t really losing anything by canceling her wedding, she is gaining a friendship. Awwwww! That’s kind of sweet! And kind of a nice ending to it all. Although I would have also accepted Uday and Kareena deciding they might as well marry each other, making it a double wedding after all.
(I guess this is as good a place as any for me to put this song. And also to point out that it was CLEARLY filmed during the England schedule, not the Shimla one. I guess the characters are supposed to have driven over to England for the day, and then back to Shimla for the scenes that night)