This is going to be a lot of personal stuff, get ready for that! But also it might help you understand why, for the particular moment in time and the particular generation I am and all the rest, Kuch Kuch is still so important.
When I was in college, I saw DDLJ and felt like finally there was a movie for me, for a teenage girl who loved her family and was scared to be out in the world and needed someone there to nag her until she felt free and strong and independent. And then I started asking my friends, all 19 year old desi girls in college, for recommendations of other movies. They told me to watch Main Hoon Na, because it was fun and funny and just came out. And to watch K3G because everyone was listening to the songs back in high school. And Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, because they loved it.
The girls I was talking to (not women, not really) were 12 or 13 when Kuch Kuch Hota Hai came out. What they remembered was how fun Little Anjali was, the bright colors, the summer camp jokes. And how fun it was to watch Kajol beat Shahrukh at basketball and be “like a boy”. So I watched it, for the first time at age 19, and I came away with something a little different.
Kajol was fun in the first half, but I didn’t want to be her, I felt for her. She was a college student trying to figure out how to grow up and be happy, with her hopes and dreams right on her face. She was me! Not grown up yet but figuring things out. And the second half, that was what I wanted. To be sure of myself and who I was in the world, and to find all those dreams from when I was young somehow coming true.
And then I saw the Gazebo scene and it was everything I wanted just in that moment for sex and romance and love. Shahrukh is so gentle with Kajol, so caring. It is sexy in a way that is safe without feeling fake. At 19, on the edge of being a grown woman, this let me see how a man and woman could be together without feeling like I was somehow crossing a terrifying line into adulthood.
I look at the later movies now from Karan, and Shahrukh, and even Kajol and Salman, and I can see that this film is just not as good. In every way. The characters have flaws, the plot has flaws, even the lighting and editing and camera work could be so much better. But when I was 19, I didn’t want “good”. I didn’t want deep real characters and complex realistic filming, I didn’t want Ae Dil Hai Mushkil or Jab Harry Met Sejal or even Fanaa, I wanted something bright and happy and safe.
When I was 19, every girl I knew (yes, they were all Desi) was obsessed with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Something about going from identifying with Little Anjali and all the fun and freedom she had to identifying with Big Anjali and the challenge and pain of growing up. With the potential happy ending of Present Day Anjali, sure of herself and beautiful and still good at basketball and with the perfect man in love with her. When I graduated college, I started working minimum wage jobs with a bunch of other young women trying to figure out their lives, and we would have movie nights and watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai over and over again. And cry when Kajol cried and cheer when she was happy and sigh during the Gazebo scene, and complain about Little Anjali.
That’s the thing about this movie, it is made for little girls. There’s a reason we open with Little Anjali and her fun and exciting life, there’s a reason we spend so much time with Kajol in college being wacky and confident and having fun. It’s not giving little girls lessons or anything, but it is somehow grasping exactly what they like. To be free, to be loved, to be brave and do things and change things. To go to a silly summer camp but still have your grandmother there to take care of you, to have a Dad who is wise and loving but also kind of silly and makes you giggle, and then to grow up a little bit and go to college and have friends and play drums and be something special. And then the second half happens and, once it stops focusing on Little Anjali, the little girl audience kind of tunes things out. Shahrukh and Kajol get together, blah blah, let’s have more of Little Anjali goofing around with Salman!
What makes this movie really special is when you grow up watching it as a little girl, you love the fun and adventure and jokes, and then one day you sit down to watch it again and suddenly that second half just clicks in to place, it’s not boring any more, you care about whether adult “boring” Kajol is going to pick Salman or Shahrukh just as much as you cared about her when she was in college. You understand why she isn’t good at basketball any more and why that is okay and she is still a cool person. And you understand why the gazebo scene is magical, and not just a boring part between two funny scenes with kids.
This film is the perfect all ages movie, but specifically all ages of girls. Each scene of adult angst and romance is bookended by fun childhood silliness. Each scene of fun childhood silliness has a small element of adult yearning within it. If you grow up with this movie, you truly grow up WITH it. You can watch your enjoyment of it shift as time goes on, from one place in the film to another. Heck, my grandmother liked this movie because she identified with the grandmother!!!! The strong loving stubborn older woman who got to go to summer camp with her granddaughter.
Karan made this movie when he was very young. And when he was a little afraid to grow up, relying on his father and his friends to guide him, hiding away from the world a bit. Maybe that is why he crafted a story that feels like it is written by and for children, at least a little bit, living in some fantasy fairy tale world where everything is safe and everything is planned and everything always works out for the best.
Kajol was young too, only 23. And she had just fallen in love, there’s the famous cute story of how she hit her head during filming and the only person she could remember was Ajay. And she always acted from her heart. Somehow in this film she creates a character who is a few years younger than her, still uncertain of her own heart, and a woman a few years older, sure of herself and her feelings and trying to decide what to do about them.
For Rani, it was her second big movie. The uncertainty, the “new girl in school” effect, that was all real. She was the new girl in school, trying to figure out how to be an actress, how to be on film set, all of that.
And then there was Shahrukh. He made this film as he was preparing to become a father, and maybe that feeling of looking back and looking forward, informed his character. He was far far too old for his character in the first half, and just right for the second half. As a young woman, watching this movie for the first time, there was an odd kind of distance built into his performance and character that I liked. In DDLJ, he had been like a boy I could have known from college, and that made it more scary and also a little more exciting. But in this movie, he wasn’t quite real. His confidence in college, even the visible aging of his face, dropped him into an uncanny valley where he felt almost real but not quite. In the second half, he was the perfect father, loving and kind and funny. He made me feel safe, reminded me of my own father and other “grown-up” men who I had been around. That’s what a “grown-up” is like, warm and kind and funny. And then the Gazebo scene and the basketball scene happened, and I got to feel feelings for him. But, safe feelings. Shahrukh was handsome and sexy and funny, but he was also a “grown-up”. Someday, not now but someday, I would be grown-up like Kajol and I would have a wonderful perfect grown-up man to love me. Maybe two, there was Salman there also!
Watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai now, that whole history is part of it for me. I can see if I were coming at it for the first time now, as a grown adult close to the age Kajol and Shahrukh are supposed to be in the second half, it might bother me. Their romance wouldn’t feel like a perfect thing to dream about and hope for, but like something I could see in reality, and therefore I would be more critical of it. I already missed out on watching it at an age when I would find Little Anjali actually enjoyable, maybe if I came to it at age 29 instead of 19 I would have missed the age when I would find College Kajol so painfully sympathetic. Maybe if I came at it at 39, I would no longer love Adult Kajol and Adult Shahrukh either.
Or, maybe not. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai set records when it released, massive records. It was like Titanic, or Gone With the Wind, all of India was in love with the film. Heck, the whole world was in love with it! As part of my thesis I interviewed someone, a non-desi, who saw it in that first release in a little auditorium in Toronto with no subtitles. A friend from high school dragged him there and said he HAD to see it. There was something there, some kind of magic coming from the screen, that set the world on fire. And for some of us, that fire is still burning.