Last Kuch Kuch post! Sad for those of you who love Kuch Kuch, happy for those of you who are sick of it.
The most important thing to understand about Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is that Kajol plays the protagonist of the film. She is the central character, it is her actions that drive the plot, and it is her life that changes the most over the course of the film. Shahrukh is her reward and complication and end goal, and Rani serves the plot purpose of an obstacle in her path. The whole film is driving towards a happy ending for Kajol, only Kajol, and it will not make sense unless you see that.
We don’t open with Kajol. But then, Indian films often don’t open with the protagonist. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Karan’s next film, holds off for over 10 minutes before we see Shahrukh. DDLJ, Kajol and Shahrukh’s last film before this one held off for a long time too. This movie opens with Shahrukh, he gets no build up at all, his face is literally the first shot of the film. No mystery either, we know everything about him and who he is right away. Widower, small child, good job, doesn’t plan to ever fall in love again. And only after that slow intro do we get to see Kajol. Kajol gets the full glamour intro, with dramatic spins and music. And Kajol gets the slow unbundling of her character as well.
Shahrukh is different in his flashback college persona than from his modern persona, but it is a subtle difference that the film does not bother to emphasis. He doesn’t feel like a brand new character in the flashback, he is still the same person we already saw in the present. It is Kajol that is different, Kajol that is special.
Kajol’s character in this film is just amazing. I don’t want to say “different from the usual heroine” because that minimizes her. She is just different from anyone. Or, I’ll put it another way, her character is so clearly drawn and so perfectly performed so that she truly feels like a real person and, like any real person, she is unique.
No one else in the film really reaches that level of “real”. Shahrukh and Rani are good characters and good performances, but the usual level of good. Shahrukh is a slightly immature flirt in college who finds his first love and lies to himself that he isn’t also in love with his best friend. Rani is a sensitive quiet type who is swept away by Shahrukh’s courtship but also feels sad for what it is doing to Kajol. Shahrukh grows up to be a confident happy successful man who loves his daughter and has some deep seated grief and guilt about his wife’s death. That’s interesting, and enjoyable to watch, and certainly more than enough for the audience to sympathize with them and understand their emotions. But it’s not the same as what we feel for Kajol.
Sympathy says, “I understand how you feel”. Empathy says, “I am feeling what you feel.” We feel sympathy for everyone in this film. This is one of those pleasant movies with no real bad guy in it. Poor Rani, poor Shahrukh, poor Little Anjali, even poor Salman. They are just trying to do the best they can with what they have, trying to live happy lives without hurting anyone else. But Kajol is something different. We don’t feel sympathy for her, we don’t want her to have a happy ending because she deserves it, we feel with her and we want her to have a happy ending because we want a happy ending for ourselves, selfishly.
There’s two parts to why we feel this so strongly. The first is Kajol’s performance. She has always been what I think of as a “naked” actor. She doesn’t parse out her dialogue or practice her mannerisms, she goes out and just exists within the character. But it’s more than that, something about her face just grabs the camera and holds on, like we are staring right into her soul when she is onscreen. The combination of the naked face and the natural acting make Kajol riveting in even the worst roles. But this movie adds on another element, it gives her a character that uses those abilities to the utmost.
Karan wrote this script for Kajol and Shahrukh and Twinkle Khanna. Twinkle dropped out, Rani replaced her. In theory, Kajol and Shahrukh should have characters that are equally strong and equally well-matched to them. But for whatever reason, when the film was finished, Kajol’s character fits her like a second skin, and the film becomes her story, while Shahrukh ends up being a charming support.When we first meet Kajol, she is a heroine like we haven’t seen before. A tomboy, sure, we’ve seen that. But a loud confident tomboy, not a shy awkward one. A demanding truthtelling friend, the kind who calls you on your BS. But also the kind of loyal helpful person that you would ask to befriend your daughter when she was new in school, and the kind of person that actually would befriend your daughter just because she seemed to need a friend. Her best friend is a boy, but she is close to her female house mother, and quickly becomes close to her new female friend. She isn’t a tomboy in the “can only interact with men, is only confident when doing her boyish thing, doesn’t know how to make friends or be social” way. She is just a person who likes playing basketball, isn’t interested in clothes, and whose best friend happens to be a boy. No labels apply.
We know Kajol’s character so well so quickly that when the plot starts moving, her motivations are clear on a whole different level from the other two. Is Shahrukh really in love or just intrigued by a new girl? Is Rani shy or not interested or playing hard to get? None of it is clear at the start. And yet Kajol’s mind we can read perfectly. We know the moment that she suddenly saw her relationship with Shahrukh in a new light and started thinking about love instead of friendship. We see her confused scared fumblings towards a love story. We see how she is hurt by Shahrukh’s growing closeness with Rani while not acknowledging to herself that she is hurt and why she is hurt. Every little moment of kindness from Shahrukh increases her hope and brings her closer to acknowledging her feelings, every time she sees him with Rani her hope goes down and she is thrown back into fear. And all of this is clear to the audience, more clear even than it is to Kajol herself. We are so far into her own head that we are feeling her unconscious emotions, not just the ones she is acknowledging to herself.
I always remember the song “Tujhe Yaad” as a sad song, but it’s actually sad and happy. We see all three main characters, Shahrukh and Rani in love and together, and Kajol sad. But it is a sad song because we aren’t seeing Shahrukh and Rani and thinking “oh how nice, they are in love”, we are seeing them through Kajol’s eyes, thinking “that is what Kajol will never have, that is what she has lost”. Shahrukh and Rani only exist by this point for the audience as people that can cause happiness or hurt for Kajol.
That’s how the rest of the movie plays out. We see Shahrukh’s anguish when he says good-bye and the response is not “poor Shahrukh” or “poor Rani watching this”, but rather “poor Kajol seeing what she has lost, and giving it up”. We return to the present to see Shahrukh with Little Anjali talking about Kajol and, again, we aren’t really seeing them. We are seeing them in terms of their relationship with Kajol, hope for Shahrukh to come around and find his love for her, excitement for her to join this new happy household, and so on.
Kajol’s introduction, long hair and saris now, is seen in contrast to Shahrukh’s memories of her. That’s not how it would be if we were in Shahrukh’s head, in that case we would hold off, have the reveal at the same time as he does. No, the goal is for us to be with Kajol, to know that she is now more feminine and to know that Shahrukh does not know that, and look forward to the reveal and her satisfaction at his surprise.
Beyond the long hair and saris, she is still the same person. At her engagement party, she throws herself in to the dancing without enjoying the attention. Her face is open and smiling, she is enjoying the party, she is happy that other people are there, and she likes playing with Salman in the same way she played with Shahrukh in college. No flirtation, no fussy prettiness. She is still straightforward, outgoing, confident. The only thing that is slightly different is the one moment of sadness in the middle of the song. That wasn’t there before, it is a remnant of her college heartbreak. In a larger sense, it is a remnant of growing up, having that first moment of sadness that makes her learn to fear hurt, learn that everything won’t always work out for the best.
Kajol’s performance in the second half carries that knowledge of hurt always inside of it. In college she was fearless, in every way. Short hair, casual clothes, cocky loud behavior, she was herself because it never occurred to her to be anything else. Now, she is more cautious, less visible. The long hair, the saris, it is camouflage. She is still herself on the inside, she is just more cautious about letting people see it.
Her maturity is actually greater fragility. In college her broken heart was hard but it made her grow up, move on, build up a new life. Now she is grown up, she knows herself inside and out, there is no more hiding from her feelings. If her heart breaks again, there is no protection of hope, of thinking things will get better, of growing up a little more and living a little longer. The heartbreak of adulthood is so much worse than the heartbreak of growing up because there is no escaping from it.
In the second half, it is the fragility we see over and over again. Her gentle understanding for orphaned Little Anjali, her shock and afraid to hope reaction when she sees Shahrukh on the TV asking for Little Anjali, and her heartbreak when hearing of Rani’s death. Her first meetings with Shahrukh are where it is most obvious, her cautious quiet response to him, unwillingness to reveal anything of herself. It isn’t until she is on the firm ground of the basketball game that she relaxes a little. But even then, it is still cautious, her armor is still up. In their love song, Shahrukh imagines Kajol as she was in college, pictures her teasing him and telling him that he is in love. He is picturing his best friend telling him the truth about his feelings, which are coincidentally for the grown up version of his best friend. But for Kajol, it is different. She is imagining young Shahrukh when she looks at old Shahrukh, and her face is scared. Can she trust him? Will she be hurt again?
The gazebo scene is the romantic peak, the moment when Kajol finally lets go of all her fears and doubts and lives her emotions. But the sequence right before it is important too. They are playing charades, and Kajol is embarrassed to act out the sexy running from Rangeela. She doesn’t like being the center of attention that way, isn’t someone who is comfortable with it, still isn’t comfortable with being outwardly sexual or “pretty”, just like when she dressed in her big boyish clothes in college. And then she has to act out “I love you” and isn’t comfortable with that either, being so emotionally open does not come naturally to her. She is already thrown and confused by the charade game which tried to make her come out of hiding, reveal her sexuality and her emotions in a way she isn’t comfortable with, and then Shahrukh rushes her off before she can think and entices her into a dance, breaks through her reserve and her caution and surprises her.
And finally, finally, Kajol is brave enough to try again, to confess her feelings. Only to have it go wrong, again, because she confesses them to the wrong man. By the time Shahrukh finds her, they are surrounded by people and Salman has firmly claimed her as “his”. And Kajol has shut down again, retreated to her space of caution. It’s when she is planning her marriage to Salman that we see a truly broken Kajol. The adult Kajol, that was a strong woman who knew herself but was cautious about revealing herself to others. But this Kajol, she is revealing herself, and the self she is revealing is sad and hopeless. To her mind, the fearless open Kajol has just been hurt again, she opened herself again and was hurt again.
The final scene of the film is about Shahrukh finally making a move to reach for Kajol and let go of his grief and guilt. But it is also about Kajol being so broken down that she cannot make a move towards her own happiness, literally cannot move. The Kajol we saw at the start of the film spoke for herself and fought for herself, in every way in every place. And then she got her heart broken and her life fell apart (it wasn’t just that she didn’t get Shahrukh, she had to leave college in the middle of term, and her father died). She rebuilt her life, carefully, into a happy adulthood. Only for Shahrukh to pull out all those feelings again, break through her reserve, and break her heart again with no hope of fixing it.
The end of the movie, in many ways, is about people paying back what Kajol has given them. Shahrukh courts her, slowly, over the second half of the film because he knows somehow that she can’t do it, and comes to her wedding because she can’t come to him. Anupam Kher is there too, ready to welcome Kajol into his family and repay her warm love from college days. Farida Jalal is there to welcome her as a new daughter, repaying her kindness to Little Anjali. Himani Shivpuri is there too, repaying her childish love from college, and was the one who first helped Little Anjali track her down. Reema Lagoo, her mother who Kajol has supported and comforted since the death of her husband, has been cautious about this wedding all along and is now worried about it since seeing Shahrukh. Even Rani, paying back the open-hearted friendship Kajol offered her back in college, her first friend in college. And then there’s Salman. Who loves her enough, and understands the sacrifice she made for him (agreeing to an engagement she didn’t want, going through with the wedding she didn’t want), to step back and make sure she marries the man she loves.
This is the story of Kajol, a character who has been knocked down so many times she has lost the ability to pick herself up again. Kajol was free and brave and happy. And then she learned that the world wasn’t fair and she had her heart broken and she learned to be a little more careful. But still strong, insisting on doing her job even if it meant that she had to delay the wedding and go against Salman. And then Shahrukh shows up again, breaks her heart again, and now she has learned the lesson that a woman should not hope for anything, should not believe she can ever have anything. The miracle is the ending, when the people around her stand up and tell her that they want her to be happy, she doesn’t have to be afraid any more, she can find that free and happy young woman again and have everything she ever dreamed of.