What Karan did that was quietly radical is make the fiance plot conflict into a really nice guy. There is nothing wrong with Salman in KKHH, in fact he is a better option for Kajol than Shahrukh. And yet it is still a love triangle and a tragedy.
Salman’s character is so brilliant in Kuch Kuch. We never learn much about him, but we don’t need to know much about him. He is in love with Kajol, and also a little bit in love with Shahrukh, and Little Anjali and Reema Lagoo (okay, A LOT in love with Reema Lagoo). We don’t know how he met Kajol, what he does for a living (to be fair, we don’t know what anybody does for a living in KKHH), if he has any family of his own, any of that. Because that would just blur the issue. All we need to know is that he is handsome and charming and happy and very very in love with Kajol.
(Yes, this is the best version I could find. Sony is evil and mean and only makes some of the songs available on youtube)
Kajol has a decision to make in this film. Will she hold out for her one true love Shahrukh, or will she settle for Salman? But Karan wanted to design her decision so that it is purely between two kinds of love, not anything else. And so Salman has to be immediately as charming, handsome, wonderful as Shahrukh is, even in those first few moments when we meet him. This isn’t a simple decision of “should I marry the mean rich fiance or the nice loving poor man?” Both men are equally nice, equally young, equally rich/poor. We even see the two of them together at the same business conference, so we know they are at an equivalent professional level, there is no social advantage to marrying one over the other.
There is only one difference: Salman loves Kajol more. That’s the brilliance of casting Salman. Because he loves HARD, and he loves BIG. It’s a combination of the extravagant gestures, and our ability to believe that he really feels those extravagant gestures, they aren’t just for show. Salman’s character is all heart and all love and he wants to give all of that to Kajol. He doesn’t care that she doesn’t love him as much, he just hopes that some day she will love him a little bit.
Ultimately, Kuch Kuch is a competition between two kinds of romantic heroes at the top of their game, Salman and Shahrukh. While Shahrukh is intense and clever and fast-talking, Salman is demonstrative, excited, happy in love. You can compare their characters in DDLJ and Maine Pyar Kiya and see the same thing, one hesitates and holds back and thinks about what is happening and tries to control it, the other rushes in without thought, letting his feelings rule his head.
That is the conflict in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It’s all about Shahrukh thinking too much, essentially. While Salman loved Kajol, wooed Kajol, waited for Kajol, and won Kajol, Shahrukh was off there stuck on step number one, still not even sure if he loved her. Kajol has the choice between a man who will do anything for her and one who will do nothing at all.
Even at the end, Shahrukh does nothing. It is up to Salman to let his heart lead him into one final sacrifice, forcing these two people together since they aren’t able to force themselves. Shahrukh didn’t love Kajol enough to fight for her, but Salman loved her enough to fight her own battle, even when it was against himself.
Part of what makes this film so feminist is that Kajol gets to decide for herself, even when her decision isn’t really the best. Salman is, clearly, the better choice. He has no baggage, he has no shadow on his heart. And he makes her happy (she smiles all the time when they are together) and makes her mother happy. And he will do anything at all for her, from delaying the wedding to visiting her at camp, to hanging out with her old friend from college if she wants. If the choice is simply between “who is the more loving caring potential spouse?”, then Salman is the clear winner. But he’s not the one Kajol wants. She wants difficult complicated slow to move and hard to read Shahrukh instead. And so that is who she gets.