Shahrukh Birthday Month Re-Review, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna!

I just reread my original review, and it was quite good, but there are so many other interesting points to discuss that I didn’t even touch upon! I’m excited!

This movie came about, according to Karan, partly because he looked at all the marriages around him, and none of them were happy. What I find interesting in that statement are two things, first that he is talking about “marriages” and second that he is talking about “around him”. This movie is critiqued in general as yet another Karan rich people problems movie. But he is trying to be accurate, he has only observe the marriages AROUND HIM, he is not going to overreach and try to deal with how marriages might be unhappy in other classes. And second, he is talking about marriages, not “couples”. The more I think about that idea, the more fascinating I find it.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna understood better today, says filmmaker Karan Johar  | Celebrities News – India TV

This is a movie about social rules versus human nature. “Marriage” is a social definition, “couple” is just two people. The same idea comes up again and again in this movie, what does it mean to be a mother? A father? An in-law? What are the rules we are supposed to follow versus what is in our heart? “Husband” and “wife” are the two strongest rules at play, but all the others are in here also.

Karan, in his usual speaking-before-thinking way, said that all the marriages he knew were unhappy. But what I think might be more accurate is to say that all the people he knew who were trapped and defined by “marriage” were unhappy. It’s one thing to share a life with the person you love, it is something else to start by being put into a strict social role and having the exact person you are with, and the person you are, expected to follow along.

This film has 6 central characters, and each of them ends up rebelling against the social role they are supposed to play. Amitabh as the “patriarch”, Kirron as the “mother-in-law”, Preity and Rani as the “wives” and Abhishek and Shahrukh as the “husbands”. It’s not a coincidence that Amitabh and Kirron are both widowed, Karan wanted to focus in on their roles as parental figures. But the younger generation, then are husbands and wives, and also children, and also parents. And in all of those ways, they are feeling trapped, the distance between the emotional truth inside and the social structure outside is growing and growing and they are being pulled apart by it.

Everyone in this song is unhappy, not just Rani and Shahrukh, and this is well before the affair starts

The title of the movie is “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna”, and I think it works to say “say good-bye but don’t say good-bye”. Say good-bye to the rules of what marriage is, what family is. But don’t say good-bye to the people involved. It’s okay to love someone and be in their lives outside of what the rules are for how you are supposed to be together. A different version of the movie would have the social roles firmly restructured and everyone divided like a wall came down between them, and that is the happy ending. This movie says “no, you don’t have to do that, you can find a way to always be friends”.

I’m gonna reach back to American social history to better explain what I mean. Until maybe the 1970s, the common wisdom was that divorce “confused” children, that it was good for there to be a firm line. One parent kept custody, the other parent disappeared as though they never existed. If the custodial parent remarried, the new spouse was the “parent” of the child as though the original parent never existed. But then things changed and we started to accept the idea of just finding a new way to be, a new kind of family arrangement where everyone still loved each other, they just weren’t around each other every day. I think that’s what this film is trying to say. Just because one form of a relationship ends doesn’t mean you can’t build something new on the ashes. Don’t be afraid to break a relationship, you won’t lose everything, you can start fresh.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I’m gonna go in chronological order, including the things that we don’t actually see. Rani is orphaned at a young age, teenager perhaps or younger. She is taken in by loving family friends, Amitabh and his wife and their son Abhishek. Amitabh’s wife dies, the family is struck by grief, but they have joy in the idea of Rani marrying Abhishek and officially becoming part of the family. Meanwhile, in India, Shahrukh is the only son of a single mother Kirron. His best friend from college Preity proposes marriage. Shahrukh is a star athlete, he is the primary wage earner while Preity gets pregnant, has a child, and raises the baby with the help of Kirron. Preity goes back to work and at the same time Shahrukh has a career-ending accident. 4 years later, Amitabh has rejected the idea of a “perfect” Patriarch and become a funloving horndog. Kirron is still snarky and snappy at her son and approves of her working daughter-in-law. Shahrukh is a bitter stay at home parent. Preity is a super successful workaholic. Abhishek is an event planner who parties all the time. And Rani is infertile and unattracted to her husband. Rani and Shahrukh meet, become friends, bond over their bad marriages, and finally start an affair. They break it off and tell the truth to their spouses, both marriages end. 3 years later, Rani and Shahrukh meet again and Shahrukh proposes.

Okay, let’s focus on the most important thing our two leads (Rani and Shahrukh) have in common: they are physically incapable of fulfilling the proper marital role. Rani is a wife, she is supposed to have a child. Shahrukh is a husband, he is supposed to be the physically stronger one who provides for the household. But, they can’t. Both marriages start out from a place of strict social order. Rani will marry Abhishek, have a child, re-form the family group that was lost when Amitabh’s wife died. Shahrukh will marry Preity, provide for the family and child. But once that becomes impossible, what is left?

The answer is, “not enough”. I think this is what Karan is talking about with unhappy marriages. If you go into marriage because you want to be married, you will be disappointed eventually. The “perfect marriage” does not exist. Your husband will lose his job, your wife will be a bad cook, something will happen. But if you go into marriage because you want to be with this one particular person, none of the rest of that matters.

That’s this song, realizing being with this person without any definition at all is worth doing

It’s not just your expectation for your partner, it’s your expectation for yourself. Rani got married wanting kids. She can’t have them, and suddenly she doesn’t feel like a “wife” any more. Shahrukh got married expecting to be the more important successful partner. He isn’t that any more, and he doesn’t feel like a “husband”.

Karan gives them both clear physical issues preventing them from being “normal” husband/wife, and he gives the audience a clear physical sign of the issues in the marriage. Karan uses sex very well here. The marriages aren’t falling apart because of bad sex, the sex is bad because the marriages are falling apart. Shahrukh doesn’t feel desirable and Preity’s calm confident “I don’t need you” attitude is not helping. Rani feels old and broken and Abhishek’s boyish eager teasing is not helping her feel young.

On the other hand, the affair is an emotional affair for a long long time before it turns physical. This is not two people who passionately physically desire each other. These are two people who really like each other, and know each other, and feel happy together, and all of those things eventually make the sex good.

If we take this version of the theme, two people incapable of filling the social roles in their marriages who find true love outside of marriage which re-affirms their worth as people, then the decision to tell their spouses everything has a different meaning. It’s not about returning to the marriage because they are “supposed” to, it’s about trying to restart their marriages on a new path. They have broken out of social rules, they are returning home because they choose to return home, and now it is up to their spouses to choose to stay with them, or not.

The end of the marriage isn’t the affair, the end of the marriage is Abhishek and Preity saying “no, I am not willing to forgive and start over as two flawed people. You’ve broken our marriage vows, you’ve broken what I thought this relationship meant, and there is nothing left”. It’s a realization that was a long time coming, the only thing keeping them together was a pretense of fulfilling the social order. Once that pretense is wrecked, nothing is there.

What makes this film radical is the epilogue. Turns out, once you break free of social rules, you have to work hard to build something new, but it is better in the end. Preity becomes a better mother, Shahrukh a better father. They even become better friends to each other, there is a real sense of caring in their brief interactions. Abhishek and Rani have a harder row to plow, but it ends in the same place, Abhishek acknowledging her place in his life and vice versa. Rani and Shahrukh do the inner work to build independent lives for themselves. It’s not the end, no one ever says “good-bye”. They just keep going on their lives and breaking new roads. Culminating in the ending. Shahrukh and Rani get together not because they are guilty over an affair, not because society says they must, not for any reason at all but that they want to be together.

The film is still flawed of course. The characters are taken just that much too far past regular people and into stereotypes, from Amitabh’s “Sexy Sam” to Preity’s “hip young magazine editor”. The narrative balance is all out of whack, the affair takes forever to get going with all these twists and dead ends. And then the epilogue section, the one with the biggest moral of the film, is rushed. But the kernel of it is genius, a man and woman crippled and unable to do what they are supposed to do in their relationships, which brings up the question of what “marriage” is if it can’t work the way you expect it to work?

16 thoughts on “Shahrukh Birthday Month Re-Review, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna!

    • Really sells the “sexually frustrated trapped in a dead marriage”, doesn’t he?

      On Tue, Oct 6, 2020 at 3:36 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. First of all, I have to say that this is one of my favorites and I almost cried when I watched it.

    Now, I would like to ask if Karan wanted to make the ending that Yashji didn’t have the courage (or possibility) to do for Silsila in the 80’s. What do you think?

    Silsila broke my heart. KANK too, but we have the happy ending.

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    • I think Yashji did the ending he wanted for Silsila in broad strokes, but struggled a bit with how he could convey it without seeming trite. I think what he wanted was to show “here are two perfectly fine compatible married couples, but unfortunately two of them never got the chance to work a fantasy of love out of their system”. We have a speech from Jaya about how she slowly gently let go of Shashi and learned to love Amitabh (indicating the natural process of getting over a failed love affair), and we have Sanjeev saying to Rekha he feels like she is holding back from him somehow (indicating that she entered the marriage without her whole heart which is not fair to anyone). What he wanted was to puncture the idea of One True Love, to show that Jaya and Amitabh and Sanjeev and Rekha were compatible couples who were learning to love each other in a deeper way than any romantic dating relationship could have. That Amitabh and Rekha just had to work through their affair to the end in order to see how empty their connection really was.

      He put in all this groundwork, but then failed in the ending, so instead of reading it as deconstruction of the fantasy of superficial romantic love, it reads as a trite triumph of Marriage Bonds Over All.

      In contrast, this movie puts in the work to show that the married couples were fundamentally incompatible. And that the love affair was as much about compatibility and just liking each other as it was about True Love. I think they make really interesting contrasts, one showing “this is an affair between two people who just don’t want to do the work in their marriages and long for escape”, versus “this is an affair between two people who have been working at their marriages for a long long time and it will never be better”.

      On Tue, Oct 6, 2020 at 4:33 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Silsila’s ending for me is so moralistic and painful. It’s a tragic story. Jaya may have learned to love Amitabh, but he didn’t love her, or the film fails to demonstrate that he felt anything for her beyond responsibility. And she became like the virtuous mother who faces everything, who waits for everything, to support her family. “Love is faith”.

    On the other hand, Rekha also didn’t love her husband too. She looked empty with him. It looked like she was just there, she could barely talk to him. And there was nothing that would compel her to be with him other than social pressure (which is already very big in that society). So it doesn’t make sense for me to run into his arms in the end. In an ideal world, if not with Amitabh, she would end up alone. I don’t think either of them would lead a happy life, Rekha more unhappy than Amitabh, I guess.

    I don’t think the connection between them was empty. The dramatic way in which their separation took place, the unfinished relationship, only makes the connection even stronger.

    Maybe I’m just a romantic who is more attached to chemistry than logic. That’s why the KANK ending was so satisfying for me. I was relieved.

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    • For me, I am happy with the Silsila ending. Partly because I cared about Jaya and Sanjeev far more than Amitabh and Rekha and they were happy. And also just because there was a warmth there between Jaya and Amitabh that I believed in, little things like seeing them bath together after the Holi song. But none of that was in KANK, those marriages were truly dead with no hope for them.

      On Tue, Oct 6, 2020 at 6:22 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I have always read the themes in the movie as gay men trapped in straight marriages. Rani and Shahrukh are stand ins for gay men. Abhishek is the greatest guy but Rani just does not feel the ‘passion’ for him. Shahrukh is pseudo straight (bisexual but does not know it) guy trapped in a loveless marriage. The angst and themes in many KJo films read very differently to a gay audience. Kuch Kuch Hota is gay boy (Kajol) in love with his straight best friend at school who falls in love with it girl at school and of course the fantasy fulfillment that he finds him after all these years. Khabi khusi khabi ghum is about a guy coming out and the father kicking him out (Kajol, Farida Jalal and Kareena’s performances are so drag queenish). A Dil hai Mushkil is again the same ‘gay man(Ranbir) in love with the straight man(Anushka) who loves him but not in a romantic way. Kara’s films have very gay interpretation once you shed the female genders and the gloss n the songs..

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  4. the number of times I have had the KANK argument with a friend (her: “it glorifies infidelity!” me: “it lets you see the broken nature of marriage!”) is too many to count. I’m one of those people for whom KANK hurt, just because I may have seen exactly what Karan saw, almost every marriage being unhappy (it’s only been the last three years where I’ve seen okayishly or even genuinely happy marriages). And the ending was amazing for me. It didn’t feel too rushed, it felt very real (well, proposing I remove from the picture. They moved in together and might get married someday). Other than Sam being a bit over the top, most things felt real – I have seen wives like Preity and Rani and husbands like Shahrukh and Abhishek and even parents like Amitabh and Kirron, with some fights being almost word-for-word. It always interested me when Shahrukh said he never wanted to play Dev that angry and Karan agrees, because it makes so much SENSE! Of course he’d be angry! Of course he fits in that narrative. Shahrukh being only sad or only frustrated wouldn’t be natural to his earlier, jokey persona or to Dev himself, who is in that in-between ABCD or NRI space.

    KANK is a movie I can only watch in bursts, because I have to watch it until it hurts, and then force myself to look away from the crash. But I’ve always loved the story. Rani and Shahrukh are broken, due to societal pressure, due to their internal pressure, and in some cases, due to their own sensitivity to their past, some of which must have been born within them. Abhishek was perfect and Preity was great and they’re broken too. I always wished they’d try to give it one more chance (just to see that part), but of course they wouldn’t. The last four years have been those chances – there can be no more – and everyone is exhausted.

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    • Yes! Good point! We come into this film after 4 years of struggling with a broken marriage so that, by now, there is nothing left but ashes. Rani and Abhishek tried to have a baby, learned she was infertile, tried to pretend that was okay, stopped talking about it, drifted apart, stopped having sex, and now here we are 4 years later. Shahrukh had an accident, it made sense for Preity to keep working when he couldn’t, he went through rehab, she got promoted, he spent more time with their son, she spent less time at home, and now here we are 4 years later. If they’d had a trial separation and couple’s counseling 3 years ago, there might have been a chance. But by now, it’s dead-dead.

      Personally, I had the opposite journey with this film. Every couple I had been closely connected with would have been together without marriage, in some cases could not legally marry and were still together. Or, alternatively, got a divorce. So I looked at this movie and had a hard time understanding why Rani and SRK couldn’t just talk to their partners and vice versa, why everyone seemed so unhappy all the time. And then I got older and started seeing the world in a wider way and realized that a lot of couples are together because that’s the rule, you have to be together, and it’s a whole different thing from the marriages I knew.

      And yes, Dev would be angry! His career is over, he is trapped in a marriage he doesn’t want with someone who doesn’t want him any more either, and yet he has to keep going through the motions, appearing at parties, pretending to be happy.

      On Tue, Oct 6, 2020 at 7:53 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Thanks for the re-review. I’m passionate about this film from the moment I saw it in theaters during its initial run. I did judge the end of KANK as fan service, but to your point, if they hadn’t drawn it as an epilogue but instead as a genuine act 3, it would have felt more organic.

    What’s interesting to me is how at the time of release, it was seen as a movie that contemplates infidelity and condones divorce, throwing into question the sanctity of “marriage at all costs”. And how that interpretation was very much born out of the time and space of the evolving social mores of the era, both within India and among the diaspora. With this interpretation, the ending really is fan service.

    Contrast with today, where it is very clear that ranishek were doomed from the start, and preityrukh might have been infatuated in college but neither had the empathetic maturity to withstand extreme circumstantial changes to their marriage. In today’s world, this movie becomes more about marriage, and divorce is just the aftermath. And the ending reunion becomes integral to the story.

    To Karan’s point, these are 2 archetypes of Indian marriage that I have seen so often – either marrying for duty or as an existential framework to define your life, thinking you’ll eventually fall in love; or falling in like and being basically content since, again, it defines your existed framework, and that works for both until something or someone rocks your world to uncover the lack of grounding to the union. Both of these are varying degrees of “i want to be married” instead of “i want to marry you”. Note that I also know many happy and in love Indian marriages, so this is not to say that those are the only 2 options for Indians. But it was smart of Karan to showcase those two particular options, since they happen so often.

    I’m not sure if sexy Sam was meant to be comic relief ala Johnny lever or if Karan was making a statement about loneliness and existential crisis after your partner from a successful marriage has passed. To his credit, I’ll say that at least Sexy Sam was doing whatever he was doing with women who were just having their fun and had no further expectations from him. Contrast this with Harry of JHMS, the serial monogamist, in sequential long term live in relationships with women who were possibly in love with him but definitely expected permanence from him. While sexy Sam is drawn as more tawdry, I would argue that pre-Sejal Harry was actually the one that used women.

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    • Gonna start with a real life story that I think goes to your point, and come to think of it was in this same era (although not among desis). We had a family friend whose son-in-law had a freak stroke, age 30-something totally healthy, just random. And afterwards, the marriage couldn’t handle it. As a teenager, this blew my mind, that two people could love each other, have kids, build a life, be happy, and then this random disaster happens and the marriage can’t weather the storm. And that was coming from a western background where divorce was common and arranged marriages were unheard of. But there is still that idea of marriage as something solid, a framework you can rely on.

      So to your point, I think your two versions of “marriage” are perfect, and aren’t limited to Indian culture at all. Nor, as you point out, do they describe every marriage in Indian culture. People who run into marriage because it seems like a good idea and they love each other, and it is a “grown up” thing to do, and then they can’t weather the first real storm. And with Rani and Abhishek, a woman who chooses to marry without love because he is offering love and security and a place in the world, and it seems like a safe choice to make. Not to mention a man who marries a woman he knows doesn’t love him, counting on the “wife” role to still give him everything he needs. I honestly think the same story could be made in any society. Two people who got married young and grew apart, versus two people who married with a love imbalance and now she feels guilty and he feels increasingly unhappy. And both of them going into marriage in the first place because it seemed like a good thing to do, it gave definition to their lives, society expected it, etc. etc. etc. All these reasons outside of “because I want to spend my life with this person in particular”

      I think my biggest problem with Sexy Sam is that we are supposed to laugh at him. The moments when he was treated seriously, when he explained that he was acting like this because it was the opposite of his marriage, and just to mark time until he died, that rang real to me. But then they had these random “ha-ha” moments, and that felt like Karan pandering to what he though the audience wanted. And yes, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, beyond talking about women in a kind of demeaning way. Although he was also using sex workers, which in some ways is less good (sex work is arguably always dehumanizing to both parties), but in some ways is more good (clear transactional relationship).

      Like

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