Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1971 feel good flick Anand stands as one of the finest films of Indian cinema. The lead character being jovial despite having a terminal illness was loved by the audiences. To make a film on a similar, novel idea was a risk in itself even fifteen years ago, when social media was non-existent. But Karan Johar took this challenge and the result was Kal Ho Naa Ho. There was no question of copy or being a remake. The only similarities between this flick and Anand were only the jovial terminally ill character. The rest was all different and thankfully, highly entertaining and touching. Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan, this love triangle had its share of comic and even naughty sequences. At the same time, the film exceled with its emotional sequences. Be it the intermission point when audiences learn of Aman’s illness or the marvellous scene of Aman pretending to read Rohit’s diary and not to forget, Aman’s sequence at the deathbed, the film left every viewer teary-eyed and this happens even in repeat viewing. 2 years before this classic, Karan Johar had presented Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham which also abounded in tear jerking sequences. But with Kal Ho Naa Ho, he arguably went a step further and audiences were not complaining.
As the film completes 15 years today, let’s look back at the circumstances that led to the making of the film and it’s quite unusual and even amusing. For that, let’s first rewind back to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham which released in December 2001. It was a multi-starrer and was not only a commercial blockbuster but also had a terrific word of mouth. However, Karan Johar, in his autobiography ‘An Unsuitable Boy’, admits that he couldn’t enjoy the success. When the film was in production, he was confident of it but six months before its release, the filmmaker happened to see Lagaan, the Aamir Khan starrer. It was a period film about a group of villagers defeating the British in a game of cricket. The novel storyline and gripping execution made it one of the greatest films of all time. KJo realized that times have changed and perhaps, he has not moved ahead with it.
Then came Dil Chahta Hai, also starring Aamir Khan, which was the first big Hindi urban film that was straight out of life and had real, conversational dialogues. The Farhan Akhtar debut directorial dealt a bigger blow to him as it redefined the idea of ‘cool’. By his own admission, he said that the coolness he brought in with his debut film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai seemed wannabe thanks to Dil Chahta Hai. Karan feared that Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, his “over-the-top, overly opulent, in-your-face mainstream family saga”, won’t work.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. It was an envious success but Karan however didn’t enjoy this time as he was scared the film won’t be remembered. Many critics bashed the film. Also, during the awards season, Lagaan took away all the awards and KJo certainly didn’t expect that, especially when Kuch Kuch Hota Hai received numerous awards, including 8 Filmfare trophies. KJo admits that “I felt ashamed, which was so stupid when I look back”. He says that these thoughts brought him down to earth and that was the best thing that came out of it.
Hence, the filmmaker decided that now he’ll make a commercial film which would be cool and won’t be looked down upon. He says, “I was very charged. I thought, even I’m cool; I’ve grown up in South Mumbai. I’ve got that affluence, I have that exposure. How can Farhan Akhtar be considered the coolest director? I will write a cool film. That’s how I began the journey to write Kal Ho Naa Ho.”
But a shaken Karan Johar was not ready to don the director’s hat as he feared he’ll make another version of his past films. Hence, he just wrote the story and screenplay and produced the film and he entrusted the responsibility of directing it to his assistant, Nikkhil Advani. KJo states, “I decided I was going to make this cool, hip film in New York, but with a traditional heart. So I started writing. I loved the process. In fact, I believe it’s my best screenplay.”
Karan Johar has no qualms in admitting that he regrets not directing the film. After all, he wrote it and “in spirit, in heart, perhaps in execution, it’s completely my film.” The process of letting go and accepting that somebody else is the director also was cumbersome. No wonder, there were conflicts. Nikkhil Advani stated in an interview before release, “We have had massive arguments during the making of Kal Ho Naa Ho. Why not? It is his story. He visualised it one way. I am shooting it in some other way. Differences are bound to happen.”
Karan, in the concluding lines, however makes it clear that he has fond memories of the film. He also reveals that Nikkhil Advani trained him in camera during Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and that how thankful he is for this kind gesture. Despite the Kal Ho Naa Ho experience, both are in touch but aren’t exactly friends, but KJo hints that he’s hopeful that they might collaborate some day in future.
Fortunately, all these controversies never made it to the news. When one mentions Kal Ho Naa Ho, it won’t come into the mind instantly and even industry and media would have trouble remembering this feud. Just like KJo, everyone just looks back at the film fondly, for its performance, New York setting, evergreen music, emotional and funny moments, Kantaben and yes also for its commercial success. After Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, it was the third big hit of Dharma Productions in a row. It won’t be wrong to state that Kal Ho Naa Ho put the banner in the league of other successful banners like Yash Raj Films and Rajshri Productions. It proved that Dharma is here to stay and rule and 15 years later, it’s good to see that the company has grown bigger and better!
P.S.: Kal Ho Naa Ho had ended up having Dil Chahta Hai and Lagaan references. In the ferry sequence, Aman while trying to woo ‘Ramdayal’ for Sweetu (Delnaaz Irani) remarks that he doesn’t have a cool hairdo since he hasn’t seen Dil Chahta Hai! Tribute or a dig? You decide! However, in case of Lagaan, it was definitely an ode. While trying to revamp Jennifer’s (Jaya Bachchan) restaurant into an Indian-themed one, Aman and others sing ‘Chale Chalo’ while trying to challenge the staff of the rival Chinese restaurant.