What do you get when you combine the raw charisma and star power of a budding mega-celebrity, a heartwarming melodrama about finding love and friendship in multicultural America, and an iconic soundtrack that spans everything from pop-infused traditional Indian music to Roy Orbison?
You get Kal Ho Naa Ho, the beloved 2003 Bollywood romance headlined by international superstar Shah Rukh Khan, a.k.a. SRK, the “king of romance” in South Asia and beyond. Kal Ho Naa Ho, better known as KHNH to its fans, was released 15 years ago this week and arguably did more than any film before it to introduce the style and music of Bollywood to an international audience.
If you’ve never heard of Kal Ho Naa Ho, that’s forgivable. This ebullient musical tale of Indian Americans falling in love in New York City has often been overlooked in the annals of famed Bollywood cinema. But KHNH left a lasting legacy in a number of ways: The movie kicked SRK’s international celebrity into high gear, and its extremely popular soundtrack, which broke sales records in India and abroad, helped export Bollywood music to the rest of world.
In India, Kal Ho Naa Ho was the second-biggest film of 2003. But internationally, it scored an even more significant milestone: It garnered what was then the biggest overseas box office ever for a Bollywood film, opening in the UK top 10 and breaking box office records for Bollywood films in the US. It even kicked off an industry trend of setting Bollywood films in New York.
But above all, KHNH — which is conveniently streaming on Amazon Prime — gave us a heartwarming, hopeful love story that captured audiences’ hearts while sidestepping tired genre tropes in ways that are still refreshing today.
Kal Ho Naa Ho wraps a bubbly American rom-com in a Bollywood melodrama
The title of Kal Ho Naa Ho translates to “tomorrow may never come,” and the film’s story revolves around a typical New Yorker: clever college student Naina (Preity Zinta), whose family epitomizes Queens’s thriving Indian-American community. But Naina’s headstrong determination never to get married is diverted when her mom, Jennifer (Bollywood veteran Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan), prays for positive changes to come into their lives.
For Naina, these changes happen by way of her bashful, dorky longtime friend Rohit (Saif Ali Khan) and the brash but charming Aman (Shah Rukh Khan) — a recent arrival to America who quickly becomes a huge part of the community. Over the course of the film, Naina falls hard for Aman. But even though Aman is clearly in love with Naina as well, he’s determined to set her up with Rohit, who’s been quietly pining after his best friend for years.
How does everything shake out? Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice to say that KHNH devotes most of its dreamy love scenes to the chemistry between Zinta and SRK.
Along the way, there’s plenty of infectious music, singing, and dancing, thanks to an unforgettable soundtrack and classic Bollywood dance numbers like this one:
Each of these elements was crucial to KHNH’s success — and crucial to its celebration of multicultural America, globalization, and true love.
Kal Ho Naa Ho is centered on a classic love triangle — but one with plenty of twists that still feel unexpected today
KHNH was a deep collaboration between producer/screenwriter Karan Johar and director Nikkhil Advani in his feature-length debut. On the surface, it seems like your average Bollywood movie. It’s got a typical three-hour runtime — outsize in America but standard in Hindi films — and a typical romantic melodrama at the center of the plot. Like nearly all Bollywood films, it features lots of singing and dancing, balanced against at least one giant moment of angst.
But there’s plenty that makes KHNH unique in the annals of Bollywood classics and even among rom-coms both past and present.
For starters, Kal Ho Naa Ho really does feel like a rom-com even when it’s using the traditional structure of a Bollywood melodrama. In many ways, Naina is the typical early-2000s rom-com heroine: an independent, nerdy 20-something city girl (her glasses, rare for a Bollywood heroine to wear in the early ’00s, reportedly spurred a fashion trend). Though Naina clashes with her family over her determination to stay single, she retains a firm agency over her own life.
Additionally, though the film focuses on the love triangle, it’s full of three-dimensional female characters, and its entire plot is fueled by choices Naina and the women in her family make. Some fans have argued that because the role of Naina’s mother Jennifer is so central to the plot, and because Naina’s community is largely directed by women, KHNH in fact presents an onscreen matriarchy — a rarely seen phenomenon in cinema even today.
What perhaps makes KHNH even rarer, though, is the way it treats Rohit and Aman. Critics have frequently noted that the two men’s friendship is considerably deeper than their mutual love for Naina, but despite an unfortunate running gay joke in the film that lampshades this intimacy, KHNH never turns their friendship into something toxic or divisive. Instead, it celebrates platonic male closeness rather than shying away from it — and even better, the two men never allow their friendship to be threatened, despite the fact that they are in love with the same woman.
The final atypical thing about Kal Ho Naa Ho in the annals of romance is that the film goes out of its way to show Aman actively refusing to pursue Naina even though he loves her — which puts Naina in the position of being the one to court and woo him, something romance heroines rarely need to do.
All of this could have served as the setup for a flare-up of deep conflict between the three main characters. But instead, Kal Ho Naa Ho constantly affirms the love and friendship that exist between all three of them, both as individual pairs and as a group. Refreshingly, even though Rohit is clearly the softer and less flashy of Naina’s two suitors, the movie never really positions either man as a “better” choice for her — instead, it presents them both as compatible with her in different ways, and ultimately never asks the audience to pick a “side.”
In 2017, director Advani discussed how unique the film’s positive outlook was in the annals of modern Bollywood romances. “It wasn’t a film about Aman and Naina or Rohit and Naina. It was about the friendship that Aman and Rohit shared,” he said. “None had attempted to make a film on those lines, and that’s why it was so successful.”
Though the meaning of the film’s ominous title ultimately becomes clear (again, I won’t spoil it), and though KHNH ultimately adheres to the rule of melodrama wherein even the happiest endings are attained through grief and copious tears, it’s difficult to wrest it away from its rom-com leanings. The film’s treatment of its central love triangle — and indeed, the concept of love itself — is the main reason for this. Kal Ho Naa Ho argues that it’s not only romantic love that saves us, but also a deep collective love among friends that transcends tragedy and helps us overcome grief.
The movie’s New York setting emphasized a cultural fusion that proved crucial to KHNH’s global success
Beyond its subtly subversive storytelling elements, KHNH is also unique due to the role that New York plays in the movie. Shot mainly in New York and Toronto, KHNH drips with color and cheer. The setting is a key feature of the film, and one that was extremely important to its ultimate success in the US.
It was practically unheard of in 2003 for Bollywood films to focus on nonresident Indians — that is, Indian characters living overseas. But Kal Ho Naa Ho employed actual ethnic residents of Queens as extras, and depicted Indian and Indian-American characters as an organic part of everyday American life and culture. It even portrayed everyday American capitalism: A major subplot involves Jennifer’s competition with a neighboring restaurant.
Even within its depiction of Indian-American communities, KHNH is notably and impressively diverse. The film’s characters represent India’s own cultural diversity; Naina’s Punjabi family contains members who are Christian and Sikh, while Rohit’s family is Gujarati — a positive mix of subcultures within the Indian diaspora that enhanced the film’s feel-good humanism. Cross-cultural blending is not only accepted but encouraged, as are multiple approaches to love and marriage.
The character of New York is particularly moving and significant. Even though the movie’s production took place in late 2002 and 2003, KHNH in many ways feels like a relic of pre-9/11 New York and pre-9/11 cinema. It carries all the optimism and vibrancy of a city not yet reeling from a wound, set in an America that had not yet developed ongoing friction with its immigrant populations. Kal Ho Naa Ho wears its American character proudly, seamlessly fusing American and Indian culture into the background of its love triangle plot.
And underscoring that fusion is the film’s famous soundtrack, which turned artistic multiculturalism into its strongest selling point.
The soundtrack to Kal Ho Naa Ho was a landmark success that melded genres and cultures
The KHNH soundtrack was written by the Indian performance trio of Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendonsa, better known as Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy. They were fresh off their rise to public attention with their previous film, 2001’s Dil Chahta Hai — but Kal Ho Naa Ho not only surpassed its success but became an immediate best-seller and an instant cultural landmark.
There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the film’s title track is a ridiculously earworm-y love ballad that croons throughout the film, reminding us that tomorrow may never come. The video for this song, embedded above, clearly played to the film’s strengths — it’s basically SRK making love to the Brooklyn Bridge.
The entirety of Kal Ho Naa Ho’s soundtrack is about fusion — mixing vintage pop and modern pop, traditional and modern South Asian music, and different varieties of international music. We see this most clearly in Kal Ho Naa Ho’s unexpected but delightful tribute to disco, in a scene that unites traditional Bollywood dance with the joy of ’70s music and the New York City club scene of the early ’00s. The song, appropriately enough, announces, “It’s the Time to Disco,” and indeed it is!
But unquestionably, the film’s most American moment, both musically and on the whole, comes when Aman sees Naina for the first time. Immediately smitten, he expresses his interest in her by singing an updated Bollywood cover of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” against the backdrop of a giant American flag. It’s interspersed with scenes where Aman rallies a classic all-American block party, as a collage of diverse performers all break-dance in front of the flag, reminding us that America is all about multiculturalism and rock ’n’ roll.
The film’s soundtrack continues to be remembered and celebrated today and is widely considered one of the most successful soundtracks in Indian cinema.
An album that inspired us to live our life to the fullest. An album that spoke to our hearts and souls. Celebrating 15 years of the music release of #KalHoNaHo. @iamsrk @realpreityzinta #SaifAliKhan @karanjohar @DharmaMovies— Sony Music India (@sonymusicindia) September 27, 2018
Listen to the album now: https://t.co/Uy2i4f4afE pic.twitter.com/fXaRSZPFCh
All of this reaped huge box office success for the film.
Most significantly, all of this was occurring during a new intense period of cultural globalization and communication. KHNH was a cornerstone film, in that for many people it was their first experience of modern Bollywood cinema. It allowed nonresident Indians to connect to each other and to the experience of being Indian overseas, while seeing themselves depicted onscreen in ways that made their lives newly accessible to foreign audiences. And it celebrated Indian-American culture onscreen in ways that still feel admirable and unique today.
Above all, though, fans remember it for the tearjerking romance at its center — and the reminder to always seize the day and celebrate love at all costs.
To capture #love in words is difficult enough ...— Bauua Universe Austria (@SRKAustria) February 6, 2018
But to capture it in an entire film ... that was the magic of #KalHoNaaHo ... a masterpiece @iamsrk @realpreityzinta #SaifAliKhan @DharmaMovies @karanjohar @yrf #KHNH #AustriaLovesSRK pic.twitter.com/ayimI4EYUp
Correction: This story originally stated that Dil Chahta Hai was released in 2002.