Kundan Shah's Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Na and Kya Kehna gave us young, flawed and adorable characters

Actor Ayushmann Khurrana in his tribute to Kundan Shah, who passed away last night, wrote: “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na were truly ahead of the times. Thank you for the great cinema #KundanShah sir. #RIP”. Perhaps, he was one of the few to mention Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na while recalling the masterpieces made by this filmmaker with Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and the sitcom Wagle ki duniya topping the list. It is only natural to recall a filmmaker’s best work when we look back at their journey after their death.

However, due to the sheer brilliance of  Jaane Bhi Do yaaron, many a time we tend to underestimate the magic and relevance of his other works- particularly of those created after 1990.

A decade after making Jaane Bhi, he gave the sweet rom-com, Kabhi haa, kabhi na. The film released in the same year as the super blockbuster Hum Aapka Hai Kaun from Rajshri banner. Both films had future superstars — Salman Khan in Hum Aapke… and Shah Rukh Khan in Kabhi haan.

While Salman Khan’s Prem would become a brand unto himself representing the boisterously sanskari side of the Indian man in his 20s, Shah Rukh’s Sunil from Kabhi Haan continues to be one of the most real representations of an middle class Indian boy.

The comparison between Rajshri’s Prem and Shah’s Sunil might appear pointless for some. But when you see these characters through the prism of relatability and complexity, you get a context to what exactly Ayushmann Khurrana meant when said Shah’s Kabhi Haan, Kabhi na was far ahead of its time.

Shah’s Sunil is a boy in his early twenties who is still figuring his life out. His conflicts with his father, his passion for music and his band doesn’t make his aspirations very different from those of today’s younsters – to break free of the 9-5 job culture and do something that they are really passionate about.

Unlike the uber rich, uber handsome Prem of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Sunil is a regular chap who fails to get the woman he loved. Prem is sacrificing and sanskari, Sunil is not. He lies to get the attention of the love of his life Anna (played by Suchitra Krishnamurthy). He fails again and again. Prem is loved by everyone and a model of perfection. Sunil is misunderstood even by his friends. Yet, despite all his flaws, we root for this underdog hero, simply because he is so relatable.

The brilliance of Kabhi Haan, Kabhi na is that it doesn’t depend on a hackneyed plot twist in a perfectly happy world to hold the attention of the audience till the climax. Sunil’s is a flawed chaotic world from the beginning. Only that he matures through his journey and that’s what all good characters do – they evolve.

Seven year down the line, Shah again wore the director’s hat and made Kya Kehna with the dimpled beauty Priety Zinta in the lead. The year 2000 was again another watershed moment for Bollywood. It saw the rise of a new superstar, Hrithik Roshan – an overnight sensation with the run away hit Kaho na pyar hai. Many new faces were launched that year – Amisha Patel, Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor Zinta was only two films old then and Kya Kehna would go on to established her as an able actress.

It was perhaps one of the few mainstream movies that was trying to tell a different story at a time when chiseled body, dancing stars and teeny-bopper love stories was becoming a rage.

Kya Kehna, no doubt was a flawed film. Far from Shah’s best work. Priya, the character played by Zinta, was not as relatable as Sunil. She was at times a diva, at others naive. Perhaps, Shah wasn’t as much in touch with the youth of the 2000s as he was with that of the 90s.  But that apart, it tackled a very bold subject — pre-marital pregnancy and a woman’s fight against a society that shames her for not toeing its line.

Priya establishes herself as a headstrong character with a rebellious streak right at the beginning of the film when she dares to slap the principal of her school for molesting her friend.

Watch the scene here.

Priya falls for a playboy played by Saif Ali Khan, gets pregnant and fights with the society to give birth to a child out of wedlock. Very rarely did films back then showed lead characters indulging in pre-marital sex. Giving birth to an illicit child was definitely a big deal.

The film was marketed as a family entertainer. And when many of us still in our early teens went with our parents to watch the film, there were awkward moments and some obvious questions in everyone’s minds – did Priya misuse the independence given to her by her parents? Why did a bright girl like Priya not focus on her studies? Why wasn’t she more careful? Is she a bad girl for sleeping with a man before marriage? Will her parents be mad? Will she kill herself? Why can’t she just abort the baby and put everything to rest? Why is she so arrogant and irrational?

Isn’t this how we talk about women who dare to break the established norms of society?

For all its faults and sloppy writing, the film does hammer quite convincingly in our minds that it’s never a girl’s fault, that it is okay for a woman to be sexually active before marriage, that there is no shame in an unwanted pre-marital pregnancy, that the man must take his share of blame and responsibility for such a situation. It was a progressive film and started a conversation.

Watch the climax of the film, where Zinta gives a speech on why she chose not to abort her baby.

Somehow Shah couldn’t really recreate his magic with the films he made after Kya Kehna. However, it’s commendable that his creative work covered so many years and so many relevant topics, capturing the youth’s restlessness and aspirations for  three decades.