Mumbai meets Gotham (and wins) in "Kal ho naa ho," a family masala epic with aces playing by its young and old star cast. Pic is another slam-dunk from vet producer Yash Johar, whose Dharma Prods. was responsible for latter-day Bollywood classics "Kuch kuch hota hai" (1998) and "Kabhi khushi kabhie gham..." (2001), but has a lightness of touch that sets it apart from the previous hits.

Mumbai meets Gotham (and wins) in “Kal ho naa ho,” a family masala epic with aces playing by its young and old star cast. Pic is another slam-dunk from vet producer Yash Johar, whose Dharma Prods. was responsible for latter-day Bollywood classics “Kuch kuch hota hai” (1998) and “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham…” (2001), but has a lightness of touch that sets it apart from the previous hits. Most notably, and despite its setting, “KHNH” doesn’t aim for cross-cultural targets: apart from repeated views of one of Manhattan’s famous bridges, film might just as easily have been set in an Indian metropolis.

Pic opened well in Indian metros Nov. 27, and in 10 days has grossed more than $2.7 million in the U.S. and U.K. combined, putting the $6 million big-budgeter on course to become one of the year’s top grossers, if still behind current barnstormer “Baghban” and unlikely to top year’s champ “Koi … mil gaya.” It looks set to make bona fide stars of younger players Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan, both of whom give established leads Shah Rukh Khan and Jaya Bachchan a real run for their money. And its fluid, unportentous style follows the lead in Hindi mainstream cinema first set by Farhan Akhtar’s “Dil chahta hai” two years ago.

Mismatched romancer is narrated by Naina Catherine Kapur (Zinta), a 23-year-old, half-Catholic, half-Punjabi desi who lives in a Queens-like nabe with mom Jennifer (Bachchan, in atypical jeans), a younger brother and adopted baby sister, and granny-from-hell Lajjo (Sushma Seth). A bookish student, with no time for “lurrrve,” bespectacled Naina has her hands full sorting out family quarrels and helping out at a diner her mom runs with aging sexpot Jazz (Lilette Dubey, milking a fun role). In Naina’s MBA class is rich Gujarati kid Rohit Patel (Saif Ali Khan), a clumsy, wannabe Romeo she treats with platonic amusement.

At home things are going from bad to worse as the bank threatens to call in the loan for the diner. The Kapurs pray for a good angel to appear and, hey, presto! up pops hunky, carefree Aman Mathur (Shah Rukh Khan), who leads the Kapurs’ neighborhood in a rousing street number (“Pretty Women”) and calmly tells Jennifer he’s come to marry her daughter.

From the get-go, Shah Rukh Khan is in far more relaxed form here than in the recent “Chalte chalte,” and his chemistry with Zinta is palpable. It’s not long before Naina responds to Aman’s teasing by casting off her specs at a nightclub and grinding out a sexy song-and-dance (“Time to Disco”), which morphs into a competitive number as Rohit and Aman also strut their stuff. By intermission, and several twists later, everyone has fallen for the wrong person: Rohit loves Naina who loves Aman who (or so Naina thinks) loves mystery woman Priya (Sonali Bendre).

Part Two keeps the tone light as Rohit’s father (Satish Shah) fixes him up with pretty Gujarati gold-digger Camilla (TV star Simone Singh), and Aman, for reasons unknown to Naina, selflessly tries to set Rohit up with Naina. It’s in this half of the movie that first-time helmer Nikhil Adavani, who worked as an assistant on “KKHH” and “K3G,” shows his smarts, keeping in the air simultaneously a rain-and-shine blend between comedy and drama, often in the same scenes, along with the three main characters’ emotional stories. Throughout, split screen is used frequently but effectively.

Per genre rules, events climax in a spectacular shaadi (wedding) number (“Maahi ve”), which comes close to equaling the classic “Say shava shava” in “K3G.” But the script then pushes on for another, “Dance at the Gym”-like capper and a relatively unsentimental postscript.

Zinta, who’s been carving a growing following the past three years or so, has never been better, definitively moving from juve roles to a charismatic young woman with her sexy, assured Naina. Saif Ali Khan, in his best outing since “Dil chahta hai,” has finally found a vehicle in which his slightly offbeat persona can shine. Both more than hold their against a huge cast, dotted with strong personalities as well as guest cameos (including Rani Mukerji, in for a quick shaadi shimmy).

Production values are top drawer, with d.p. Anil Mehta blending Gotham and Toronto exteriors and Indian studio interiors into a convincing whole. Song track by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is catchy and direct sound recording an asset. Hindi title roughly means “Tomorrow May Not Come.”

Kal Ho Naa Ho

India

Production

A Yash Raj Films release (in U.K./U.S.) of a Yash & Karan Johar presentation of a Dharma Prods. production. Produced by Yash Johar. Directed by Nikhil Advani. Associate director, Tarun Mansurhani. Screenplay, Karan Johar, Niranjan Iyengar; story, Johar.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Anil Mehta; editor, Sanjay Sankla; background & song music, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy; lyrics, Javed Akhtar; production designer, Sharmishta Roy; costume designer, Manish Malhotra; makeup, Mickey Contractor; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Anuj Mathur; choreographer, Farah Khan. Reviewed at Warner Village West End 9, London, Dec. 2, 2003. Running time: 187 MIN. (I: 92 MIN.; II: 95 MIN.).

With

Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, Sonali Bendre, Sanjay Kapoor, Sushma Seth, Reema Lagoo, Lilette Dubey, Delnaz Paul, Satish Shah, Ketaki Dave, Simone Singh, Shoma Anand, Dara Singh, Rajpal Yadav, Sulbha Arya, Kajol, Rani Mukerji, Uday Chopra. (Hindi dialogue)

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