Karan Johar returns to the directing helm with his third pic, "Kabhi alvida naa kehna," a star-loaded, Gotham-set relationships movie that's generally good but works better in bits than as a whole. Nonetheless, this is a must-see for aficionados of mainstream Hindi cinema.

Five years after the smasheroo “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham…,” Karan Johar returns to the directing helm with his third pic, “Kabhi alvida naa kehna,” a star-loaded, Gotham-set relationships movie that’s generally good but works better in bits than as a whole. Reportedly the most expensive Bollywood movie ever (at $15 million), though not as visually lavish as “K3G,” quality Yash Raj production juggles the building blocks of South Asian mellers in an entertaining way but lacks a broad enough dramatic arc to sustain the material over three hours. Nonetheless, this is a must-see for aficionados of mainstream Hindi cinema.

Title opened very strongly in traditional Indian markets Aug. 11, with first weekend grosses of $1.3 million in the U.S. (from 95 prints) and $1.4 million in the U.K. (from 60 prints, for a fourth spot in the top 10). Future haul looks rosy, given the absence of any immediate competition on the Bollywood scene.

Extended intro, sandwiched between the opening titles, sets up the six main characters, all played by stars of various vintages.

There’s professional soccer player Dev Saran (Shah Rukh Khan), who cops a $5 million contract on the same day his wife, Rhea (Preity Zinta), becomes editor of a glossy magazine. It’s also the fifth wedding anni for the childhood friends.

Another pair of childhood friends, event manager Rishi Talwar (Abhishek Bachchan) and junior school teacher Maya (Rani Mukerji), are about to get married at his country manse where Rishi’s philandering dad, Sam (Amitabh Bachchan, real-life father of Abhishek), meets Kamal (Kirron Kher), Dev’s handsome widowed mother. Dev himself bumps into Maya.

Then, helmer Johar springs the first of several sudden plot reversals that pepper the movie.

Four years later, Dev is retired from soccer and his marriage to the ever-successful Rhea feels the strain. Rishi and Maya’s splicing is also coming apart.

Leisurely set-up benefits pic’s first, and biggest, production number, which comes almost an hour into the movie, melding the four main characters’ stories in a similar way to “Say ‘shava, shava'” in “K3G.” Six-minute extravaganza, a riot of color and movement by costumer Manish Malhotra and choreographer Farah Khan, isn’t quite on the level of the classic “Shava” but is a head-spinner all the same.

By intermission, Dev and Maya have become friends and their friendship has become love. In the second half, script juggles reversals and changes of heart prior to an extended coda that finally delivers some real emotional punches.

In many respects, “KANK” is removed from the usual feel-good pics Yash Raj is known for. Scripter Shibani Bathija never lets her characters inhabit a secure emotional place for very long, and impediments to happiness come from their own weaknesses rather than social constraints or plot-generated misunderstandings.

But in other respects, however, pic is very conventional such as in the way the stars do their shtick and are wheeled by the script from one situation to another. Bachchan Sr. pretty much steals the movie as an aging lothario, but none of the fine cast is stretched here; even Zinta, one of Bollywood’s best pure actresses, steps far beyond her makeup.

As a whole, and in its stop-go emotional arc, pic isn’t on the level of the Johar-produced “Kal ho naa ho” (2003), also Gotham-set and using an almost identical tech crew.

Production values are very good, from Sharmishta Roy’s extravagant sets, through Malhotra’s color-coded costumes (with striking use of reds and blacks), to the musical numbers (especially catchy ensembler “Where’s the Party Tonight?” and Khan’s love ballad, “Mitwa”). Hindi title means “Never Say Goodbye.”

Kabhi alvida naa kehna

India

Production

A Yash Raj Films release (in U.K./U.S.) of a Dharma Prods. production. (International sales: Yash Raj, London.) Produced by Hiroo Yash Johar. Executive producer, Manoj Mittra. Directed by Karan Johar. Associate director, Tarun Mansurhani. Screenplay, Shibani Bathija, Niranjan Iyengar; story, Johar.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Anil Mehta; editor, Sanjay Sankla; music, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy ; lyrics, Javed Akhtar; production designer, Sharmishta Roy; costume designer, Manish Malhotra; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Anuj Mathur; choreographer, Farah Khan; sound designer, Stephen Gomes; associate producer, Apoorva Mehta; assistant director, Punit Malhotra. Reviewed at Odeon Wimbledon 5, London, Aug. 15, 2006. Running time: 193 MIN. (I: 94 MIN.; II: 99 MIN.)

With

Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Kirron Kher, Arjun Rampal, Ahsaas Channa, Kajol, John Abraham, Saira Mohan. (Hindi dialogue)

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