KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNANR
Imagine if Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks agreed to star opposite Reese Witherspoon and Tom Cruise (pre-Katie Holmes, of course) in a lavishly produced marital drama directed by Steven Spielberg. That's the kind of star power on display in the new Bollywood film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye), which pairs some of India's most recognizable screen faces with popular filmmaker Karan Johar. The movie has gathered a lot of advance publicity at home and abroad, not just for its cast, but also for its potentially risqué subject matter. Set in New York, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna follows two married couples who come to realize they might be happier separately than together. While Hollywood has regularly tackled the subject of divorce, it's something that is rarely addressed in Bollywood, where screen lovers are expected to mate for life. Toss an adulterous liaison into the mix and you've got a film that's clearly out to raise eyebrows, even as it provides all the over-the-top spectacle that mainstream Indian cinema is famous for.
Veteran heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan heads up the ensemble as Dev, a superstar soccer player married to ambitious magazine editor Rhea (Preity Zinta). While taking a stroll after winning a big match, he stumbles upon a nervous bride-to-be named Maya (Rani Mukherji) who is having second thoughts about going through with her wedding to Rishi (Abhishek Bachchan), a man she cares for but doesn't love. Dev advises her to marry the guy anyway, assuring her that, based on his personal experience, "love will come after." As they part ways, Maya swallows her fears and walks down the aisle and Dev continues his promenade...until he's hit by a car and knocked unconscious.
Flash-forward four years later and Dev's soccer career is history thanks to extensive leg injuries he sustained in the accident. Bitter, angry and full of self-pity, he takes his frustration out on everyone around him, including Rhea—who continues to put in long hours at the office—and their young son Arjun. Meanwhile, Maya and Rishi's marriage isn't going well either. Even though he'd do anything for her, she's just not that into him. It's at this point that Dev and Maya cross paths again and together they discover a spark that's missing from their respective marriages. This tentative romance soon blossoms into a full-blown affair, complete with a late-night dalliance at a fancy hotel. As much as they care for each other, neither one can find the courage to utter the word "divorce." Eventually, that decision is taken out of their hands when their relationship is discovered and they have to confess the truth.
While Johar can't be accused of condoning adultery—both Dev and Maya are put through the emotional wringer during the course of the movie—Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna ultimately comes down against remaining in a loveless marriage, no matter what tradition dictates. Interestingly, the person who delivers this message is iconic Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, who plays Maya's elderly father-in-law, Sam. Normally in Bollywood films, parental figures are on hand to reinforce established values. Instead, Sam encourages Maya to leave Rishi so that they both can find the person they are meant to be with. But why she'd willingly go off into the sunset with Dev is anyone's guess. As played by Khan, he's at best a self-absorbed jerk, and at worst, an emotionally abusive brat. When you think about it, Rhea should really be thanking Maya for taking Dev off her hands. It's a shame that she and the equally long-suffering Rishi don't get to enjoy wild flings of their own—in fact, they seem to be a better match than Maya and Dev.
Of course, the movie isn't all tears and heartache. Johar stages several appropriately silly dance sequences, including one set in a Manhattan dance club that answers the burning question of what a Bollywood techno number would sound like. There are also a number of laughs to be had, both of the intentional and unintentional variety. Much of the movie was actually shot on location in New York and Johar makes good use of the city, even though he's shaky on the geography at times. Perhaps the film's biggest flaw—apart from Khan's unpleasant performance—is its excessive length. Three hours may be the standard running time for most Bollywood spectacles, but in this case, the story is too small and intimate to be blown up to such an epic scale. The last hour is particularly tedious as we wait for Maya and Dev to put their spouses out of their misery and commit to each other. Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna certainly gets its point across, but it comes close to wearing out its welcome in the process.