The name Karan Johar in the credits of a film signals immediately that it will be glossy, formulaic and manipulative. I know this full well going in, and yet more often than not his movies still manage to sneak under my critical defenses.
It doesn't much matter whether he's listed as writer, director, or producer. The look, tone and content of most of the films he's involved with immediately announce them as a Karan Johar product, even if someone else is credited with the screenplay or direction.
That's certainly the case with the Johar-written Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), which was the first Bollywood film I ever saw, and which to this day remains one of my favorite movies. Nikil Advani directed KHNH, but as his post-KHNH career has demonstrated either he had an incredible case of beginner's luck or he was getting constant input and advice from Johar. (Advani was Johar's assistant director on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Joy, Sometimes Sorrow, 2001).)
One reason I mention KHNH is because it established or continued tropes that Johar's films have frequently returned to since. Dostana (Friendship, 2008) and Student of the Year (2012) center on love triangles (as does his first film, KKHH), while Wake Up Sid (2009), I Hate Luv Storys (2010), and Ek Main aur Ek Tu (One Me and One You, 2012) feature opposites-attract main couples. All of the films focus on the struggles of their characters to find their paths in adult life in the decade following their graduation from college.
To this list of KHNH descendants add Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013). Naina—Deepika Padukone in one of her best performances—is a shy, bespectacled medical student. On impulse she joins a Himalayan trek with a group of her former college friends including the free-spirited Aditi (Kalki Koehlin) and the troubled Avi (Aditya Roy Kapur).
Also along on the trip is the popular, extroverted Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor). He seems to possess everything that Naina feels she lacks: confidence, social ease, spontaneity, fearlessness, good looks. Of course, Naina falls hopelessly in love with him, although Bunny is unaware of her feelings, or perhaps dismisses them as just another crush. Fate intervenes, and the two are separated, seemingly forever.
Naina and Bunny are very reminiscent of KHNH's shy, bespectacled MBA student Naina (Preity Zinta) and the object of her secret love, the popular, extroverted Aman (Shah Rukh Khan). The two Nainas are even given the same nickname by their crushes, "chashmish" (please forgive any spelling error; it's translated as "specsy" in the subtitles of KHNH):
|Naina (Deepika Padukone, YJHD)|
|Naina (Preity Zinta, KHNH)|
Eight years later, at Aditi's ultra-lavish wedding, Naina and Bunny are unexpectedly reunited. And at this point there are strong echoes of another Karan Johar film. Like the heroine of KKHH, Anjali, Naina has apparently carried a smoldering torch for her clueless crush for eight years. But this time Bunny begins to see her with new eyes, and has a familiar question for her:
|Bunny and Naina reunite after 8 years (YJHD)|
|Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) reunite after 8 years (KKHH)|
But despite all the parallels, which writer/director Ayan Mukerji underscores with all the subtlety of hot pink highlighter, YJHD isn't a remake of either KKHH or KHNH—quite. Unilke KKHH's Anjali, the smart, accomplished and gorgeous Naina somehow doesn't have another man in her life. And unlike KHNH's Aman, Bunny doesn't have a life-threatening disease, he's got a relationship-threatening aversion to commitment.
There are many good things in YJHD. Deepika, cast against type, gives an utterly believable and highly affecting performance as Naina, and her chemistry with Ranbir seems very real. Ranbir, although his role plays more to type than cutting against it, also convinces as Bunny, a guy who is single-mindedly focused on his dreams of travel and adventure. And when Mukerji's script isn't cribbing from other movies (and sometimes when it is), it gives Deepika and Ranbir several heartbreaking scenes together.
It's also great to see some veterans given screen time, and making the most of it. Farooq Shaikh (of the classics Umrao Jaan (1981), Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Katha (1983), among many other films) plays Bunny's father, who, despite their conflicts, helps him realize his dreams. And although her "surprise" item number was highly publicized before the film's release, watching Madhuri Dixit dance is always a pleasure:
However, I want to talk a bit about the ending of the film, so If you haven't yet seen YJHD, be aware that spoilers follow.
Deepika gives such a moving performance as Naina that we want above all else at the end of the film to see her happy. And the film supplies us with what is intended to be a happy ending. But when Bunny gives up the dream job he's been working towards for eight years to be with Naina, my logical centers started to kick in. This seems like a surefire recipe for resentment and recriminations once the honeymoon has worn off. As Bunny himself realizes,
While it's unusual (and partly redresses an immense imbalance) to see the man making sacrifices for the couple, rather than (as is so often the case) the woman, I think Naina and Bunny will be facing some major issues in the not-too-distant future. Just to be perfectly clear, I would think the same thing if being with Bunny required Naina to give up her medical practice. I'm just not sure I see a way for this couple to be together and for both partners to be fulfilled.
Unless Bunny can somehow learn to take Naina's wisdom to heart. If Bunny ever goes looking for his heart's desire, he probably doesn't need to look any further than sharing a gorgeous sunset over Udaipur with Deepika Padukone: