Three knockout central performances, eye-catching cinematography, lush production values, some well written dialogues, a couple of catchy song numbers all combine to make Nikhil Advani's debut film Kal Ho Naa Ho eminently watchable but still by the end you cannot but help feel that the film stops short of 'being there.' A lose and scratchy screenplay with a thin central core and too many thicker subplots thrown in all come into the way of a film that could well have delivered on all fronts.
The film rumoured to have been inspired by Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand and Asit Sens's Safar is actually far more influenced by Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai attempting to capture the same type of witty, casual urbane humour and feel with the Indianness and family emotions thrown in. While Kal Ho Naa Ho does have its moments (the inspired Gujju community song for one and the Gujju - Punju banters) of both humour and tear jerking drama, it loses its way by too many scenes of puerile humour (The Shah Rukh - Saif gay jokes, funny at first, are overdone to death or the singing of Sushma Seth, Shoma Anand etc or the sex antics of Lillette Dubey) and the absence of truly a knockout climax at the end of the film leading to a totally unnecessary epilogue of 20 years later at the end of the film.
The film does have its share of rich moments though - Shah Rukh declaring Saif's love to Preity (actually his own) by reading Saif's diary out to her and then improvising as he finds the next page to be blank, the scenes where Preity realizes he loved her all along but kept her away because of his fatal illness, all carry an emotional wallop that one cannot be helped but be moved by.
Shah Rukh carries the entire film ably on his shoulders. He is equally at ease and charming in the comic sequences brightening up the lives of those he comes in conact with and solid in the tear jerking scenes where he comes to terms with his illness and realizes he cannot ever have Preity. Saif plays an extension of his role in Dil Chahta Hai but like DCH, is completely at ease and at home with the character and delivers another heartwarming, likeable performance. However it is Preity Zinta who is a revelation. Going beyond the bubbly vivacious characters she has been playing in film after film she delivers a stellar performance. Right from the grumpy young woman whose world is full of misery to opening up thanks to Shah Rukh, from loving and losing her first love, she is spot on handling the mood changes with ease. That she has never looked better helps! Of the supporting cast Jaya Bachchan as Preity's Catholic mother, Jennifer, gives perhaps her best performance post Silsila, while Sushma Seth hams its up as the loud Punjabi grandmother of Preity. The rest of the cast is adequate and efficient.
The film is lifted several notches by the fine, evocative camerawork of Anil Mehta. Post Lagaan he is now getting to be the hottest cinematographer in Bollywood. Musically the film is a bit of a let down considering it is a Dharma Films Production but the title track is extremely well written and tuned with Mahi Ve, the Disco song and Pretty Woman (yes, lifted from the original!) basically playing to the gallery - catchy but nothing outstanding.
The film does have the odd technical flourish - the way Preity introduces the characters around her or the use of split screen at times but the film could have done with more of those because it is sequences like those which give the film an attitude; But nevertheless, all in all, a pretty satisfactory directorial debut for Nikhil Advani.