Kal Ho Naa Ho turns 20: Saif Ali Khan's Rohit is the unrequited lover we all need, but don't deserve
As Jaya Bachchan's Jennifer says in Kal Ho Naa Ho, the love Saif Ali Khan's Rohit harbours has strength because it's unrequited, persistent, never excessive.
Before Saif Ali Khan went on a spree to essay the urban, commitment-phobic men in memorable films like Hum Tum, Salaam Namaste, Love Aaj Kal, and Cocktail, he played the antithesis in Nikkhil Advani's Kal Ho Naa Ho, which completes 20 years since release today. His character of Rohit Patel managed to hold his own against the author-backed lead role of Aman, the happy-go-lucky sacrificial lover played by Shah Rukh Khan.
Unrequited love like no other
The character of Rohit was written by Karan Johar, known for creating unforgettable moments of unrequited love. When Naina (Preity Zinta) tells her BFF Rohit that she loves Aman right when he's about to propose to her, the scene has striking resemblance to the one in Karan's 1998 directorial debut. Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (Shah Rukh) rush towards each other and meet in the middle of a field where he tells her he loves Tina (Rani Mukerji), moments before Anjali is about to confess her love for him.
But unlike Anjali's crushing heartbreak, Rohit's reaction is more like he's made a fool of himself. He doesn't go running and crashing back to her place to say, “Mera pehle pyaar adhura reh gaya." Rohit is used to rejection, getting bashed up by the husbands and boyfriends of women he tries his luck on. Tujhe Yaad Na Meri Aayi wouldn't go well with Rohit sobbing away on the streets of New York. Neither does he pack his bags and leave the town like Anjali does.
Rohit gracefully steps back, giving the bouquet of red roses he got for Naina to her only so she could pass it on to Aman. He doesn't follow up with her on what happened till he bumps into her when they're returning their red tie and dress to the same store, insisting it's “not my colour.” It's only then that Rohit, wearing a muted pink tie, and Naina, wearing a baby pink dress, discuss her fading love. Right after learning that Aman is married, he taunts her that she should've loved him instead.
But Rohit knows heartbreak too well. He doesn't want to play that card of lending his shoulder and then swiftly taking the next chance on a vulnerable Naina. He asks her politely, “Kya tum fir kisi se pyaar kar paogi?” She goes mum and smiles awkwardly after a pause, letting Rohit know that he'll have to forget his ‘first love.’ He also knows unrequited love all too well. That's why earlier, we see him take an old lady on a date after he accidentally asks her out instead of a younger one he intended to.
Ek tarfa pyaar ki taakat
If Rohit doesn't go all self-pity like Anjali, he doesn't turn obsessive like Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) from Karan's 2016 film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil either. He doesn't feed into the cliché of fuelling his art with a broken heart. He has no art to nurture in the first place. An advertising agent in the same position for three years, he's not as ambitious as his father (Satish Shah) who became one of the richest Indian Americans with his desi food business, called Dial A Dhokla.
Rohit has lived on his own in Manhattan for years as he tells Lillete Dubey's character in that hilarious ‘galat ghar’ sequence, “Mummy papa Connecticut chale gaye, main Manhattan mein reh gaya.” He lives with his dog Laila and house help Kanta Ben, and thus yearns for a woman he can start a family with. He's the quintessential boy you take home to your mother, but the girl he falls in love with is looking for a man, more of a dominant father figure, having lost her dad in teenage years.
Rohit does use his ek tarfa pyaar ki taakat, but not to channel it into art, rage, or pity. He takes his love to reproduce more love, to, an extent that, as he says while proposing Naina later, it is sufficient to sustain the both of them. He invokes Karan Johar's ‘pyaar dosti hai’ idea from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to convince Naina that the first and last stages of love are friendship and that Naina only needs to cover the journey between the two.
Rohit is disgusted by Aman's plan of ‘6 din ladki in’ but gives in, in the hope to somehow make Naina fall in love with her. He's persistent, but also cognizant of the fact that he'd always play second fiddle to Aman as far as Naina's love is concerned. Naina's mom Jennifer (Jaya Bachchan) tells her that Rohit's love bears immense strength because the awareness of reality doesn't come in the way of him loving even more deeply. As he tells Aman towards the end, “Sachai ka saamna kar sakta hu main, par yaadon se ladne ki taakat nahi hai.”
Rohit shares Naina's sadness when she cries inconsolably at her wedding seeing Aman around. He's well aware that her tears aren't because she's leaving her home behind, but because she can't claim her first love despite it being so close physically. When Aman is about to breathe his last, he doesn't ask Rohit, as is the cliché, to ‘take care of Naina.’ He knows Rohit would do that anyway. He just asks Rohit to leave Naina for her in their next lives, and Rohit obliges.
In her last words before the film ends, Naina admits that she found her husband in a friend. She doesn't say ‘I love you' back when Rohit tells her so, years down the lane. She still sees him as the friend who she waits for endlessly to go to their MBA class together. But he sees in her hope – that one day, his slow, unabated, gentle love would get reciprocated to the same degree. He doesn't want to seize the day because kal ho naa ho, he wants his love to outlive him even if there's no tomorrow.
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