My first summer in New York, I couldn’t get “Kal Ho Naa Ho” out of my head every time I walked past the Hudson. The title song of Nikhil Advani’s 2003 Bollywood dramedy means “Tomorrow may not be” — it’s an emotionally saturated letter to life, love, and the city of New York.
Kal Ho Naa Ho was never my first choice for a Bollywood movie to show the uninitiated, but its appeal has grown on me since being a middle schooler. It’s the type of face-melting genre mashup that popular Indian cinema excels at, and it happens to be set in the city that I later came to call home.
It’s also where I got this essential gif to use for the 2017 award season:
We open with our narrator, Naina Catherine Kapoor (Preity Zinta), whose plate is pretty full; she has two younger siblings, one in a wheelchair and one the receiving end of verbal abuse from their grandmother for being adopted; she’s constantly keeping her mother and grandmother from waging a full-on war; and she has M.B.A. classes in Manhattan with her scalawag of a best friend, Rohit (Saif Ali Khan).
But all that changes with the arrival of Aman (Shahrukh Khan), the neighbor’s nephew who seems hell-bent on bringing joy to everyone around him. He miraculously creates peace in Naina’s home, sets up his uncle and her grandmother (who have been making mad eyes at each other for ages), supports her best friend and their families’ joint business. With Aman, Naina lets herself be happy and unburdened, and she falls in love with him.
That’s probably about half the plot.
The three-hour movie covers that and more — the secrets of Naina’s family, Rohit’s parents trying to arrange his marriage, and Aman’s own skeletons — but such a grand emotional rollercoaster deserves to be experienced firsthand (translation: just let it wreck you).
And while it jumps around the boroughs without slightest concern for the laws of physics, Kal Ho Naa Ho undoubtedly belongs in the pantheon of movies which romanticize New York City. We don’t get an exact age for most of the characters, but they’re in their 20s and 30s, the age at which New York tries its best to break you by making you vulnerable and hitting where it hurts. It’s the city that forces a person, through all that, to emerge stronger.
The city is everywhere — from a chance encounter at a train station to crying below the Brooklyn Bridge to random scenery spread through the catchy soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. There’s a reason that stirring title tune wouldn’t get out of my head as I contemplated adulthood on the riverbank. The film and city are so intertwined in my experience that I couldn’t separate them — and I wouldn’t want to.
How to watch: Netflix