In 2004, Farah Khan turned to direction after years of working as a choreographer. Main Hoon Na is the rare aughts production to have aged remarkably well. Revisiting the film, it’s not hard to see why.

Khan’s celebration of love, friendship and family is available on Netflix. The movie has Shah Rukh Khan in peak charmer mode, a superb score by Anu Malik, and a smart tribute to the exuberance of 1960s Hindi cinema via the never-ending politics surrounding India-Pakistan ties.

A live-and-let-live spirit runs through Farah Khan’s screenplay, written with Abbas Tyrewala and Rajesh Saathi. Shah Rukh Khan plays Ram, an Indian Army Major who passes himself off as a college student in order to fulfil a secret two-pronged mission.

One is to protect the Army General’s daughter Sanjana (Amrita Rao) from being attacked by disgruntled former intelligence operative Raghavan (Suniel Shetty).The other is to reconcile with his step-brother Lucky (Zayed Khan).

In a happy coincidence, Sanjana and Lucky are pupils at the same college. Lucky is too dim-witted to realise that Sanjana loves him, and is initially dismissive of Ram’s gestures of friendship. Meanwhile, Raghavan is hell-bent on ruining a proposed amicable swap of prisoners between India and Pakistan.

The biggest unforeseen achievement of Ram’s operation is chemistry teacher Chandni (Sushmita Sen). In one of the most giddy-headed, love-at-first-sight movie moments, Ram falls – literally – for Chandni while trying to execute a dare.

The first Ram-Chandni encounter is a testament to Khan’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Hindi cinema devices as well as her talent at creating memorable stand-alone sequences. As Ram gazes upon Chandni, who is a vision in a Manish Malhotra-designed red chiffon sari, he involuntarily breaks out into a popular Hindi film song. Musicians turn up out of nowhere to help Ram serenade Chandni.

Ram meets Chandni, Main Hoon Na (2004).

Who cares for logic when the heart is working overtime? Ram is a stuttering mess before Chandni, a shadow of the dashing Army cadet from the television serial Fauji, which catapulted Shah Rukh Khan to stardom.

There’s something in Main Hoon Na for every actor. Sen plays the sexy teacher all too well. The Sanjana-Lucky pairing gets proper treatment. In a clever inversion of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Sanjana dresses to the nines to impress Lucky, only to point out the shallowness of her effort. What’s the use, she tells him, will you still notice me when I go back to my mismatched clothes and wild hairstyle?

Boman Irani, playing the absent-minded college principal, supplies crackpot comedy. Kirron Kher, as Lucky’s mother, is the film’s sentimental core. Raghavan, who has an ostentatious hair-do and a lumbering air, is a drag, but fortunately he isn’t around long enough.

Farah Khan delivers the entire package: irresistible romance, easy-going humour, lovable characters, emotional highs, soft nationalism. The perfectly situated songs includes choreographed numbers and dream sequences. Chale Jaise Hawaien, featuring Amrita Rao, Zayed Khan and background dancers, has two strenously filmed long takes by cinematographer V Manikandan.

Chale Jaise Hawaien, Main Hoon Na (2004).

The plot intertwines peace between long-standing enemies with amity between estranged family members. There’s rare openness in the exploration of Indo-Pak ties, which is in stark contrast to the jingoism preferred by Bollywood.

The generosity that characterises Main Hoon Na carries over to the now-iconic closing credits. Farah Khan pays a heartfelt tribute to the teamwork that makes cinema possible, acknowledging the cast, producers and the entire crew, down to the lighting assistants.

Having set the bar so high with her debut feature, Khan has had trouble maintaining it. Om Shanti Om (2007) came close, but Tees Maar Khan (2010) and Happy New Year (2014) were disappointments. All of Khan’s talents came together dazzlingly in Main Hoon Na, her “I’ll Be There For You” feat that hasn’t left our side two decades later.

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