Shah Rukh Khan in "Kal Ho Naa Ho."

‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ Reminds Us to Love Life Unconditionally

With the 20th anniversary of the film's release, writer Maryam Ahmad delves into its message to live life to its fullest

Shah Rukh Khan in "Kal Ho Naa Ho."

Screenshot of "Kal Ho Naa Ho"

Words by Maryam Ahmad

Not just because it debuted 20 years ago, the film Kal Ho Naa Ho is so cheesy, even by Bollywood standards. The main character’s dying wish is for the woman he is in love with to find love, but not with him, because he doesn’t have enough time left to give her the life he thinks she deserves. So he decides to set her up with her best friend, who woos her in the “I’ve always been here for you” (read: pining for you) style. Shah Rukh Khan—at the time cementing his superstar status, now arguably the biggest name in Bollywood—plays Aman, the main character, and he can sell cheesy very well. The film also stars Preity Zinta as Naina, and Saif Ali Khan as Rohit, her best friend.

The title “Kal Ho Naa Ho” directly translates to “whether or not there is a tomorrow,” and the film and its title song of the soundtrack drive this message home, as Aman lip syncs the lyrics while roaming around New York City, interspersed with scenes of Naina and Rohit living their life as a couple, while Aman watches over them with longing.

The film (and the song) have been a constant presence in my life. I was born in 2002, and the film came out in November 2003. We have videos of me as a 3-year-old, jumping around the bed singing (in mangled Hindi) “Har pal yahan / Jee bhar jiyo / Jo hai sama / Kal ho naa ho” (Every moment here / Live it to the fullest / No matter what you are feeling / There may not be a tomorrow). I am still not sure why such a sad song charmed me so much, but given that I was a toddler, I didn’t understand much about the song or the film beyond the fact that the song had a catchy, simple tune.

Three-year-old Maryam didn’t really understand what these lyrics meant, but 21-year old Maryam feels their meaning so deeply.

I am blessed in that I have a loving family, and never need to worry about living in discomfort or being able to afford my next meal. I am so blessed to write these words, to have found my passion for writing in high school, and to have been presented with one opportunity after another to pursue it. But I know how blessed I am, because I know how much worse it could have been. “Live your life to the fullest” has been beaten to death as a motivational phrase, but “Kal Ho Naa Ho” has made me consider it differently throughout my life, and resonates with all of my family.

Every time I hear the lilting flute and swell of strings of its first few seconds, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” stops me in my tracks and reminds me to recognize what I have.

My life first truly changed when I was 9 years old. I was going to leave everything I had known when we moved from Los Angeles to Aligarh, India. I was leaving the friends and places I knew best for a place I was told was home, but one that I had never known. Hindi and Urdu were almost indecipherable to me, beyond just the “hi, hello, how are you” I was instructed to recite to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins on the phone. Nine-year-old Maryam did not really see much beyond her own loss, but was at least mature enough to keep complaints to herself.

I knew better than to throw tantrums, because I could understand that my pain was nothing compared to what my parents were going through. We were moving to India to be with my paternal grandfather, who had been diagnosed with kidney cancer and had months left to live.

My pain was nothing compared to the pain my father would feel when he mourned the moments he would never get to spend with his father. As my grandfather’s health deteriorated, my father stayed with him every moment he could, as we all dreaded the day when there would be no more moments left.

Living in India for six years, I learned very quickly how much more I gained by being around our relatives in India. I got to know the people in my family, and the homes that my ancestors lived in for generations. My sisters rocked back and forth in my Nana’s (my maternal grandfather) arms to the sounds of his lullabies, which each of us knows by heart. We spent our birthdays and Eids with our cousins congregating in the homes I began to call my own.

Kal Ho Naa Ho and the films I grew up with gave me a new kind of comfort and a connection to my peers and family.

My connection to my culture was tenuous at best: I did not know much of the language before we went to India, but I did know the words to my favorite Bollywood songs that I had grown up with, just like my peers. Kal Ho Naa Ho and the films I grew up with gave me a new kind of comfort and a connection to my peers and family.

The relief my parents felt at being in their home was palpable. They did not have to lose any more moments and got to see their extended families so often, and finally had a support system that was always there for us. I became much more conscious of how much they had lost after moving to the United States from India.

I was reminded how precious our time was again when my father was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, four years after his father. He would recover, but it was a long road ahead, and all of a sudden he was in a hospital bed. With his immunity so compromised, we could only be in the same room as him with masks on and a gaping distance between us.

My sisters and I didn’t get to hug him for a month.

There is one part of “Kal Ho Naa Ho” that I never liked to sing as much, but it has grown on me. Sonu Nigam’s bright voice sings,

Chaahe jo tumhe poore dil se
Milta hai woh mushkil hai
Aisa jo koi kahin hai
Bas vahi sabse hasin hai

Us haath ko tum thaam lo
Woh meherbaan, kal ho naa ho

(Someone who loves you truly
Is a rare thing in this world
If you find such a person
Then, that’s the one for you

Hold on to that hand
That person might not be there tomorrow) 

"Kal Ho Naa Ho" was released in November 2003.

Screenshot of "Kal Ho Naa Ho"

The song most directly hints at romantic love, but to me, it applies to more than that. Whether or not there is a tomorrow, you need to hold the people you love close. What is there to cherish if you have no one to share it with?

After my father’s treatment was complete, we moved back to the United States, this time to Albany, New York, where my aunt’s family lived, too. The move was hard on my parents, who had gotten so used to being home with their families again. But once more, we were going to move away and lose the moments we had cherished. We adapted, as we always do, but it was hard, especially for my parents.

“Kal Ho Naa Ho” is not a song we listen to all the time, but it is one we all love. Every time it comes on, we hum along together. My sisters, who are eight and 10 years younger than me, have also begun their Bollywood education, and one of their first steps was Kal Ho Naa Ho.

One of the most important lessons my family taught me was to enjoy every moment to the fullest, and to be present. Whether that was during the once-a-year meetings with our family from around the world in one place, or just simply a long drive through the greenery around us, every moment was precious.

One of the most important lessons my family taught me was to enjoy every moment to the fullest, and to be present. Whether that was during the once-a-year meetings with our family from around the world in one place, or just simply a long drive through the greenery around us, every moment was precious.

My mother tells my sisters and I to disengage from our endless screen time and enjoy our time together, and my father, who of all the people I know has many valid reasons to be a jaded cynic, frequently looks out at our backyard, in the house that he and my mother own, and remarks, “Maryam, kya ghar hai ye.”

Maryam, what a home this is.

As much as Kal Ho Naa Ho is dear to me, I can admit that not all of it has aged well. Twenty years later, the extraordinarily cringey rap part of “Pretty Woman” is excruciating to watch, and while the film definitely resonated with Indian immigrants in the United States then, the same voice singing that song that I loved so much has decided to use it to encourage hate against people like me. Sonu Nigam has joined the many celebrities comfortable supporting the BJP, the current party in power, which has consistently targeted Indian Muslims politically and rhetorically. My family and I look at India longingly now, as my mother yearns to be with hers after losing two of the people they love most, and my father yearns to spend more time in his ancestral home, recording the stories of the past generations of his family so that the generation after him can remember them. We mourn the future of the country that we called home, even if I was only there for a few years. We worry for our family there, because you never know what may happen next.

Despite all of our anxieties, we cherish the memories we made for as long as we were there, back when we didn’t have to hunker down at home for fear of catching a virus that already has exacted such a heavy toll. We scroll through the photos of the times we had in India with our younger cousins and when my youngest sister was the most adorable baby ever. We cherish the memories we made, and will continue to make, whenever we make our journey again. Kal Ho Naa Ho remains a favorite, and we remind each other to enjoy what we have now, because remember what it was like when…? Imagine what would have happened if…?

Published on November 28, 2023

Words by Maryam Ahmad

Maryam Ahmad is a writer from Albany, New York, who focuses on the intersections of politics and pop culture. She writes about Muslim and South Asian representation in TV and film, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. She is the head managing editor of the Wellesley News (2023-24), and is a senior majoring in political science at Wellesley College.