The premise of three friends coming of age in an Excel Entertainment film, is almost a ritual for Hindi film fans every few years. The production house burst onto the scene with Dil Chahta Hai (2001) – following three friends from their early 20s to their late 20s; and then followed it up with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), which was set around three childhood friends making good on a college pact in their 30s. In 2023, the production house, coupled with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s Tiger Baby Films, tells a tale of three friends navigating their double lives in the social media era.
These movies are usually set in an upper-middle class neighbourhood, amongst those not struggling for their basic needs. There’s a relaxed vibe in these films, as an eclectic group of musicians make up the film’s soundtrack to play through montages, and characters try to find out what it all really means. Both Farhan Akhtar’s film and Zoya Akhtar’s film conclude with life-altering epiphanies: some friendships survive everything, or how road trips can bring catharsis.
Arjun Varain Singh’s Kho Gaye Hum Kahan tries to make sense of a generation that’s addicted to consuming other people’s lives, and how they slowly come to terms with the lies in it.
It’s a fertile premise – one that is full of (self) deception, given how so much is left unsaid in everyday life. At first we were only subject to people’s thoughts if they spoke to us, but now they reach us in the manner of pictures, screenshots, tweets, threads, Facebook posts. Also, there’s a way for us to actively peek into other people’s lives, even if we’re not actively following them. Everyone wants to project how “humbled” they are to be living their “best lives”, but it’s rarely the truth.
Debutante director Singh’s film is its strongest and most distinct, when it depicts a generation’s obsession with their smartphones. Our entire lives are now gamified in the manner where popularity can be quantified through a dozen metrics: likes, reactions, retweets, followers, views, subscribers, etc.
Kho Gaye Hum Kahan follows three friends in their 20s – Imaad (Siddhant Chaturvedi), Ahana (Ananya Panday) and Neil (Adarsh Gourav). Imaad is the son of a rich businessman, currently pursuing his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. Neil, from a middle-class Catholic home, is a physical trainer in the proximity of Bandra’s wealth and privilege. Ahana – the only one among the three to be in a stable relationship and have a full-time job, comes fully undone when her boyfriend suddenly breaks up with her, without giving her any closure about why he’s dumping her.
All three friends are dependent on social media to varying degrees. Imaad needs to go ‘viral’ for his shows to start filling up, Neil’s gym has celebrity clients like Malaika Arora Khan and Farhan Akhtar – and a social media following will expedite his journey to becoming a known celebrity trainer, and open his own gym. After Ahana’s break-up, she gets her revenge by curating a ‘happy’ social media feed to get the attention of her ex-boyfriend.
Singh’s strong observation skills show up early in the film, when we see the three friends sitting in the same room, their faces lit by the glow of their respective phones, laptops. There are other scenes too, where Singh documents his characters’ sudden changes in mood after a bad day, once they see notifications on their posts.
It’s only when the friends come together to open a business, is when the film begins to take the convenient narrative route. It takes only a few questions for Neil to convince Ahana to quit her job to make a business plan for his gym, while Imaad agrees to invest his inheritance into it merely two lines later. The film’s primary conflict – the confrontation between Imaad and Neil, after the former makes some unsavoury jokes on the latter’s relationship with an influencer, Lala (Anya Singh) – appears slightly underwritten. I found it a little hard to digest that a stand-up comic would go on stage and say those things about a close friend, especially with him sitting in the audience, without giving him a heads-up about it. Even though both Chaturvedi and Gourav are solid actors, who do their best to sell this confrontation slowly escalating with each line, I couldn’t help but think how the scene needed a moment’s pause before it to make it truly impactful.
I really enjoyed the ease between Imaad and Simran (Kalki Koechlin), a grieving photographer, who meets him under the pretext of a project. Both Chaturvedi and Koechlin are secure actors, and that allows them to truly exist in a scene without any off-screen baggage. Gourav is a very fine actor, especially when it comes to emoting with body language. The way his body shrinks, when a client of his tells him to not ‘cross the line’, is exemplary. Also, his run-ins with his conservative father (Vijay Maurya, feasting on these tiny roles in Excel movies), who tries to warn him about his boundless (and sometimes reckless) ambition. It might not be saying much after all, but it’s abundantly clear that these films are tailor-made for Panday. She’s not been the most promising actor around since she made her debut nearly five years ago, but she makes a compelling case for herself in at least two scenes in the film.
Kho Gaye Hum Kahan keeps us on the hook for a long time, given how sincere and easy it is. But it slowly tapers off towards the end without fully maximising its potential. A track around Neil and his influencer girlfriend feels tentative, with the makers trying to balance her artifice, while also trying to humanise her. The track concludes with a voice-over doling out platitudes about Neil’s bad behaviour, which feels like a hurried, lazy way to wrap things up. There’s a scene towards the end when Imaad owns up to his demons from the past by announcing it in his set to an audience. It feels awkwardly written, and performed by an unusually stiff Chaturvedi, given how he’s free-flowing in most other scenes.
Arjun Varain Singh’s film is the rare Hindi film that seems to understand the lies of social media, but unfortunately chooses to not cut too deep. While it results in a respectable, watchable debut, it never quite ascends to becoming a document of a whole generation. It’s ultimately sad that for its commentary on social media, Kho Gaye Hum Kahan has the recall value of an Insta reel.
This article was first published by The Wire.