Karan Johar, an over or under-achiever? Deciphering the filmmaker amidst all the white noise

Gautam Chintamani

Feb,13 2017 12:11 10 IST

There was a time when it would be fun to watch or read a Karan Johar interview. Much like what Shah Rukh Khan would do with his wit in any typical Hindi film star interview, Johar, too, has transformed the interaction with filmmakers to near high art.

Unfortunately, too much of something good runs the risk of becoming listless, and Johar, with a talk show that is presently in its fifth season and a new autobiography to boot, suddenly seems to have run of topics that would keep the audience engaged.

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Karan Johar. Solaris Images.

In an interview to Vir Sanghvi for CNN News 18, Johar mentioned an instance in which he was shocked to see an old interview of himself trying too hard to sound like a serious filmmaker during the making of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.

Ever since his first film, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) Johar was bestowed upon the mantle of being Bollywood’s smart thinking filmmaker. This is was an era when access to Aditya Chopra was not possible, Farhan Akhtar was yet to arrive, Laagan and the (re) discovery of Ashutosh Gowariker had not happened and Sanjay Leela Bhansali was not elevated to the point of veneration. Being the son of the late Yash Johar, a well-respected producer, Johar might have found it easy to break into films but there was also something uniquely singular about him.

Having grown up on Yash Chopra’s films and being familiar with the nuances of commercial filmmaking — thanks to observing his father as well as assisting Aditya Chopra — gave Johar a sense of how things worked. When combined with his own storytelling flair, Johar found himself perched at a place where he could be the bridge between the old Hindi cinema and the shiny new Bollywood. He delivered on that promise at least up until Kabhi Alvida Nahin Kehna, which to the mind of this writer remains his best work to date.

Accessible and vocal as he is, it would be difficult to recall the last time someone interviewed Karan Johar without him commenting on some controversy.

In the Vir Sanghvi interview, Johar was largely discussing his life following the publication of his autobiography, An Unsuitable Boy, written with Poonam Saxena. Hearing him talk about certain choices that he made — forced or otherwise — one couldn’t help but feel a sense of being letdown.

For someone who has been an observer and an admirer of his work – primarily Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and some portions of both Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – this writer found it strange to see him make much about not being considered the underdog. There is a tendency in Johar’s films, where he seems to try too hard to be accepted. Maybe being a south Bombay lad, who scoffed at Hindi films, makes Johar do this, but it becomes tiring beyond a point.

Johar’s self-deprecation, too, is to be credited to a great degree for it was common for most upper-middle-class children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s to be dismissive of masala Hindi films. So, for Johar to pursue a career in the same would appear being hypocritical and perhaps that is why he mocks himself and even his films in the hope that somewhere this would make him fit better.

In Hindi commercial films more than any other cinema, the more successful a filmmaker becomes the more formulaic their cinema tends to be. But rather than seeing this in terms of say, an auteur theory, Bollywood’s A-list filmmakers start using it as a license to become, dare I say, lazy.

Take Johar’s films for instance; post-Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham he used his brand to benefit Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), a film that he co-wrote and produced for erstwhile associate Nikhil Advani, but squandered an opportunity to make an important social statement. Johar’s sexuality has unnecessarily been discussed ever since he became a public figure and, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, in an oblique fashion, he has fanned the nonsensical talk that he has been subjected to.

Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar at Olive. Sachin Gokhales/Firstpost

Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar's relationship has stood the test of time; they are frequent collaborators. Sachin Gokhales/Firstpost

It has been fifteen-years since Kal Ho Na Ho but the first thing that still comes to mind are the jokes and gags surrounding homosexuality. Moreover, since Kal Ho Na Ho, mainstream Hindi cinema’s depiction of homosexuality has only worsened. Half a decade later, he co-produced Dostana, where two heterosexual men posed as a homosexual couple and everything about being homosexual was mocked.

While watching Johar talk about the choices that he made in his life, it seemed that most things he ever did have been a struggle for him.

Whether it is coming to terms with the way he was taunted as a child or the appearances he had to keep or the recent Ae Dil Hai Mushkil apology video, Johar laments that his persona is as such that he would never be considered an underdog. Perhaps Johar is right to feel the way he feels, but what he doesn’t seem to understand is that beyond a point no one is bothered. He may have had random strangers walking up to him in public and enquiring about his sexual orientation, and pathetic as it may be this is an inescapable thing in India.

Indians don’t blink an eyelid before asking the most personal things — Are you married? When are you guys going to have a kid? How come you and your wife are not having the second child? Is she a lesbian? Is he a homo? Try as hard, one can never satisfy them.

Karan Johar could have been a greater inspiration for millions and his decision to share his personal details would still have been his to make. In the last two decades, he has been at a place where his actions could have set precedence; be it not fully giving in to political outfits when it comes to being arm-twisted (Wake Up Sid, My Name is Khan and, of course, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) or depicting sexual orientation the way he did in Kal Ho Na Ho and Dostana. But have they? Has he followed through?

When it comes to pressure from political parties, Johar makes a choice usually in the name of the economic safety for a film. But in the same breath, he adds that he might do the same thing again for there is no other choice. He paints a picture that many things are stuck in a limbo and there is no solution. Much like the stand he takes in real life, Johar’s reel choices also reflect on him. He can’t blame the audience for enjoying something that he sets them up for and then feel letdown with how people think about things, especially homosexuality. Johar's battles are his own.