Karan Johar may be shattering stereotypes but not many in India can follow his footsteps
His memoir made waves for the three words that Karan Johar could not bring himself to utter. “Karan Johar will not say the three words that possibly everyone knows about me,” he wrote in An Unsuitable Boy.
Now he’s finally found himself three words that he can shout from the rooftops with pride. I am daddy. Karan Johar is in the news for coming out as a proud dad to twins via surrogacy.
“I am ecstatic to share with you all the two most wonderful additions to my life, my children and lifelines; Yash and Roohi,” he said in a statement. “I feel enormously blessed to be a parent to these pieces of my heart who were welcomed into this world with the help of marvels of medical science.”
Everyone deserves a shot at happiness and that goes without question for Karan Johar too. In his memoir he had written “I don’t know what I’m going to do about it but I feel like I would like to be a parent.” He had said he had “plenty of love to offer” and he would like to “take it forward”.
Karan Johar occupies a peculiar place in our cultural imagination. What he says is as carefully scrutinised as what he does not.
He’s not the first single male Bollywood celebrity to do this. Tusshar Kapoor announced the birth of his son Laksshya in 2016. But Karan Johar is Karan Johar and his fatherhood will make headlines in a way Tusshar Kapoor’s did not. Kapoor’s decision, and the flood of congratulatory messages that followed from the likes of Abhishek Bachchan, Farah Khan and Johar himself, was seen as a mark of a changing Bollywood.
But Johar operates on a stage larger than Bollywood. He “is more subversive than his critics admit,” writes Aatish Taseer in the New York Times. “He knows the limits of his ‘family’ audience but he works vigorously within them”.
In light of that, this becomes his latest act of pushing the envelope, an act both undeniably family-friendly and yet testing our idea of what a family should be. That’s why Barkha Dutt has congratulated her dear friend Karan Johar, “for shattering stereotypes, for fatherhood & for the courage to follow your heart.”
Unfortunately in this case he might be shattering stereotypes but not many in modern India will be able to follow in his footsteps.
And it’s not for lack of courage. The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill of 2016 is specifically designed to slam the door shut in the face of someone like Karan Johar. That bill cleared by the cabinet in August 2016 bans commercial surrogacy and only allows “altruistic” surrogacy for childless couples who have been married for at least five years.
It bars single parents, homosexuals, live-in couples, foreigners, NRIs and Overseas Citizen of India cardholders. When that bill was introduced Sushma Swaraj said “we do not recognize homosexual or live-in relationships.” And though she did not name them, she seemed to take a potshot at celebrities who she felt had a child by surrogacy just because it’s “fashionable”.
Karan Johar ticks more than one of those boxes of those deemed unfit to raise a family in modern day India. He is lucky that his dream of a family has squeezed in under the wire so to speak, before this bill became an Act. He has his babies before the law finally turned against someone like him. Most clinics have already stopped accepting clients like him.
The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill was meant to protect the welfare of the women, many of them low-income, who act as surrogates. And there is a healthy debate to be had about the best way to do that. But the bill as it turned out was more about homophobia just disguised as surrogate welfare.
“While Johar happily accepted his twins, there have been cases where the commissioning parents have abandoned one of the babies,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, head of the Indian Council of Medical Research tells the Times of India. But a surrogate’s health has nothing to do with the sexual orientation or marital status of the would-be parent. By identifying the kinds of people it did not want as parents, the government was showing its true colours as a nanny state enforcing its own moral codes.
For gays wishing to be parents, surrogacy was the only viable option after single men were not allowed to adopt. The bill closed that door as well.
When Tusshar Kapoor announced the birth of his child, his doctor hoped his “brave and bold decision” would open up the field of assisted reproduction. His parents Jeetendra and Shobha Kapoor said they were “completely supportive” of their son’s decision. Johar too talks about his “caring and supportive mother who will be an integral part in the upbringing of her grandchildren.” That parental support shows that though some aspects of our lives remain taboo and closeted, everybody understands the urge to be a parent.
India might not get gays but it gets family.
Except the government which has rigid rules of what a family should be like even though the reality of our families has long left those rules behind. For example, it wants to protect the idea of family from gays while gay Indians are building their own families. The reality is someone like Johar who has to jump through so many hoops to have a child has probably more invested in giving those children the best upbringing possible than many mom-and-dad couples who have never had to think twice about their right to be parents.
No wonder many in Bollywood are tweeting about what a wonderful dad Karan Johar will make. “You will make an amazing parent,” tweets Arjun Rampal while Varun Dhawan thinks Johar will be the “best dad”.
Many activists think Karan Johar has not used his powerful position to do as much as he could have done for sexual minorities in India. To be or not to be an activist is a personal choice that no one can impose upon him.
But while an “ecstatic” Karan Johar counts his blessings and congratulatory tweets (and changes nappies), he should remember that the government very deliberately will deny that happiness to thousands of others just like him. Now that is an issue he should take very personally.