Karan Johar's An Unsuitable Boy: Like his films, this book delivers solid, emotional storytelling

Rohini Nair

Jan,16 2017 14:37:50 IST

Karan Johar's An Unsuitable Boy — co-authored by Poonam Saxena and published by Penguin Books India — is probably the most anticipated celebrity autobiography this year.

And not for a moment, through its 200+ pages does it disappoint.

In An Unsuitable Boy, Karan traces his childhood and growing up years, initiation into the film industry, experiences with moviemaking and helming Dharma Productions, equations with friends like Shah Rukh Khan, Aditya Chopra and Kajol, and of course, the subject of his sexuality. He also talks about the success of Koffee With Karan, the controversial AIB Roast before recapping how the film industry has changed over the years.

That's a lot of detail, packed into a (relatively) slim volume.

There is a sense as you rush through these pages (and you will rush, because you'll want to know what he's about to say next!) that each is stuffed full with revelations. There's little that is redundant or uninteresting, and the feeling is one of Karan narrating his life's events to you, the reader. The tone is direct, personal and conversational — if you're looking for a work of literary art, you'll be disappointed. What the book delivers instead, is solid storytelling. Like Johar's films, it is also extravagantly emotional.

An Unsuitable Boy is not a book about Bollywood — although it is peopled by the Hindi film industry's denizens. Yes, Bollywood provides the background against which these stories and personal interactions unfold; but Unsuitable Boy is really a coming-of-age story. Of a lonely-but-loved boy who grappled with personal inadequacies and ultimately triumphed over them once he found his creative direction.

'Coming clean is my dynamic,' writes Karan Johar in his autobiography 'An Unsuitable Boy'. And that's just what he proceeds to do in its 200+ pages.

'Coming clean is my dynamic,' writes Karan Johar in his autobiography 'An Unsuitable Boy'. And that's just what he proceeds to do in its 200+ pages.

The early years

At the start of this narrative, we are introduced Karan Johar, the only child of Yash and Hiroo Johar; Johar senior ran an export firm in addition to being a film producer — the profits from the former helping tide over the losses incurred in the latter capacity. As much as his father pampered him, his mother was a disciplinarian. We get a sense of a childhood that would have been near-idyllic, except for one thing — Karan was a deeply lonely child. Early on, he talks of being taunted for being effeminate by strangers or casual acquaintances; how being described as "pansy" had the power to wound him deeply (in later years, he would take voice modulation lessons to develop a baritone, and learn to control his hand movements that had been pointed out to him as 'too feminine'). Reserved and unable to mix socially with others of his peer group, he withdrew into himself, seeking solace in food. But if food comforted, it also added another layer of shame when it led to major weight gain.

Events reached a head when Karan was sent away to boarding school; here, he was miserable and homesick until a boisterous Twinkle Khanna convinced him to run away. There's a humiliating moment when the runaway is caught by the school guards and brought back and admonished in the morning assembly the principal in front of all the students. More heartbreak awaits: his mother is crushed when Karan is brought back home — so many of her hopes for her only child are bound up in his receiving a quality education. That evening, she sits him down for a serious conversation: Does he want to be mediocre for the rest of his life?

Back at his old day school, his mother's words still on his mind, Karan's life begins to change. It is partly by chance — he gets involved in a club at school, is picked for an inter-school recitation contest (where seated next to him is Aditya Chopra, a fellow contender) and discovers that he is really, really good at elocution. When he wins the big prize, it cements his confidence and thus effects a dramatic life transformation.

Act II: Friendship with Aditya Chopra

Act II of Unsuitable Boy has its roots in a friendship — that between Karan and Aditya Chopra. Karan recounts how he — a diehard Hindi movie buff — drew closer to Adi and Anil Thadani (the distributor, now married to Raveena Tandon) during his college days. Of course, he had always known Adi — his parents Yash and Pam Chopra were friends with the Johars. But a shared love for Hindi movies drew the younger generation closer during their college years. Karan recounts how he, Adi and Anil became inseparable, talking movies through all hours of the day. And when Karan was about to take on the mantle of his father's business, it was Adi who convinced him to assist with the making of Diwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. As with the elocution contest during his boyhood, the making of DDLJ proved to be the turning point in Karan's life as a young man. From then, there was no looking back. His friendships with Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri Khan date back to this time, (his friendship with Kajol went back longer) and this would prove to be his 'training ground' for a career in films. It laid the groundwork for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Karan's career as a filmmaker.

Filmmaking career, and death of Yash Johar

The next few years were a spiral of highs: Karan made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, followed by Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, and his narrations of how these films came about hold much of interest to the Bollywood fan. For instance, he shares an anecdote about how Salman Khan agreed to come on board for his extended cameo in KKHH, a part that definitely placed him as second fiddle to Shah Rukh. But it is in his recounting of the making of KKKG, that Karan reveals the insecurities he faced as a filmmaker: as he went about with his multi-starrer, Lagaan released to great acclaim and later earned an Oscar nod. That same year Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai also came to the theatres, and Karan writes of how he was struck by how genuinely cool it was. Karan admits to feeling threatened, like his own work would not match up, and wanting to make something that had the same authentically cool feel of Dil Chahta Hai. The result was Kal Ho Na Ho, which Karan scripted, and asked Nikhil Advani to direct.

KHNH led to a falling out with Kareena Kapoor (read about it here) and on-set tensions with Nikhil, but the worst thing to take place during this time was that Yash Johar was diagnosed with cancer. The Johars went through the rigmarole of radiation and chemotherapy; but by June of 2004, Karan's father succumbed to the illness. The loss was devastating, one Karan didn't recover from for a while, and it's one of the most poignant sections of Unsuitable Boy.

Taking charge of Dharma and later years

Karan has written that he'd been happy while his father was alive, to deal with only the creative aspect of filmmaking. But after Yash Johar passed away, he had to get to grips with the minutiae of the business side as well. In this, he was helped by Apoorva Mehta, his closest friend from school, who quit his job at YRF's London division to take charge at Dharma. Karan writes of how they've grown to be the production house they are today after a slow and steady process of learning from their success and failures. As Dharma grows, so does Karan Johar, in stature, in confidence, more sure of his place in the world.

Personal issues and equations

What sets An Unsuitable Boy apart is its often blistering honesty: Karan turns his gaze on subjects like his sexuality (read what he has to say about it, here) his close friendship with Shah Rukh Khan (there's an entire chapter dedicated to SRK, although he does make appearances in other parts of the narrative as well)and the acrimonious breakdown of his relationship with Kajol (click here to see pages from the book). There's something disarming about the openness — you can't possibly pick flaws in someone who so courageously highlights them himself. Karan also writes of his battle with depression, and the process of being at peace with himself and his life choices.

Not that they're comparable, but merely by virtue of being celebrity autobiographies and having released at the same time, Rishi Kapoor's Khullam Khulla: Uncensored and Karan's An Unsuitable Boy, are bound to be held up against each other.

In Firstpost's review of Khullam Khulla, we wrote: "Having read Khullam Khulla in its entirety, and just the prologue to Unsuitable Boy, one can safely say that perhaps it is Johar’s book that is probably more deserving of the ‘uncensored’ tag. It isn't that Rishi Kapoor’s book lacks in frankness; he's held forth in detail about his famous family, his equations with his contemporaries, the highs and lows of his film career, the moviemaking business, and a couple of scandals. But being forthright or frank isn't quite the same as baring your soul. And Khullam Khulla, except in some instances, doesn't seem like a baring of Rishi Kapoor’s soul."

Khullam Khulla is perhaps the better-written and better edited book. But An Unsuitable Boy is most definitely a baring of Karan Johar's soul. It's has everything that one would look for in a celebrity autobiography: gossip, insight, and an insider's view into the fascinating world of Bollywood.

"Coming clean is my dynamic," Karan writes towards the end of his book. With An Unsuitable Boy, he's come clean — and how.

An Unsuitable Boy by Karan Johar, with Poonam Saxena; Penguin Books India; pages: 216; price: Rs 699 (hardcover)

Published Date: Jan 16, 2017 14:37 PM | Updated Date: Jan 16, 2017 15:29 PM