Karan Johar Director's Cut: On ageism, sexism, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Pakistan
In Firstpost's 'Director's Cut', Karan Johar fields questions on Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, its protagonists, and the protests over it
The din has died down and now it’s time for a conversation about content.
Despite the ‘nationalist’ ruckus created by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) over the casting of a Pakistani star in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM), the film has gone on to become one of the year’s biggest hits. You would expect ADHM’s producer-director Karan Johar to be publicly celebrating the happily-ever-after ending to that painful saga. Instead, he has quietly moved on to his TV show Koffee With Karan, hoping to put the tension of October 2016 behind him.
We pinned him down though for our section Director’s Cut in which we discuss films with their makers post-release. Excerpts from the interview:
Do you believe Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor’s character) matured through Ae Dil Hai Mushkil?
His relationships with Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) and Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) definitely brought a lull and calm in his demeanour, but it was not his coming of age, it was about his love.
He matured but the change was not drastic. It’s not that he was grossly irresponsible before, then became responsible. It was his discovering that part of himself that could be demotional – detached and emotional. He had immense love for this girl that he can’t let go of although she does not reciprocate his feelings, but he comes to peace with it because he realises that that love, as Shah Rukh’s character tells him, is enough to complete you, you don’t need reciprocation.
Ayan pushes Alizeh around even after he has supposedly become a maturer person. Why is there nothing to suggest that the film or she disapproves of this?
I thought that when he meets Alizeh again they go back to being the way they always were with each other. His maturity was all surface. She brought that side out. In fact I love that they fed off each other. She was capable of pushing and pulling him with equal abandon. They were two people who had a raw energy and comfort with each other’s bodies without making it sexual or physical. They were friends who could fight, almost bash each other, love each other or have fun with equal abandon. I never thought I was disrespecting a woman or it was getting violent.
You might call it “raw energy” or whatever, but the fact is he was roughing her up. Even if she does pummel him, there is no equivalence.
[Pauses] No of course, now that you’re saying it I’m thinking about it.
We can frown upon a woman pummelling a man but there is no equivalence between that and a man roughing up a woman, because of the difference in strength and so on.
Ya, but I never looked at it like that. To me it was just them feeding off each other. Never in my head would I imagine that he was going to get physical with her. He was always like a boy child who threw tantrums, cried in her lap and pushed her like an angry child would.
Many people think it is natural for a man to push a woman around if they are in a relationship, and experts say if a man pushes you around then chances are it will get worse.
[Pauses] Ya, I completely agree now that you say it. I swear the thought never crossed my mind. I say that not with frivolity, but with care and concern. Of course we must be responsible about what we show on screen.
My intent was never that because that’s not who I am, but if it’s coming across as that then I should be more careful. Unfortunately there was a line I cut off in that scene after he says “Maine apni virginity nahin apni personality bachaake rakkhi thhi kyunki main jaanta thha ki ek na ek din koi mujhe milega jo mere pagalpan ko samjhega” (I did not save my virginity, I saved my personality because I knew some day I’d meet someone who would understand my madness). Her reply which I removed for length was, “Tum mein pagalpan nahin, tum mein bachpana hai jiska istemaal tumne bachpan mein nahin kiya ya shayad kisi ne karne nahin diya” (You are not mad, you are childish, possibly because in your childhood you could not or were not allowed to vent your childishness). Things like that would have maybe never justified what could offend somebody though.
It’s not about being offended. In India, the word “offend” is associated with violence-prone political and religious organisations.
No no, I don’t mean offended, I mean it could set a precedent.
Okay, neither Saba nor Ayan nor the film makes a fuss about Saba being older. This is interesting considering that it’s a huge deal for Bollywood to cast an actress in her 40s in a relationship with a 30-something actor?
I felt it would be really demeaning to constantly address that point. I did not want even a mention of the age factor. Because, what is the big deal? If you fall in love with someone, what are years? I could fall in love today at 40 with somebody who is 25, that doesn’t make me wanting to be a male cougar. Sometimes love doesn’t come with any barometer or parameter.
There is a reference to age though, but it comes in Ayan’s conversation with Shah Rukh Khan’s character. Why did you make that choice?
I felt that Shah Rukh’s character is the type who would be insecure of the fact that his ex-wife has a younger boyfriend. That is a normal reflex. It could bother any person even if the tables were turned. If you’re still invested in your ex and she springs up a much younger boyfriend, an insecurity would pop up. I wanted to touch on that.
Conversely male actors are routinely cast as the boyfriend or husband of female stars 20-30 years their junior, the age difference usually isn’t even an angle in the story and the older male actor usually plays a character much younger than his real life age. Why?
Because we have such few megastars and nobody in India wants to give women stronger roles once they cross a certain age even if they are big stars. I’d like to work with women of all ages depending on the role, but somehow you land up just not casting women in their 30s with men in their 40s. It’s very commercially calculated. Invariably the top movie actresses are in their late 20s, the superstars are now in their 50s, and the project becomes more viable when they are together. It’s accepted in India. Not just in Bollywood, even down south.
It can all change though because cinema is evolving, so people are also casting as per the role. Aamir’s wife in Dangal is played by Sakshi Tanwar who’s not that young and is from television, not even a leading actress. Simultaneously of course there’s Anushka with Salman (in Sultan). So the change is in baby steps.
Would you concede that the Hindi industry is highly sexist?
It is, but it is also true that men command more money at the box office. A Salman film will open to Rs 30 crore and no matter which leading actress you take they will not cross a certain number. That power comes from the audience. So blame it on the audience.
But isn’t that because men get strong roles and longevity, giving them the larger-than-life image to build an audience over 20, 30 years, which the women don’t get, then that is used against women whereas it is the industry that is creating this self-perpetuating cycle?
Up to the 1960s, women had solid roles. In Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy or Raj Kapoor’s time, women like Nargis, Meena Kumari, Sadhna, Nutan were as important as heroes. Male domination happened with Amitabh Bachchan, then a few other male stars in the late ’70s and ’80s. Then it became a norm.
Only men got lead roles. Few women could break the shackles in mainstream cinema, like Rekha did with Khoon Bhari Maang. It was tough. The equity built by men in that time has benefited men today. That era gave birth to Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir in 1988-’91. They became the next phase of superstardom, and with Akshay Kumar are still big stars who pull the economics.
So why blame the audience when they are limited by what is supplied to them?
The audience has got tuned to it now. It’s like your digestion system getting used to a certain meal given to you every day.
Okay, is Aishwarya’s character in ADHM a woman of Pakistani or Indian origin?
She is Indian.
What changes did you make to ADHM after the protests against the casting of a Pakistani actor in it? Were Alizeh and Ali actually Pakistanis?
She’s from Lucknow and so is he.
But in that scene when Anushka is on the phone asking Ranbir to attend her wedding, she clearly said she is in Karachi but “Lucknow” was dubbed over the original word.
They’re all from Lucknow. Maybe you saw a bad print.
Some people believe you cut down the space originally given to Fawad Khan’s character in the story because of MNS’s protests against the casting of a Pakistani star.
Not at all. When people say that I find it so silly. His exact screen time is nine minutes, but even if he was there for 15, the protests would not have been any less. [Laughs] I didn’t cut his role. This is all he was meant to do in the film.
Fair enough, but a lot of the referencing in the film, the language, some dialogues suggest that you originally intended some characters to be Pakistanis and you changed that.
Well, anyone can interpret what they want to.
But why do you think people feel that way?
To me they are organic characters. They are Indians from Lucknow. A large part of Lucknow speaks very chaste Urdu, they’re very cultured. People may interpret it however they want but to me they are characters from India.
Karan, are you playing it safe with your answers?
I’m not playing anything any more, Anna. [Laughs] I’m not playing any more with anyone. I’m just being a filmmaker going through the beats of the release of my film. I don’t play, I direct.
And you’re not playing it safe?
I’m not playing anything.
Lisa Haydon’s character Lisa D’souza feels she must greet Alizeh and her boyfriend Faisal with “Salaam waleikum”. Through her were you making a point about how we stereotype people of communities we don’t mix around with much?
Totally. The silliness, the ignorance can make you put people into boxes. But I didn’t think of it that much, Anna. [Laughs] Her thing is, I’m meeting a Muslim couple so I must say some things. She says, “Eid Mubarak” though it’s not Eid. She’s stupid. There was nothing more to it.
In that scene you too perpetuate Bollywood stereotypes by showing a Hindu speak Hindi as you and I do, Muslims speak Urdu-laden Hindi, and a Christian who is bad at Hindi.
Uh, that was not an intention but if it came across like that I don’t know how to defend it. Alizeh and Faisal are Lucknow-based. They understand Urdu. Lisa is obviously Catholic, probably born and brought up abroad. Ayan is an NRI who knows Hindi through probably Hindi films.
You don’t think Indian Catholics watch Hindi movies?
Clearly she doesn’t. She watches KBC. [Laughs] She doesn’t have a command over the language but she’s very fond of it.
How come he is fluent in everyday Hindi because he watches Hindi films but she is not though she mentions loving Bachchan’s Hindi on KBC?
Ya because that’s the thing, she doesn’t understand the language, she just finds the words exotic.
So you did not intend to stereotype?
My line producer is a girl called Marijke deSouza. We teased her because she shares a surname with Lisa from Ae Dil, she’s born and brought up in Bandra, she’s lived all her life in Bombay, but she can’t speak a word of Hindi.
You may have met people who fit the stereotype, but a stereotype assumes that everyone is like that person you met. Then that becomes the only thing shown in films.
I don’t think so at all. It’s just a character, you have to have fun. If you over-analyse everything then that is something that unfortunately I didn’t do. Lisa’s character came organically to me. I did not invest this kind of thought in her. Because then that would not be my natural instinct. That’s my honest answer, Anna. I don’t know what else to say.
Could this be because of your own conditioning? You’ve grown up watching Hindi film stereotypes of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, so you believe the stereotypes?
Probably. There’s so much in my life and work that’s idiotic and doesn’t add up.
Does Ae Dil Hai Mushkil suffer from a Tamasha and Rockstar hangover?
Tamasha toh I saw when we were shooting Ae Dil in London, and Ranbir never told me anything about it in reference. When I signed him, our initial apprehension was, oh it’s a bit like Rockstar. And I said, “It’s not about your musical journey. You are a singer but it’s about your journey of love.” What it had in common with Rockstar was the angst of both characters and that they were both singers. I knew there would be a comparison and I was okay with that because I knew that other things in the film would take over.
Both characters also feel extreme antagonism towards a person who does not reciprocate their love.
This again is conditioning. His ego can’t handle the rejection. And yes his deep antagonism towards her is purely a reflection of what’s happened to me because this film is internal and I have felt it very strongly – anger, vehemence, pain and…
Yes, hatred. What happened to me percolates through the writing.
Does your film make it clear that hatred for a woman who doesn’t reciprocate your feelings is not okay?
No. But he doesn’t do anything that crosses the boundary. He just loves her.
But he roughs her up.
Now that you say it I’m going to give it a thought but again, that was not my intention.
I know my answer to the next question but I’ve seen jokes about it on the social media, so maybe you want to respond. There are people saying: only in India will you have a couple who can afford a private jet but not enough money for separate hotel rooms.
Actually I cut a dialogue, which now I feel I should not have. When she’s planning that trip, and he says “Haan, Papa plane bhej denge” (Dad will send the plane), she says, “Cool, you bring the plane, hotel ka kharcha mera aur khana 50-50” (I’ll spend on the hotel and we’ll split the food bills). Now I cut that line of “hotel ka kharcha mera” and “khana 50-50”.
Are you sure? How come I understood that she was paying for the hotel, and that’s why they shared the room (because she is not rich)?
Probably because you’re clever.
But I’m sure something was said that helped me figure this out.
I’ll tell you. You saw a flash in the beginning of her paying for the drink so it probably went into your sub-conscious mind that she’s a proud girl who will not allow him to pay, if he’s bringing the plane she’ll pay for probably the hotel. That was also why I cut out that dialogue. I knew I would be vulnerable to a few jokes, but I was okay about it as long as my link is not going. I had to make many cuts to give the film a certain flow and length, so I knew some logics would take a beating. So ya, if people are making jokes they’re right, it is strange.
Considering that Aishwarya relaxed her no-kissing-on-screen rule for Dhoom2, why didn’t you convince her to do so for this film?
I didn’t want to. There was just a moment of aesthetic sensuality in the film that was done with dignity and grace.
Even if she was kissing on the lips, you would have done it with dignity and grace.
But I didn’t want to make it about anything else other than what the relationship was. When you show two major stars in a lip lock, the reportage is so much greater than what you show that it takes away from the core emotion you’re trying to project through a character. It’s ridiculous.
Hasn’t that stopped? Aren’t people now used to on-screen kissing?
Which people are you talking about, Anna? Have you read the ridiculous things people write online? Even their kissing to the extent I show it in the film, people are leaking Censor cuts, then examining which point and what has got cut. I mean in 2016 you’re still asking me this question.
I’m asking this question because in 2016 she has a problem with kissing on screen.
She did not say she had a problem. I never asked it of her. I’m just saying the moment you make big movie stars kiss it becomes so big in such a stupid and idiotic way in this day and age, so I feel it’s better not to get into it at all.
But you had Ranbir and Anushka kissing in the film.
I hardly got into the kissing even with them. It was just because he had a dialogue about kissing, otherwise I wouldn’t have cared about them also.
But I haven’t seen journalists reporting, “Look, Ranbir and Anushka kiss in ADHM.” Hasn’t the mainstream media got past that because it’s now routine in our films?
It’s not journalists. I will, at your leisure and when I have the time, send you 82 links about what people write. Please! The emphasis is ridiculous. There are screen grabs, GIFs, all kinds of things on the Internet. It’s gutter-level sometimes.
That said, considering Aishwarya’s known conservatism and her no-kissing rule, Saba and Ayan’s sexual encounters were explicit in comparison with her films so far. Did you have to convince her to do those scenes?
No no, Aishwarya Rai understood the role and had complete faith in me. She’s a thorough professional and she understood that if anyone would project her with this kind of aesthetic it would be me. We’ve known each other for over 20 years. She knows my work. These things were not even brought up, Anna.
She knew the end result would be dignified, and you may point a finger at the film’s screenplay, a loophole perhaps, the instinct you have about a character but not a single finger can be pointed at the visualisation of the love and romance between Ranbir and Aishwarya.
I loved the part where Ayan pokes fun at the way Saba and her ex-husband speak in the film, but I want to know, as did Ayan: who speaks like that?
They did. I liked those lines. Listen Anna, lot of scenes from time immemorial or at least from my memories of films are based on thoughts you like. I love thoughts, I love lines with intensity or deeper meaning.
As someone who enjoys writing dialogues, I enjoyed their banter. To me they were a couple that were intertwined and it was to their own lines, their own thoughts, their own creativity. And I was so amused with the lines that at the end of the scene I gave Ranbir the line, “Aap kya dono lines ratke aatey hai?” (Do you come prepared with these lines?) because they were bantering almost like they’ve been given a dialogue sheet. I enjoyed it, I put it.
He also mockingly says “cheese” when Alizeh and Saba are talking in Saba’s house.
Not mocking, more like being cute. [Laughing] I think he improvised that. I don’t think it was a written line.
Before wrapping up I must ask again: are you sure you did not change ADHM after the protests?
No. I did not.
You told me once that I should never believe what you say on Twitter after attending the premiere of a film by an industry colleague. Should I believe you just now?
Yes you should leave me just now. (Laughs) You should not believe anything I say in general but when I give an interview I mean what I do in the moment that I’m at.
For Anna MM Vetticad’s review of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, click here
For a column on the changes made to the film after the protests, click here
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