Revisiting Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham: Karan Johar's luxury-brand soap opera was all about loving patriarchy
K3G is the Bollywood alchemy that makes us believe there's a happily-ever-after to the conflict between tradition and modernity
What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020 and how they have aged (if at all).
Why Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham?
I understand Bollywood's one-size-fits-all, all-you-can-eat buffet approach to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Filmmakers, from Hrishikesh Mukherjee to Vishal Bhardwaj, have still delivered gems with high rewatch value, without being limited by it. In contrast, Karan Johar as always serves us near-toxic doses of gooey maximalism, meant to keep his incestuous clique employed.
Growing up in Bangalore, my family and friends shared my own distaste for Johar’s epic snoozefests on rich Indian families. Moving to Mumbai broke me out of the echo chamber — as my flatmate briefed me in on K3G, KJo, and Poo’s status as venerable institutions. Though I had watched most of Johar’s work, I never could get myself to watch K3G in its entirety — until now. My other option for this series was Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Saath - Saath Hai, but I really didn't want a fresh lesson on English alphabets, and have “A B C D E F G H I...J K L M” stuck in my head. So, K3G it is. The essential requirement of film criticism is you should at least see the whole film before you criticise it. So, this is also a matter of due diligence.
Before last week, I had never seen all 210 minutes of K3G. I had seen parts when it was televised, which meant — with commercials — it became a 400-minute ordeal. Thank heavens for Netflix. The night I first stream it, I realise what I'm in for when Hrithik refers to his dadi and nani as his "two favourite girlfriends", before complimenting them with a casual "you look very sexy" — all within the first ten minutes. It's the same way Twitter's sanskaari men start their DM conversations with the women they're trolling. On second viewing, I make it past Farida Jalal's second swoon. Not sure it's a low blood sugar issue though. It's just Johar, who still finds value in Victorian tropes. But Kajol's over-the-top woman-child act in "Ghamla nahi vase" gets too much to bear. Armed with a fresh brew of coffee, I hope third time's the charm. It is.
Everyone knows the story: A despotic patriarch. An estranged son. A dadi's dying wish. So, the second favourite son tries to win his parents' affection by reuniting them with their first favourite son. Tempers flare thunderously and tears flow in rivers. But "it’s all about loving your parents" — as Johar's epigraph suggests. Even if the father is a control freak, who doesn't allow his wife to voice an opinion or his children to make their own choices. Even if he will stoop so low to remind his son he's adopted. Even if he is so stubborn he'd rather banish his son and daughter-in-law than get with the times.
Amitabh Bachchan gets his baritone to work as the "angry old man". Robbed of words, Jaya Bacchan lets her silence serve as a conflict-creating counterpoint. Shah Rukh Khan resorts to exaggerated facial gymnastics, and struggles to get his quivering lower lip to behave. Hrithik "not Mohan, not Sohan" Roshan fights a ceaseless battle with his tears, holding them back for virtually the whole film. Kajol infantilises herself in an agonising performance, and Kareena Kapoor goes from sassy to sanskaari to keep the patriarchy happy.
K3G is the Bollywood alchemy that makes us believe there's a happily-ever-after to the conflict between tradition and modernity, and all the melodramatic machinations that emerge from the conflict.
Johar's sentimentalism extends into certain pre-packaged ideas that trigger emotional engagement, moments which bully you into emotion. For instance, Jaya Bachchan's motherly sixth sense feels like a cheap form of narrative shorthand. In the SRK intro scene, she even wonders if it's still functioning when Rahul's entry into the Raichand family mansion is delayed by a few seconds. Johar manipulates the viewer in the delay, simplifying the emotional experience of homecoming. It's Johar extorting our tears, not earning them.
This also applies to his jingoism. Anjali is constantly worried their cultural identity is under threat in British exile. Yash too keeps asserting the importance of family traditions, which seem to include a boarding school stint and an MBA overseas. But they are somehow shocked when these Indian traditions come in conflict with the freedoms available westwards.
In a bizarre sequence, when Rohan goes to London, he is welcomed by a group of white women dressed in Indian flag colours as Kavita Krishnamurti and Usha Uthup belt out "Vande Mataram". This is oddly superimposed with shots of popular London landmarks like Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Later in the film, we see Rahul's son Krish and his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-white classmates sing the Indian national anthem in unison as the British parents in the audience stand up in respect. It's a nice thought that Brits are aware of national anthems of their once-colonies, not just their own. But let's be reasonable in our assumptions about white people. If anything, this defines modern-day patriotism — outward, vocal, and hollow. It only empowers the kind of patriots who puff out their chests and beat up moviegoers who don't stand up as the national anthem is played before screenings.
Unlike the faux-patriotic anthems, the songs are more organically integrated into the story. They transport us from the diegetic reality to a dream world. "Suraj Hua Maddham" allows the star-crossed lovers, Rahul and Anjali, to consummate their romance Bollywood-style in a dreamy duet against the Pyramids, as one does. "Bole Chudiyan" allows us to enter Rohan's headspace, as he dreams of a Raichand family reunion.
Johar also borrows cheap narrative tricks from the Balaji Telefilms factory. In key confrontations between the father and sons, Johar opts for a dramatic 360-degree pan as the camera revolves around their static bodies. Shots are composed with a person or object in the foreground obscuring the presence of someone hidden in the frame. This tunnel vision effect is used for every shock reveal, right from Rohan finding out why his brother was exiled.
Johar's depiction of the uber-rich is not meant to challenge our beliefs but to indulge them. The Raichand family lead a life of excess: they live in a grand country mansion, travel overseas in private jets, and commute in helicopters. They also seem to have a travelling troupe of IPL cheerleader rejects for the celebratory song-and-dance number. On his birthday, Yash is seen enjoying himself a little too much — dancing with a Caucasian chorus girl — before he is asked to restrain himself by Nandini. The opening flirtatious verses of "Say Shava Shava" are clearly targeted at his potential daughter-in-law Naina, who sings him "Happy Birthday" like she were Marilyn Monroe and he were JFK.
Then, there's the cycle of bullying. Young Rohan is fat-shamed by nearly everyone, from his grandparents to his brother to young Pooja. His privileged ass returns the favour, making fun of Pooja's economic status. Young Pooja then grows up to be Poo, a diva who indulges in third person rhetoric and bullies other women to feel better about herself.
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Of course, Poo loses all agency once Hrithik flexes his toned muscles. If she wants to marry Rohan, she can't be Poo no more. Just like Kajol's tomboyish Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, she must become sanskaari to be marriage material. Her transformation on Rohan's arrival illustrates the surrender of her unapologetic persona. In a shocking scene, when Poo and Rohan are performing the morning puja dressed in traditional attire, Rahul pretends to not recognise her. Rohan reminds him it's his sister-in-law, making a distasteful comment about not being able to recognise her because she is fully clothed for the first time.
The social gendering of domesticity exposes the double standard of morality imposed on women and men.
It is a code that extols virtues and passivity among women, while giving men the license to do as they please. Rahul, Rohan and Yash all see women as either bahu or biwi. The women in K3G merely serve as two-dimensional characters supporting the men's three-dimensional narrative. So, when the men are talking, the women get relegated to the margins. If Yash robs Nandini of her voice with the definitive "Keh Diya Na. Bas, Keh Diya.", his unwillingness to learn how to fasten a tie himself is connotative of the stifling patriarchal hierarchy that robs her of agency, keeping her in a permanent submissive position. Throughout the film, the low-angle shot makes Yash seem grand and looking down on Nandini. In the final confrontation with her husband, they're both sitting on a swing as if on equal footing. Nandini then tells it as it is: she negates the concept of 'Pati Parmeshwar', condemning Yash for breaking up the family. She then gets up and the low-angle shot sees a change in roles as she earns her moral high ground over him.
Classics are those that audiences pass down from generation to generation. Before we pass K3G down to the next, we must reconsider its “classic” status and call attention to its murky messages. Some, we chose to ignore at the time; others, we only recognised years later when we saw them with fresh eyes as our social ethos changed for the better.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with K3G is it best illustrates Johar's own worldview. If Yash represents his role as Bollywood's self-appointed gatekeeper, averse to outsiders breaking into his elitist circle jerk, Poo represents the Bollywood vanity fair, as superficial as his depiction of the diaspora experience. I always imagined Johar's films as the epitome of everything wrong with Bollywood — and revisiting K3G did anything but change my mind. It is luxury-brand soap opera, and nothing more. Keh Diya Na. Bas, Keh Diya.
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