FEW PEOPLE IN Indian cinema are as popular or as polarising as Karan Johar. By his own admission his image as gossipy host of Koffee with Karan, emotional judge of reality shows and flag bearer of nepotism has often overshadowed his filmmaking. That is despite six fairly well received films in the last 25 years and many more as head of his father’s company, Dharma Productions. But with his latest and seventh directorial venture, Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani, an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Bengali newscaster and Punjabi himbo, with spectacular songs and dances, ‘KJo’ has rediscovered his mojo. The film has been widely praised by critics and has made more than `100 crore at the box office in its first week. Johar, 51, is overwhelmed with the praise and is soaking it in. Excerpts:
How have the last few years been?
The pandemic was tough on everyone but I felt there was excessive hatred towards me and the film industry. And however strong one is, eventually we’re all human. For no reason, I felt hate was being directed at me and hate only buys more hate. Emotionally my resilience was at an all-time high. Throughout the pandemic we were releasing content. I only felt the fragility when I was releasing my own film. It was tough on me, the anxiety, and the post release trauma was far worse. I was emotionally vulnerable and I was feeling unfairly targeted for god knows what I’d done. Intellectually I know it’s an occupational hazard, if you accept the love, there will be hate too. Yet…
But you were not miserable while making Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani, were you?
No, I was totally sucked into the world we were creating. It was so joyous, I had to stop the film twice because of the lockdowns, but there was such tremendous energy on the set with the actors and the team. It was my happy place, far removed from the world’s troubles.
How did the film come about?
During the first lockdown, in the first few months, I was listening to a lot of music on Saregama Carvaan and somewhere within those old songs I found my story. Added to it was a similar story of lost love in my family. The song that triggered the story is in my view the greatest song about mohabbat (love), you can’t go beyond it, ‘Abhi na jao chhod kar, ki dil abhi bhara nahin’ (Hum Dono, 1961) and the second song that stuck with me was, ‘Aa lag ja gale’ (Woh Kaun Thi?, 1964). So I engaged with Sumit Roy, who wrote Takht with me before the lockdown, Shashank Khaitan who is a terrific storyteller and Ishita Moitra who was referred to me by Somen Mishra, who heads the creative development at Dharma, as someone who is a Bengali who has lived in Delhi all her life, and understands the city [Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani is based in Delhi] and has the right gender politics.
Having observed Indian families for 25 years, how do you view them?
Initially, in your youth you wear rose-tinted glasses. And I had a very sheltered upbringing, very stable parenting. My mother was very progressive and my father, though a Punjabi, was very liberal. I had three aunts (my mother’s cousins) who I was very close to. They were air
hostesses and in those days flying was very glamorous. I would listen to their stories completely enraptured. I was surrounded by strong, opinionated women but while growing up, my main influence was cinema. Yash Chopra, Sooraj Barjatya, Manmohan Desai. My concept of family evolved as I grew up, I could see the cracks and grey areas, I could see the suffering of the parent and the child. And that fear can rule families more than love. I felt it was important to address that. I tried to do that in the clash between patriarchy and matriarchy. And also the idea of earning love and respect. It is there in my movie when Rani (Alia Bhatt) says to her prospective father-in-law (Aamir Bashir), ‘You don’t have the right to insult my parents,’ but also when she stops his arm, and even her family tells her she has gone too far. There cannot be that kind of disrespect. These are two facets of the family for me: Yes it is all about loving your parents, but it is also about respecting each other, about giving the subdued voices in the family a chance. Families have to be far more democratic, even as one sets boundaries, which one has to set in any relationship.
‘These are two facets of the family for me: Yes it is all about loving your parents, but it is also about respecting each other, about giving the subdued voices in the family a chance’
Share this on
How much of this is from your own experience as a parent?
Actually, most of it is from my observational energy. As a single child, I didn’t see much of this but have seen in it in the relationships and equations around me over the years.
So where does your love for Bengalis come from?
I’ve always had close relationships with Bengalis, Kajol, Rani, and Ayan [Mukerji], all from the same family. I love going to the Durga Puja organised by Ayan’s parents. I’ve always loved the language, I find it fascinating, like honey. I love the clothes and the weddings, I couldn’t do the wedding in the movie the Bengali way but I really love it. And the actors were so super, Churni Ganguly, Tota Roy Choudhury, all thanks to casting agent Shanoo Sharma. They are not new to the screen but new to the Hindi screen.
What is your directing style?
I’ve been told I get very emotional when I see an emotional scene. I’ve a reactive personality. If I’m in something I give it 100 per cent. I have an absolutely open relationship with the actors. I like a set with peace and harmony. Everyone is free to say what they want, there are no tempers, it is a happy set. Seeing Alia who is a genuine talent and wondering, ‘Yeh perfection kahan se aageyi (where has this perfection come from)?’ I had no recollection of this. I always say her career took off with Highway rather than in my Student of the Year. And Jayaji
[Jaya Bachchan] who had a lot of fun playing the opposite of her demure soft self in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Shabana [Azmi] and she were playing characters farthest from what they usually do. Shabana was so kicked at having a fan blow into her hair as she meets Dharamji for the first time and then the ada (style) of putting her hand to her heart. And the sarees she wears! She would always ask why is her character wearing such beautiful sarees at home and I would say, ‘just because’. Churni and Tota brought such dignity, class and poise to the screen. At one point where Tota is holding his mother’s hand and he says she told him, ‘Hunar ka koi gender nahin hain (Art has no gender),’ I was tearing up.
Where do you think this hate against you on social media comes from?
See nobody promised you a rose garden. But I feel validated. With Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani, I put my heart out there and it has been received with an equally open heart. People have sent me messages saying they’ve watched it once, twice, thrice. For once I am not looking at the box office figures. I’ve never received such critical acclaim. Critics don’t tend to like my movies, so I’ve developed a defence mechanism that I don’t care about the critics. But sabko pyaar chahiye (everyone wants love). Javed [Akhtar] Saab told me once, ‘take the award seriously the year you get it.’
What scares people about you?
I don’t know. Those who don’t know me think of me as the Koffee with Karan host who comes from a gaze of privilege, as this catty host, it is far from who I am. I was raised to believe in the power of goodness. I feel far from superior. I regularly acknowledge there are people more brilliant than I. I’ve never been arrogant. My father [Yash Johar] produced five failed films before Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, my first film. He borrowed money to make Duplicate (1998) which was a failure. Even Agneepath (1990) barely made money. He built his career from scratch, putting his heart into every film. It’s not as if I grew up on a throne of gold and privilege. I still remember my father telling me that he’d put everything he had into Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. He told me if it doesn’t work, ‘Tum kuch aur karna, main aur risk nahin le sakta (Do something else if this doesn’t work. I can’t take more risk).’ We were that vulnerable. But over the years, after we lost him in 2004, my mother has kept me grounded, When I won the Padma Shree in 2020, she and I were equally shocked.
‘When I turned 50 last year, I made a promise to myself. I will make more movies. I don’t want to be remembered as a talk show host, reality show judge or the flagbearer of nepotism’
Share this on
So how do you handle the meanness?
I am a Gemini. There are two sides to me. I can be strong but also vulnerable and over emotional. When I turned 50 last year. I made a promise to myself. I will make more movies. I don’t want to be remembered as a talk show host, reality show judge or the flagbearer of nepotism.
Isn’t that something the filmmaker Aditya Chopra told you to do a long time ago? Focus on your cinema?
He’s like my elder sibling, even now when he reprimands me, I keep my head down and take it quietly.
How many personas are you juggling? The celebrity, the filmmaker, the businessman?
I’m involved in 300 things because I am hyperactive, and have a fear of missing out. I have to cultivate the habit of saying no. It is not money that drives me. I just want to do everything there is to do.
Has Takht (a film about the war of ideas between Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh) been shelved?
For various reasons, it cannot be made right now, not the least of which is its big budget. But it is my passion project, I will make it. It’s one of the finest things that’s been developed at Dharma.