“It had all the songs in the world, loads of glamour, and it made no sense.” Karan Johar is talking about his own film. Student of the Year, the 2012 hit, he says, was about “some ridiculous competition in a far-out school that doesn’t even exist. When people call it a bubble-gum film, I say, ‘Ya, I wasn’t trying to make Gone with the Wind.’ I was trying to make a fun, High-School-Musical-ish film for kids between eight and 18 years old, and I loved doing it. If people have deep, dark issues with colour and glamour existing on celluloid, that’s their problem.” It is not the first time he has been flippant when discussing his own work. He has, in the past, said Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, his first film, depicted a warped version of love, and admitted he was horrified by how bad Kaal, a horror film he produced, was.
There is something magnetic about Johar’s candour, perhaps best reflected by the number and variety of people who watch his talk show, Koffee with Karan. My friend who only listens to independent rap music and regularly rants about how rich people dictate what art is released into the world knows what Salman Khan said on the first episode of the fourth season. One who has shifted to a village near Thane to work as an activist and who last wore a pair of trousers in 2009 knows what Vidya Balan wore on the show. And, I; I, who have walked out of some of Bollywood’s biggest hits of the past 10 years; I, who feels impelled to change the channel when advertisements featuring certain Bollywood stars appear on television; I watch Koffee with Karan.
I could never figure out why. I’d pass it off as a guilty pleasure, but I needed greater justification, which is, perhaps, why I wanted to interview Johar when the opportunity arose. “Don’t feel guilty about it,” Johar says. “Maybe, there’s a part of you that enjoys hearing what’s happening in other people’s lives. I know it’s a part of me and I embrace that. Yes, if I’m leaving my own work and life to listen to gossip, that’s not healthy. But, if I’m free and someone is giving me a piece of information, it’s okay. If I call 10 other people, again, that may be too much. But, if I just listen to some gossip, enjoy it and then forget about it, that’s okay.”
Except, I don’t really enjoy gossip. The parts of Koffee with Karan in which Johar attempts to pry out the details of an actor’s latest relationship don’t interest me. As I listen to Johar talk, I realise that what makes me tune in to his show is simply the unapologetic conviction with which he speaks about the things he believes in. It is how he staunchly defends a culture that thrives on celebrity gossip that makes him interesting to listen to. I do not believe in the same things he does. I do not believe that all filmmakers have to worry about box-office numbers, or that all actors crave fame, but it is engaging to listen to a man say confidently that he does.
That is what Johar has come to stand for in pop culture: taking an undiplomatic stand on issues regarding cinema and art. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the question of how art and commerce co-exist. He states frankly: “I am the pillar filmmaker of Dharma productions, so, when I put out a film, the company expects it to have a certain amount of commercial success. There’s a responsibility I have to deliver.” When asked whether that hampers his creativity, he is again frank. “Ya, ya, of course it hampers me. But, we are all about being hampered. All of us are doing things for that opening weekend. All of us are competing with each other, seeing whose opening day is higher. Nobody is above that game. If I make a film, I am aiming at the box office. I am not making a film to put it in a museum. The thoughts come from me, but I am a commercial filmmaker, so I do think commercially. I will strategise my film; I will make that poster and that promo; I will do everything I can to appeal to the box office.”
Johar says that when he started off as a filmmaker, he took advice from a lot of people on how to make his debut film a hit. While making Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, he tried “manipulating” things to ensure the film had commercial success. He focussed on things such as what type of scene to have before and after the interval, whether having a Muslim prayer during a Hindu marriage ceremony may give the film a mass appeal, what to do pre-climax etc. With time, though, he has realised that no one really knows what works for the Indian audience. “Now, I just make films that come from my core. The audience itself empowers you with information from time to time on what they are looking for in a film. There have been many recent films that are not in the mould of the usual commercial hit that have done well. Films such as Kahaani, or Vicky Donor, or Rang de Basanti are not the kind of films experts would have predicted would become commercial successes, but they did. So, I’m not writing anything anymore for any audience. I’m doing what I feel like.”
What Johar feels like doing changes quite rapidly with his mood.
You are one click away from knowing what’s happening in the stock market, what’s happening economically, what’s happening politically, and it’s all too much. The kind of films that do well today wouldn’t if people didn’t come to the cinema to leave their stress behind. I resent the term brain-dead entertainment, because there still is an artistry and craft involved in making a film entertaining for people. But, while people may not leave their brains at home when they come to the movies, they certainly want to leave their tension behind.”
Rather than battle against the realities of the modern film industry, Johar embraces them, both as a filmmaker and as a celebrity. He says he loves the limelight and has no problem with the paparazzi or the invasive media. “The upside to the life of a star is so great that people should learn to deal with whatever downside is there. If you want to maintain some level of privacy, it is not that hard. Just plan your holidays and private moments better. A lot of people think directors should be serious and comment on the socio-economic ramifications of everything or be very heavy-duty about their craft. But, I am me. I’m here to have a good time, in the movies and out of the movies. Take it or leave it, that’s my demeanour. I love the Bollywood life.”
When Johar talks about how he has been made into a stereotype, or How My Name is Khan would have got more critical acclaim “had it been directed by Karan Kashyap”, or how his own branding may be killing his creative intentions, perhaps, what he is discounting is that there are a lot of people who need to believe he is a maker of romantic, over-the-top, glamorous films because they need someone to defend their love of those types of films. There is a huge audience out there who has, for years, been entertained by and loved a particular type of film. Now, they have been assaulted by a herd of intellectuals who tweet and blog about how the films they enjoy are “mindless”. Karan Johar is their protector: the man who goes on television and defends the rights of filmmakers to target the box-office, the rights of fans to enjoy watching colourful dance sequences; the rights of a nation to celebrate pomp and glamour in its films. The protector of Bollywood.