Imagine you are watching an India-Australia test match; Australia has bowlers like Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne. India is put into bat and is off to a shaky start. Now, we have Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid at the crease. You may not be a cricket lover, but you know that these two batsmen will steady the innings – one is known for his creative attacking brilliance, and the other is renowned for his rock-solid defence. Karan Johar and Apoorva Mehta are pretty much the Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid of Dharma Productions. They have been at the pitch, as it were, since 2005 and together, they’ve completed 14 years of partnership, laying brick after brick to make Dharma Productions possibly the biggest film production company in the country; they have worked together on more than 35 films, and have many more in the pipeline. The rise of Dharma hasn’t been meteoric, but every step has been taken with immense faith, resulting in a company which is a veritable fortress when it comes to its stability and longevity.
Dharma Productions has been in the business since 1976, when Yash Johar, then a successful production controller for filmmakers like Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand, turned producer. His first film, Dostana (1980) starred Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Zeenat Aman, and was directed by Raj Khosla. The film was a massive success, but from there onwards, Johar Senior faced a very lean period, with his films losing money, till his son Karan entered the industry in 1998 and delivered the mega-blockbuster, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
In 2004, Yash Johar passed away and left the company to his then 31- year old son. Karan made a call to his best friend since school, Apoorva Mehta, who was then in London working for Yash Raj Films, asking him to come back and help him run the company and take Yash Johar’s legacy forward. Mehta joined Dharma in 2005 as CEO and has since been leading the company.
Together, they’ve built a brand that has made a lot of people envious. In its first 27 years, the production house produced only nine films, such as Agneepath, Gumraah, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham and Kal Ho Na Ho, but in the next 14 years, it has produced and distributed more than 35 films, like Raazi, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, 2 States, Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewani, Kapoor and Sons, the Baahubali films, Student of the Year and more, with an amazing success rate.
Talking about the growth of the company and stepping into the shoes of Yash Johar, Mehta says, “I joined the company when we were just 20-odd people, and now we have 150- 160, and there was a big legacy to fill. I was hoping I’d be competent enough to step into Yash Johar’s shoes. I had experienced only in the distribution aspect of the business, and that too in the international markets, so production was a completely new challenge for me. The first thing for me was to deconstruct the whole process and reorganize in a way that I could understand, learn from people and fill in the gaps in terms of where other people were required, so that was our first step in terms of an organized structure. Karan was very clear that we needed to make films – back then we were making one film every three years, so the question was if we want to grow, how do we do it, and the only logical answer was to make more content, and the way to do that was by giving opportunities to younger assistant directors who had the ability to make films for the company.”
With that, Karan Johar took over the creative aspect of the company and began grooming the newer directors and giving them opportunities, while Mehta worked on creating infrastructure to provide the backing and support the creative teams needed. To date, they’ve launched 15 new directors in the industry. Amul Mohan, editor of the trade magazine Super Cinema, concurs with the strategy followed by Dharma Productions. He says “What has fundamentally clicked for Dharma is the close-knit unit of directors the company has groomed and given chances to. Karan running the show and being the face of the production house is a separate aspect altogether. He trusted new directors and storytellers, and even if they had an off day, he still supported them. He had immense faith in them for them to turn things around.”
Not only has the company launched new directors, but it has also given breaks to a new breed of actors, like Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Ishaan Khattar, Janhvi Kapoor and Sidharth Malhotra; it will soon be launching Ananya Pandey and Tara Sutaria in Student of the Year 2. This has ensured a secure future for the company in terms of getting stars for its films and has also helped in expanding the ecosystem of the business, since with every new entrant comes new opportunities to not only tell new stories but also to push the creative envelope. Another aspect that has helped the production house to achieve a dominant position in the business is its flexibility in collaborating with other filmmakers and studios. Johar and Mehta have tied up with names like UTV, Fox Star Studios, Phantom Films, Excel Entertainment, B.R Films, Red Chillies, Shankar and SS Rajamouli (they distributed Baahubali and 2.0 in north India), to not only co-produce but also distribute their films across the country. Talking about having a dominant position and forging collaborations, Mehta says, “I do feel that we are in a good position right now, but there is nothing like a dominant position, as the business is very unpredictable – you might have a good year and then next year, it might not be so great. We still don’t know what works or doesn’t, we are learning every day, and this is a business where you don’t stop learning.
The business is evolving so dynamically and rapidly, just in terms of environment and people and tastes and preferences of the audience, there is so much exposure to international content and regional content, so you constantly need to upgrade and update your skills and figure out how to do things better, and still manage to entertain audiences based on their mindset at that time.” He adds “We are in a good space, because we have been able to scale up to having 5-6 film releases this year, and if we continue to do that then it would give us great economies of scale in terms of producing more content. Why we are good is because our company is the perfect amalgamation of heart, skill and mind – this is what separates us from the others. We are not merely a production studio, we are operating as a boutique where we are producing films, distributing films and acquiring films. Because we have been able to grow systematically, we have been able to put our hands in every pie, still retaining our ethos of making good content. We are driven by films, it is enthusiasm for films that we exemplify.
Opportunities came our way and we took them. It doesn’t matter if you are a larger part or smaller part of cinema, but if there is a good story to be told, we want to be part of it. It is the flexibility, of not being so obsessed with ensuring that we do everything entirely on our own, that has made it much easier to work with other studios and producers and collaborate with them and put out good content.” Karan Johar is a perennial presence on the Bollywood social scene, and this has added to the aura of success that surrounds him. In today’s times, Johar is not just a filmmaker – he is a brand, and has a fan following. He is one of the biggest stars in the country, who not only make films but also hosts talk shows, judges talent shows and endorses products. He is close friends with some of the biggest actors and actresses in the country. Today, when he or his production house work with someone, it is like a stamp of approval given to the entire industry, which sits up and takes notice. Take the case of Vicky Kaushal (Raazi and Lust Stories) and Kiara Advani (Lust Stories), who worked with Dharma in 2018.
Kaushal went on to give stellar performances in films like Sanju, Manmarziyaan and Uri: The Surgical Strike and Advani has films opposite Shahid Kapoor (the remake of Arjun Reddy) and Diljit Dosanjh (produced by Dharma). Johar’s involvement with his stars doesn’t end with his films – once you’ve worked with him, he is always there for you, and he constantly advises his talents, from what to work on to whom to work with, and he might even reach out to someone and ask them to work with so and so. Mehta adds to the aura of Johar and says, “He doesn’t lead the company through authority, but through compassion, and this is a core value that has made a mark on the entire organization. The money will come and go, it is important to run the company, but at the end of the day, it is all about how you deal with people and the kind of content you put out. Karan is a very generous giver, he is a very generous man. Besides being an extraordinarily creatively gifted person, he is not a calculative man, and will not think ‘what will I gain if I help this person.’ If he’s in a position to help you, it doesn’t matter if you work with him or not, he will help you out.”
Talking about the contribution of Johar to the industry, Punit Malhotra (director of films like I Hate Luv Storys and Student of The Year 2) says, “Karan, besides being the best producer, is also the nicest person around. I can name 10 careers that he’s shaped, be it actors, directors or technicians. He has given a platform to so many people. He’s in the prayers and blessings of so many people. With him, there will always be a lot of love.” It is difficult to reach the top of the game, but it is even more difficult to stay there, in an industry that is highly competitive. Dharma looks at competition a bit differently. Mehta says, “We truly believe that more and more people should be successful, as with that the ecosystem for the business will increase. Take the example of Baahubali. It has been one of the most exciting journeys for us at Dharma. There were so many filmmakers who were dreaming of making a film on those lines, but were worried if that kind of business existed, and Baahubali has shown the way. So now directors can get support for their vision. In our business, one person’s success doesn’t mean another person’s failure – the more everyone succeeds, the more the industry and business will benefit. Dharma stands for high quality and engaging content; someone who sees our films believes that it will be of good quality, although the fate of the film is in no one’s hands. All we can do is to be honest with the film.”
After venturing into distribution, the production house has big plans for itself. On one side, it started Dharma 2.0, which makes advertising films, and on another, it has Dharmatics, which will delve into web content for multiple platforms. 2.0 was started a while ago, and the division has been running at a good pace, while Dharmatics will see its first project on Netflix next year. Talking about this venture, Mehta says, “We know our strength lies in making content. A lot of people asked us if we would like to become a platform, but no, we will always be a content provider, be it cinema or OTT platforms. Coming to Dharmatics, we have this running joke of “How are we going to make things on a budget now?’, as most of our films go slightly over budget, given how Karan doesn’t compromise. But the ideology is going to be very different, it is a new platform for us. People prefer the convenience of watching and stopping content as and when they like, and there are certain stories which don’t need a theatrical release. We have one film, and very soon we are going to announce a couple of shows, so the challenge is now to have the same success rate while sticking to the budget. I’m sure we will manage (laughs).”