BOOK EXCERPT

Karan Johar on making ‘films about rich and frivolous things that don’t matter’

In his memoir, the filmmaker addresses the criticism that his movies are about ‘popcorn, bubblegum, frivolity, NRIs and rich people’.

Zoya Akhtar told me one day, ‘People are saying I’m the new Karan Johar.’

I told her, ‘Don’t take it as a compliment. They don’t mean it as a compliment. They mean you’re making films about rich and frivolous things that don’t matter.’

I feel no matter what kind of films I do, I never get credit. It gets forgotten immediately afterwards. I’m still associated with popcorn, bubblegum, frivolity, NRIs and rich people.

In the film industry if you don’t make a social comment, if you don’t talk about the middle class and their issues, then you’re frivolous. ‘Oh my god, you’re talking about rich people!’ It’s almost like a curse. You can’t talk about rich people. It’s as if rich people can’t have any problems. But you’re making a film about emotions. You are making a film about life. I’m sorry I can’t make a film about what happens in the slums of Dahisar and Dombivli not because I don’t empathize with them—of course, I do. I feel terrible with what happens when people have to live in poverty and suffer from lack of education. I feel very strongly about how women are treated in our country, and I have opinions. But tomorrow if I offer these opinions, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you shut up, you frivolous fool. You’re sitting in your expensive designer wear, who are you to have an opinion?’

I think this is totally wrong. How dare you say that about me? I’m willing to have an opinion because I have a heart. Am I not allowed to feel because I’m rich? Because I drive a designer car and wear designer clothes, I’m apparently not meant to have an opinion about anything that is Third World. I’m supposed to be this frivolous film-maker who makes films about rich people and their issues. I get so angry with certain intellectual voices. I want to go and tell them, ‘Just shut up! What have you written? What have you done? I work very hard. I work twenty-hour days to run my company. There are lives I have created, careers I have curated. I have done all of that out of the bounds of what is expected of me. What do you know about my life? So you don’t like my films, I don’t mind that. You don’t have to love me or my work, but don’t judge me unfairly. Don’t compare me to somebody else.’

Yes, I get a lot of love as well. I have people supporting me in what I’m trying to do. There are people who say he’s the best and then there are those who say he’s overrated. I’ve heard everything. Say all that, but don’t say things like xyz was better than watching a crappy Karan Johar film because you’ve definitely gone to the cinema hall and watched it, and got some guilty pleasure out of it. You’ve definitely danced to my music in your bloody bedroom or at a wedding or at a party when you got drunk and high. So how can you judge me?

The truth is critics and intellectuals are not my only audience. There are more innocent viewers out there who respond to my films because I have actually given them happiness through what I’ve created on screen. When somebody reacts to my film or my music, I just believe that I’ve made their lives happier. These intellectual voices do annoy me after a point. It’s on my bucket list to slap some of them. But I won’t. I shall allow it to pass. Because I don’t want to be angry about some stupid intellectual banter of people who know nothing, and can’t create anything themselves.

‘The turning point was Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!’

I’ve watched the films of Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra. I didn’t watch a lot of contemporary films. I had heard all the music through my mum, so I wanted to know the films that had those songs in them. At age ten I was watching Do Bigha Zameen and Pyaasa (which I didn’t understand the first time I saw it, then I watched it again). Kaagaz Ke Phool I understood probably because it was about the film industry. I had a bare understanding of it. Actually, Pyaasa took me a third viewing to completely comprehend it. I watched Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam.

While I enjoyed the pathos of Guru Dutt and the angst of Bimal Roy, I was most influenced by Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra for their opulence and urban stories. I loved Raj Kapoor’s films. I saw Prem Rog many times—I was fascinated by the haveli, the grandeur. Bobby because it was so youth oriented. I loved the way Raj Kapoor presented his women. I loved Yash Chopra for his ‘society’ films, the way tea used to be served in his movies. There were always flowers in a vase, everyone was so well dressed, and the women wore exquisite chiffon saris. I was obsessed with these two film-makers. I think I’ve seen Kabhie Kabhie a hundred times. Every time I had nothing to do I would watch Kabhie Kabhie. I felt I was a part of that family and their lives.

I feel everything in Hindi cinema is emotional. Your investments in the character are emotional. Hindi cinema tugs at your heartstrings. I’ve wept through so many films. There’s nothing like a good Hindi film cry. Boys my age would not cry at the movies but I used to weep.

I loved the ‘angry young man’ movies, and Amitabh Bachchan was the best actor in the world for me. But it was not my preference to watch Deewar and Trishul; I was not into that anger. Amitabh Bachchan was larger than life, and I happened to know him personally. He was Amit uncle to me. He was someone I had known since I was a kid. But that macho phase of cinema was not my favourite. I did enjoy Amar Akbar Anthony, but that angst, that whole ‘angry young man’ phase was not my thing. I was very happy watching Rishi Kapoor singing in his lovely sweaters. I was more tilted towards the popcorn cinema of that time. Jhoota Kahin Ka, Doosra Aadmi, Khel Khel Mein, I was obsessed by those movies. I was really into Khel Khel Mein. I loved Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. They were my favourite actors. I felt like they were my friends. They were so happy and cute and glamorous. Then I loved the social dramas. I cried watching Basera, Yeh Vaada Raha and Kasme Vaade. I liked social dramas, high-society entertainers like Yash Chopra’s films, and that cute pop romcom space. High-octane, angry, angsty dramas were not my cup of tea at all.

But Hum Aapke Hain Koun . . ! was a turning point for me. I thought it was like sunshine. I thought it had a group of great human beings, it was about family values, love, music, romance, emotion (I wept when the bhabhi died). I was totally absorbed by the film. When I first watched it, Sooraj Barjatya was there in the theatre. I went and held his hand and said, ‘Sir, you’ve made the best film ever.’

I don’t even think he remembers that! Cool kids in my college would say, ‘Are you mad? You liked Hum Aapke Hain Koun . . ! You’ve lost the plot. It’s like a wedding video, it’s like a mithai ka dabba.’

I would say, ‘Don’t you dare talk about the film like this!’

‘I like beauty. Kill me’

I’m not an immensely politically motivated person, so I don’t have strong political beliefs. That doesn’t make me disinterested in my country’s ethos, it just makes me unaware, which requires me to shut up and not exercise my political point of view too much. Sometimes, I feel I’m not on the same page vis-à-vis the beliefs some people have about how cinema is impressionable, about how sexual projections on screen can have deep social ramifications. I don’t catch that layer sometimes. I feel like I should but I don’t. I take some things frivolously which I later feel upset about in the larger scheme of things.

I watched a film with Zoya, and she walked out of it, saying the hero was stalking the heroine. She said, ‘Stalking doesn’t amount to wooing her, it doesn’t amount to love. There are people out there who will take a page from this and stalk women, and that perhaps leads to rape sometimes.’

I was not used to looking at life like that. I would think, arre usko toh beinteha mohabbat hai. Or people say, ‘These item songs should be thrown out of movies! It’s exploitation and objectification.’ But I think, oh, she’s hot, yaar! And I’ve objectified more men than women in my movies. I’ve even shown them in their chaddis!

Actually, I detach cinema from reality completely. My organic thinking process doesn’t veer towards a certain social consciousness. Does that make me dumb? Does that make me frivolous? Sometimes, I’ve fought with my inner demon about it. Maybe, I’m just so stupid that I’m not catching this layer, but it’s not bothering me. However, I don’t have a natural reaction to this emotion. So should I fake it? Maybe this makes me irresponsible. You can judge me but this is the true me. What to do? Since childhood, I’ve seen Helen do the best cabarets, men pursuing women with flamboyance, it’s in my DNA as a film watcher. I can’t suddenly start being the moral police for the same things I grew up watching and loving.

Shabana Azmi once called me from Birmingham. She’d seen Kuch Kuch Hota Hai at some film festival and she said, ‘Main aapse sawal karna chahti hoon. Chhote baal the toh pyar nahin hua, lambe baal ho gaye, sexy lagne lagi toh mohabbat ho gayi. Iska kya jawab denge aap?’

I thought for one second and said, ‘Main bas yehi kehna chahta hoon ki I’m very sorry, I have no answer to give you. Ladkon ko khoobsurat ladkiyan achchi lagti hain. Toh main kya karoon? Maar dalo mujhe, that I like beauty. Kill me.’

She said, ‘Kya jawab doge?’

I said, ‘Koi jawab nahin hai. Sorry it didn’t appeal to your sensibilities.’

But that’s what it was. When Kajol looked dumpy and wore sports clothes, he wasn’t turned on. When she became hot and sexy and evolved and beautiful, he fell for her. How can anyone dismiss the fact that there’s something called attraction? It’s a huge part of love. Isn’t it stage one of love? You fall in lust, then you fall in love.

Actually, there was a lot of conflict and contradiction in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Shah Rukh says, ‘Ek hi baar jeete hain, ek hi baar pyar hota hai.’ But he got married again, he fell in love again, so why was he saying these things? It didn’t make sense. It was the conviction of the film-maker that pulled it all off. Rani is writing eight letters to her daughter. What did she write in the first three letters? Gagagoogoo? What would a child know? Ma ka pehla khat is to a child in a cot! What did Farida Jalal read out? What could possibly have been told? What did that toddler of two or three understand? Main yeh aath chittiyan chhod ke ja rahi hoon, isme woh sab cheezein hain jo woh apni ma ke bare mein jaan payegi. And how did she know Kajol was going to be free and available? It was just conviction. I love the film because of that conviction. I’m envious of the conviction I had in 1997 when I wrote it and in 1998 when I shot it, because today that conviction has got too logical. Today, you think, oh my god, log kya kahenge, critics kya kahenge. But we never cared about all these things then, we were like, Hindi picture hai, banao! Now I’m bothered about 35,000 people — censor kya kahega, moral police kya kahega, Twitter kya kahega, Shabana Azmi kya kahegi, Shobhaa Dé kya kahegi, PIL kya kahega . . . That time it was only distributors kya kahenge, audience kya kahegi. Simple, just make the picture.

Excerpted with permission from An Unsuitable Boy, Karan Johar with Poonam Saxena, Penguin Random House India.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

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Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.