Memoirs by Karan Johar, Rishi Kapoor prove that celebrities want to take charge of their own stories

Exit professional biographer, enter the scribe? Fortunately for the reader, both books are hugely readable.

The memoirs of Karan Johar and Rishi Kapoor were released in the same week in January. They couldn’t have been more different from each other. Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy and Kapoor’s Khullam Khulla map the distance between generations and shifting attitudes towards the mystique of celebrity. The first reads like the personal diary of a 44-year-old director, producer and television personality. The second is a fond stroll down memory lane by a 64-year-old acting veteran that is aimed at both fans and film industry insiders.

Both books have been written with the help of journalists, who get their due credit on the cover but not the opportunity to reveal how the books were written. How did Poonam Saxena and Meena Iyer tease out the often intimate revelations that spill through An Unsuitable Boy and Khullam Khulla? There is nothing in the foreword of either book for the reader to arrive at the point where dictation ended and inquiry began. Since both books are in the distinctive voices of their authors, it appears that we are entering a new phase of the film memoir – one in which the journalist acts as an amanuensis.

The film autobiography and sanctioned biography sate the hunger for insider knowledge and closely observed histories of film personalities. Such books have replaced the scurrilous biography based on unsubstantiated gossip. In the 1990s, for instance, journalist churned out – and got away with – paperbacks about Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Rekha. These works have almost disappeared from view.

The more lasting publications are those that reveal the minds of the subjects. There are flashes of the memoir in collections of essays, such as KA Abbas’s I Am Not An Island, Satyajit Ray’s Our Films, Their Films, Ritwik Ghatak’s Rows and Rows of Fences, Mrinal Sen’s Charlie Chaplin and Utpal Dutt’s On Cinema.

The sanctioned biography is a well-established category that respects the sentiment of the subject while also aiding the construction of a history of cinema. Between 1988 and 2004, the publicist and journalist Bunny Reuben churned out authorised tomes about Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan and Pran. Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors (2005) is a comprehensive interview-based chronicle of Bollywood’s first family, of which Rishi Kapoor represents the third generation.

Other subjects of respectful chronicling include Baburao Painter and his magazine Film India, Rajesh Khanna, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Rajinikanth, Nasir Husain, Kishore Kumar, SD Burman, RD Burman, Shatrughan Sinha and Rekha. The definitive Amitabh Bachchan biography has not been written – yet.

The book-length interview, made popular in India by Nasreen Munni Kabir (Javd Akhtar, Lata Mangeshkar, AR Rahman, Waheeda Rehman, Gulzar), is a variation on the biography. It allows the subject to control the narrative while also enabling objectivity and distance in the form of the interviewer’s questions.

Celebrities have taken charge of their own memories with mixed results. Dev Anand, Ismail Merchant, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Amrish Puri, Manna Dey, Dilip Kumar, Prem Chopra and Naseeruddin Shah are among those who have banged away at the keyboard to present their perspectives on life and cinema. Merchant’s entertaining My Passage from India and Shah’s beautifully written And Then One Day are among the more honest memoirs, which not only reflect the voices of their writers but also provide a peek into worlds that are not always open to the journalist or the professional biographer.

Some autobiographies remain untranslated, among them MG Ramachandran’s Naan Yen Piranthaen (Why I Was Born) and Madhabi Mukherjee’s Ami Madhabi (I, Madhabi).

Karan Johar’s confessional

In the confessional stakes, at least, Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy trumps Kapoor’s Khullam Khulla. Johar’s book plays out like a mid-career retrospective of a second-generation film personality born as recently as 1972. Despite suffering from repetition and an overwhelming sense of self-regard, A Unsuitable Boy is hugely revealing, both because of its writer as well as in spite of him.

Johar is one of Bollywood’s most media-savvy personalities, deeply conscious of his image and aware of the headline-generating potential of his every pronouncement. An Unsuitable Boy is packed with enough disclosures to keep the entertainment media busy.

The biggest headline-grabber is Johar’s public confrontation of the elephant in the room – his sexuality. Can profile writers now call Johar a gay filmmaker? Can we finally admit what we have felt all along – that Johar’s films Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil make more sense as same-sex love stories rather than heterosexual romances?

Hold the thought – this headline comes with caveats. Johar writes:

“I get scared of being spotted with any single man now because I think they are going to think that I am sleeping with him. I mean, firstly I have never ever talked about my orientation or sexuality because whether I am heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, it is my concern. I refuse to talk about it. Even if I was banging 100 men or 200 women, I would not talk about it. I have not been brought up to talk about my sex life. I know I am the butt of many jokes, pun intended. I know how my sexuality is discussed. I have become like the poster boy of homosexuality in this country. But honestly, I have no problem with people saying what they want about me.”

Johar’s writing is like much of his cinema, which careens between the deeply banal and the half-way profound. The memoir is filled with contradictory impulses, intimate confessions, dispassionate analysis and heavily personal reactions to other films and people. A whole chapter is devoted to Shah Rukh Khan, whose screen image has been indelibly shaped by Johar’s films, while another chapter is a list of best friends, allies and enemies that has a distinctly slam book feel.

Sample the bit about Kajol, the director’s once-time best friend forever who is now a sworn enemy, ever since her husband, the actor and producer Ajay Devn, crossed swords with Johar in October 2016 over the clashing releases of their films Ae Dil and Mushkil and Shivaay. Johar writes with the vehemence of a spurned high school student:

“It’s over. And she can never come back to my life. I don’t think she wants to either. I never want to have anything to do with them [Kajol and Devgn] as a unit. She was the one who mattered to me but now it’s over. I told my mother that she could have a one-on-one relationship with Kajol if she wanted. That’s my mother’s preference and if Kajol chooses to, but she’s out of my life.”

Elsewhere, the tone balances maturity with a keen sense of popular film history. The strongest portions have to do with Johar’s childhood. His growing-up years, which were dogged by insecurities over his perceived unattractiveness and plumpness, are documented with rare honesty and perspicacity. His relationship with his parents is also sensitively chronicled, and the portions about his father’s death from cancer in 2004 are guaranteed to produce a lump in the throat.

As one of the architects of the pop-coloured hedonistic romance, Johar’s descriptions of the making of his blockbuster debut, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), and his second feature Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) are useful. The chapter on the current state of cinema is disappointing but revealing for other reasons.

Johar’s brand of cinema has not clicked as loudly as his early films. Like many directors who came of age in the 1990s (his buddy Aditya Chopra included), Johar is unable to understand why the shallow big-budget romance doesn’t work anymore. The director who pioneered new standards in production and marketing of films and stars has become a victim of his relentless self-branding and image management. An Unsuitable Boy is ultimately an appeal to be taken seriously, even if his films seldom are. Here I stand before you, near naked, asking to be loved and respected, Johar seems to be asking. The memoir ends up earning our acquiescence as grudgingly as the man and his movies.

Uncensored (according to the star)

Khullam Khulla is far more loosely structured than An Unsuitable Boy. Rishi Kapoor’s autobiography doesn’t have the confident sweep of Johar’s memoir, nor the feeling of a life spent in a fish bowl. Perhaps that has to do something with Kapoor’s lineage, aptly captured by the opening line, “I was born lucky.”

As the grandson of theatre and film personality Prithviraj Kapoor, the son of actor and director Raj Kapoor, and the nephew of actors Shashi and Shammi, Rishi Kapoor saw celebrity at such close quarters that it is hardly any surprise that his tone eschews wonderment. He writes:

“The Kapoors have always been proud of our profession; nobody has ever been apologetic about belonging to the entertainment industry. Unlike some of our friends, whose parents sought to shield them from the film world, we were never discouraged from visiting the studios as children. Nor were we stashed away in the attic, never to be aired publicly, like some celebrity children were.”

The autobiography breezes through Kapoor’s formative years, his relationship with his grandfather, father and his equally famous uncles and his introduction to the arc lights first as a child star and then as a young man in Bobby in 1973. The book is heavy on family sentiment, with numerous pages devoted to various relatives, his mutually adoring and occasionally troubled relationship with his wife Neetu Singh and his love for and distance from his son Ranbir Kapoor. Rishi Kapoor skips over the details of his spats with his wife, leaving us with the tantalising detail that on occasion, they have gone for months without speaking to one another.

There is also enough meat for Kapoor’s legions of fans, who have been following his career right from Bobby. The blockbuster romance was followed by several bad choices, but Kapoor’s self-deprecating humour rescues the reminiscences of his lean years from maudlin sentiment. He writes:

“Fortunately, I had begun work on a few other films, and before I could be completely written off, Rafoo Chakkar (1975), a semi-hit, came along and rescued me from certain oblivion. But since I was made up like a girl for a major part of the film, I could not be endorsed as a bona fide heart-throb whom female fans could swoon over.”

Khullam Khulla is animated by Kapoor’s power of recall and ample joie de vivre. His recollections of meeting underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, his runs-in with the writers Salim-Javed, his assessment of his co-stars, including Bobby co-star Dimple Kapadia and Amitabh Bachhan, are hugely entertaining.

Kapoor’s sharp memory of the story behind the movie plot throws up invaluable nuggets. He almost didn’t sign up for Manmohan Desai’s multi-starrer Amar Akbar Anthony in 1977. Desai, Kapoor writes, “filmed the most preposterous, illogical sequences but got away with it in film after film… Before I got to know him, my impression of him was that he was a master of the ludicrous.”

Told over a scratchy telephone line that he would be playing Akbar, Kapoor’s reaction was typical: his grandfather had played the emperor in Mughal-E-Azam in 1960. “In my mind I pictured a bizarre plot featuring Amar, the eternal lover, with a flute and all, Antony (Marc Antony) of Caesar and Cleopatra fame, and Akbar from Mughal-e-Azam. I did not put anything past Manmohan Desai. At the time, Man-ji was making Dharam Veer (1977) in which he had Dharmendra and Jeetendra wearing skirts, so none of this was far-fetched.”

Kapoor does not shy away from being undiplomatic about his peers – a privilege accorded to the star but rarely to the professional biographer. He is warm towards Bachchan, but has a telling insight into the veteran’s personality:

“Amitabh is undeniably a superb actor, immensely talented and, at the time, the number one star who ruled the box-office. He was an action hero, the angry young man… We had to work hard, really exert ourselves to match up… As such, writers gave him the lion’s share and he had the authorbacked roles in almost all his films. This gave him an advantage over the rest of us who had to make our presence felt with whatever we got. But this is something that Amitabh has never ever admitted to, in any interview or book. He has never given due credit to the actors who have worked with him. He has always credited his writers and directors, Salim–Javed, Manmohan Desai Prakash Mehra, Yash Chopra and Ramesh Sippy. But it is also true that his co-stars had an undeniable role in his success. Shashi Kapoor in Deewaar (1975), Rishi Kapoor in Amar Akbar Anthony and Coolie or Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and Dharmendra all contributed to the success of his films where they shared credit with him, even if in secondary roles. This is something no one has realized or acknowledged.”

Kapoor’s flops hammered his confidence and drove him into a depression, from which he was rescued by his family and directors like Yash Chopra who retained their faith in his talent – all of whom get fondly name-checked. The thematic arrangement of the chapters (one on his co-stars, another on musical scores, a third on controversies) prevents a linear narrative, and serves the purpose of clearing the air and giving fans and journalists something to remember his films by.

If Khullam Khulla converges with An Unsuitable Boy, it is in the unmistakable desire of both men to take charge of their narratives. Could both books have worked better as biographies? Perhaps, but then they would read very differently. By taking control of their stories with seriousness and sincerity, and delivering on the promise of truthfulness and veracity as much as permissible, the memoirs have raised the bar for similar projects as well as made the work of the professional biographer tougher. Who needs trained jockeys when you are getting a version straight from the horse’s mouth?

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