Karan Johar is not what you’d call a politically active filmmaker. His films are sugar-coated nods to India’s long-standing family traditions wrapped in new-age cool. At a time when freedom of expression has become a buzzword, Johar’s response to a 2009 controversy in which he was embroiled is instructive. When Raj Thackeray took offence to the use of “Bombay” in Wake Up Sid, produced by Johar’s Dharma Productions, Johar chose to apologise to Thackeray rather than take the politician on.
For someone as cautious as him, therefore, his recent essay for NDTV is both surprising and enlightening. In pointed language, he takes on trolls who swarm his Twitter timeline, abusing him and his sexuality. “…But then started the phase where I began to wake up to ‘gay ma*****od, good morning.’ Every morning. Or just ‘hi gay.’ I am routinely called ‘chakka,’” he reveals.
Johar goes on to probe the mentality that seeks out celebrities on social media to locate offence when there is cause for none. It is a brutally honest, highly affecting essay, in which Johar tackles everything from his self-doubt to the depredations of fame, as he maintains a steady gaze on the anonymous hordes who routinely drop anchor on his timeline with bundles of nonsense.
It would be easy to argue that Johar ought to develop a thicker skin. He mentions how actress Anushka Sharma was blamed for cricketer Virat Kohli’s poor performance on the field. Yet, Sharma has never made her distress public in the emotionally open way that Johar has now done. Maybe the abuse did not bother her. Maybe it did but she thought better than speak about it and expose a fragility that is likely to make things worse with a group of classic bullies. If you are in the public eye, you will be bombarded with one of the many neuroses that crisscross our society. In Sharma’s case it was sexism. In Johar’s case, it is homophobia.
For all that though, Johar makes an entirely legitimate point about the careless readiness social media affords people to vent their darkest thoughts publicly. His tone is considerate, even accommodating. “I acknowledge that I am materially privileged, but I am not emotionally privileged,” he writes. “There are reasons for me to be lonely and sad on most days and I am probably as sad as you, the troller.”
The larger fight goes beyond the trolls
Even as the essay makes grim reading, a rider is in order. If Johar were trying to curry favour with the trolls in order that they leave him alone, the strategy is likely to backfire. Trolls are not interested in reasoned argument, but are looking to draw blood. Johar might therefore want to relook at the contours of this fight. He may wish to consider escaping the very ecosystem that gives ballast to the troll – and by that, I don’t mean quitting Twitter.
When it comes to cracking jokes about homosexuality, as he did with eagerness at All India Backhod’s roast in 2015, or dropping hints among friends, as he does with aplomb on his television chat show, Koffee with Karan, Johar displays an almost-there keenness to broach his sexuality. Yet, he has never addressed it in a non-frivolous setting. This, in spite of the fact that his position as a filmmaker gives him the platform, and also the security not afforded, say, a closeted actor, to make a difference.
To be sure, Johar’s films have moved progressively away from caricature in depicting gay characters. After supplying comic relief in most of Johar’s work, the gay man finally came into his own in this year’s Kapoor & Sons, the latest offering from Dharma. Johar has also spoken up about the need to repeal Section 377, which criminalises homosexual acts between consenting adults.
Johar thus represents a filmmaker in the conservative mold, willing to be somewhat political in his work, but fiercely protective of his private life. However, in his case, the guardedness seems neither organic nor earned, given his repeated willingness to put his sexuality on the line publicly. His candid public persona would have one wager that he was beyond getting upset over what is essentially banal criticism over, say, his effeminacy.
If his NDTV essay is any indication, the divergence between the public and the personal has come to a head .Online harassment is a real problem, but rather than tearful entreaty, maybe Johar could use his position to make a more personal, and thus more powerful, statement about homophobia. It’s a done-to-death cliché, but for the social age, it needs to be updated: Actions shut down trolls faster than words.