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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