The KJo phenomenon

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

At the launch of the Jio World Plaza mall in Mumbai on October 31, 2023.

At the launch of the Jio World Plaza mall in Mumbai on October 31, 2023. | Photo Credit: SUJIT JAISWAL/AFP

A quarter-century in film paints Karan Johar a paradox: KJo the director finds courage in the shadow of KJo the producer.

In 2017, the very effusive Karan Johar published a revealing memoir, An Unsuitable Boy. Pages were filled with anecdotes about his growing-up years in Bombay, detailing the difficulty of sustaining friendships in show business, the emotional dependence he had on his parents, and the ever-present curiosity about his sexuality. He held back little—not the loneliness that accompanied his stardom, not that he paid the first time for sex, and not his falling out with a famous actor.

LISTEN: In a career spanning seven feature films, Karan Johar has cultivated a distinct legacy for himself, difficult to define and impossible to ignore.

The revelations fit well with his buoyant persona. But the reflections on his life opened on a sombre note. Johar, then 45, wrote in the prologue: “I don’t want to be this person who is bound by principles, morality or reality, someone who has to conform to any kind of societal rules.” It was a stirring admission that stood out as dual acknowledgement. In his own words, the filmmaker was refusing to conform any longer and, by doing so, was admitting that he had conformed for too long.

In a career spanning seven feature films, Johar has cultivated a distinct legacy for himself, difficult to define and impossible to ignore. He is a filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur, reality show judge, and talk-show host. He is the most visible director of our times, the poster child for controversy; his propensity to launch nepo kids has only galvanised this reputation. As the host of Koffee With Karan, his contentious celebrity talk show, he brought the S-word into our drawing rooms as he needled his guests about their private lives. Yet, this abrasiveness is offset by the coy disposition of his films.

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Johar burst on the scene with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH) in October 1998. Two months earlier, Ram Gopal Varma had sprung a surprise with Satya, redefining the gangster genre in Hindi cinema by depicting the outlaws as regular people, capable of carrying a broken heart. In Varma’s outing, Mumbai assumed the centrality of a protagonist and asserted its presence with grime and beauty. In contrast, Johar’s film could have been based anywhere. The bubblegum aesthetic of the college romance in the first half and the opulence of the family drama in the second half were not oriented to reality. Nor was the premise.

Still from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

Still from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

KKHH was loosely derived from Archie comics and revolved around three college friends and their interpersonal dynamics. But it could be narrowed down to a rather flawed plot where a man finally falls for his best friend only when she, hitherto a tomboy, subscribes to the conventional notions of femininity.

If Satya was a step ahead, KKHH reiterated the Hindi film template of love and beauty, both of which remain tied to the will of the male protagonist. An heir to the 1979-established Dharma Productions, Johar was not just a traditionalist. He proved to be orthodox. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G), his sophomore outing in 2001 that he envisioned as a modern-day Ramayana, the family patriarch refuses to relent when his eldest (adopted) son falls in love; the couple has to leave home only to come back at the end and seek forgiveness for their “disobedience”. K3G assembled three generations of superstars—Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor—and articulated the cornerstone of Johar’s films: family.

The orthodox traditionalist and family man

For the longest time, the 51-year-old filmmaker’s perception of family has been reverential. Most of his films exalt it to the point of impunity, refusing to examine its patriarchal and oppressive undertones. Family is both superpower and kryptonite, capable of infiltrating romantic relationships.

The idea is as archaic in essence now as it was in 2001 when K3G released. That Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai, his cult debut on the irreverence of male friendships, and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan, a genre-defying take on cricket in colonial India, released in the same year made Johar’s saccharine family drama look like the uncool cousin—a reality he was aware of.

A still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)

A still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)

This is not to say that Johar refused to match strides with time. His third directorial venture was Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), a rare mainstream Hindi film centring on the theme of infidelity. He followed this up with My Name Is Khan (2010), which examined Islamophobia in post-9/11 US through the journey of an autistic Muslim man from India.

In Student of the Year (2012), a frothy high-school musical, a queer school principal is a prominent character. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) puts forth a radical proposition where the woman is not compelled to reciprocate the feelings of the man.

Still from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016).

Still from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016).

But even in these films, Johar’s world-building was conservative and cushioned with privilege. Thus, the liberal ideas either contended with his traditional outlook or translated as superficial execution. Take, for instance, the way Johar depicted queerness on screen. In Kal Ho Naa Ho (KHNH, 2003), a film he wrote and wished to direct, homosexuality is a joke. The heterosexual romantic triangle has a running gag of an old domestic help being petrified every time she sees two men together. The subtext here is that she “fears” they are queer.

“Is Johar a liberal masquerading as an orthodox? Or is he performing progressiveness to appease a certain section of the audience?”

In 2008, he produced Dostana, where two straight men pose as queer to rent a place with a girl in Miami. The humour in the film is written into the reactions of one of their mothers on finding her son is gay. In Student of the Year, the intent of including a queer character is undermined by the stereotypes that wrap his portrayal. In 2013, Johar made a more audacious attempt with Bombay Talkies where he made space for two men to kiss on screen. But it was a boutique project and a short film.

In his memoir, Johar recounts that he first met Ayan Mukerji, a director with Dharma Productions, outside a screening of KHNH. The latter came up and expressed gratitude for the way homosexuality was depicted in the film. “I have never seen this representation in mainstream cinema,” Mukerji had said. In a 2017 piece for The New York Times, the author Aatish Taseer credited Johar with stealthily introducing homosexuality into Indian homes. “He knows the limits of his ‘family’ audience, but he works vigorously within them,” Taseer wrote.

Also Read | The Great Indian Family is in transition

What emerges from here is a confounding image of a man whose repute is difficult to streamline. Is he a liberal masquerading as an orthodox? Or is he performing progressiveness to appease a certain section of the audience? After all, he self-admittedly made My Name Is Khan, a social message film where the Muslim hero had to be autistic to evoke empathy, for critical acclaim. Should we applaud Johar for surreptitiously acquainting the multiplex audience with the word “gay”? Or should we pull him up for peddling stereotypes that were within his power to dispel? Is he the man who let India out of the closet? Or is he the filmmaker who outlined the presence of a closet only to mock it?

Still from My Name is Khan (2010)

Still from My Name is Khan (2010)

Is it enough that he wrote a female character who resists succumbing to the tantrum of a man-child? Or should we probe deeper and recognise that she dies at the end as a vengeful move from a conformist storyteller? Should we extol him for depicting infidelity? Or should we identify the three years that he kept the characters apart as his way of punishing them for transgression and dismantling families? Is he an orthodox masquerading as a liberal? Is representation enough?

“Should we applaud Johar for surreptitiously acquainting the multiplex audience with the word “gay”? Or should we pull him up for peddling stereotypes that were within his power to dispel?”

In 2023, 25 years since he began and seven years after he directed his last film, Johar helmed Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani. On the surface, nothing had changed. The film is a portrait of excess where the love story at the centre stands to be reconfigured by the families in the background. There are cultural and ideological differences. Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh) is a gym bro from West Delhi. Rani Chatterji (Alia Bhatt) is a political journalist. His family has a sweetmeats business, her parents are into art. Notwithstanding the mountain of differences between them, Rocky and Rani are pulled towards each other. Their attraction is nothing like the sibling energy Johar reserves for characters essayed by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. Rocky and Rani are sexual beings. They sleep together before admitting their love for each other.

But here is where it feels like course-correction. In any other Johar film, Rocky’s loud Punjabi tradition-bound family, where women do puja at home and men only talk to each other formally, would have occupied the narrative centerpiece. But here they are put under the scanner. It is Rani and her liberal-leaning family that lead from the front. They teach Rocky that masculinity need not look a certain way and they teach him enough to be critical of his surroundings and himself. Rocky Randhawa is the sole male character in a Johar film who questions Dharma’s indisputable stance: “It is all about loving your parents.”

 Still from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006).

Still from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006).

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani is a fitting film in Johar’s evolving legacy. It is evidence of a director changing with the times and being tuned to the conversations around him. But to appreciate the filmmaker Karan Johar has become, one ought to commend Karan Johar the producer. Over the past two decades, Dharma Productions has gone from strength to strength, backing young voices. In terms of a legacy production house, it has fared much better than Yash Raj Films, which remains stuck in time with its big tent pole franchises. Dharma, on the other hand, has backed diverse stories. Take, for instance, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), Shakun Batra’s charming take on unrequited love, or his sophomore film, Kapoor & Sons (2015), which remains a watershed pop culture moment for its unprejudiced depiction of homosexuality.

KJo the producer

Dharma’s roster includes films that are modern in sensibilities and daring in their ideals: Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (2015), where a young woman seeks professional assistance for mental health; Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid (2009), which centres on a slacker college graduate; Abhishek Varman’s 2 States (2014), where two people in love bring their culturally different families together; Shashank Khaitan’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017), where a girl compels a boy to confront his chauvinism; Raj Mehta’s Jugjugg Jeeyo (2022), where a middle-aged “funny” man is not forgiven by his wife for his transgression and bad behaviour.

More recently, in Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), the hagiographic tendency of a Hindi film biopic is undone by injecting the diffidence of youth. Based on Indian Air Force officer Gunjan Saxena, the film has a scene where a young girl asks her father whether she is a traitor for using the Indian Air Force to fulfil her dream of becoming a pilot.

Also Read | How ‘Rocky aur Rani’ encapsulates the world between real and make-believe

Dharma has also backed films that restate fraught gender politics and prioritise male characters and their needs. But Johar bankrolled themes that gained more from his presence than the other way around. As a producer, he has taken bigger swings than he has as a filmmaker. That most of them landed gave him assurance, and accounts for his fatigue, where he no longer wants to be the person “who is bound by principles, morality or reality… societal rules”. Because he has realised the weight of it. Being a progressive producer has emboldened him to be a more informed director.

Still from Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023)

Still from Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023)

The most obvious upshot of this is Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani. But there were early signs. His memoir came out in 2017, and the next year he directed a segment in the Netflix anthology Lust Stories. It is a hilarious short that is single-mindedly focussed on female desire. But it is the climax that denotes the distance Johar has traversed. There is a cloying musical note in Lata Mangeshkar’s voice that opens all his films and throbs with filial longing. In Lust Stories, Johar deployed the same tune at the end but only to signal a different kind of longing. It was a terrific moment where the filmmaker came closest to winking at his dedicated family audience. The joke was on him, but we were the punchline.

As a public personality for 25 years, Johar has provided conflicting pointers to himself and his legacy. But this perhaps comes closest to surmising it: a traditional filmmaker learning to unlearn from a progressive producer. 

Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer. Her work is situated at the juncture of gender and pop culture.

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