Plot twist no one saw coming: Karan Johar gets clean chit!

How ‘Rocky aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani’ united the deeply divided audiences that Karan Johar’s cinema invariably creates.

Published : Aug 15, 2023 09:50 IST - 5 MINS READ

Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar at the promotion of ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’ in Mumbai on August 3, 2023

Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar at the promotion of ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’ in Mumbai on August 3, 2023 | Photo Credit: SUJIT JAISWAL

“It’s not suicide, I can bet that Karan Johar has murdered him… Karan Johar… the director* of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.” I overheard these words in the covid ward of a private hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. I was admitted there during the first wave, and these words were being spoken by a man on a bed a few feet away from me.

About a year later I moved to Mumbai. That year I read about Karan Johar and his company Dharma Productions a lot more than I wanted to. Popular opinion on one side of the polarisation on social media claimed that Karan Johar was responsible for nearly all that was wrong in the country. He spent most of his time conspiring against artists who did not have the advantage of “nepotism” and he is against “Indian Culture” being the least vile of all the charges made against him.

On the other side was buckets of contempt and dismissal from the crowd loosely defined on the Internet as “left-liberals”. He and his cinema were responsible for all that was wrong with the country. His movies framed majoritarian culture as the only normal. Even Brahmastra was accused of pandering to Hindutva. These beliefs weren’t limited to social media, as my opening anecdote illustrates.

Then came Rocky aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani. On Instagram, Anurag Kashyap said that he liked the movie so much that he watched it twice. The movie opened to near-unanimous critical acclaim. The unequivocal verdict from one side of the polarisation was that the movie had got its politics right. “Johar is scolding Johar”; “He is atoning” were the common refrains used by the enlightened to describe the movie—to imply that Johar was responding to the intellectual critique that his movies had been subjected to. He finally had their approval.

On the other side, there were very few murmurs of “Boycott Bollywood”, the standard reaction of the extreme Right that accompanies every release which doesn’t further their ideology. Intrigued, I spoke to parents of many friends who were conservative, who almost despised Karan Johar’s cinema, and who watched the movie.

Without exception, they loved it. What was going on?

Also Read | Bollywood legacy of utopian equality under siege

Rocky, played by Ranveer Singh, does not know the word “objectifying,” cannot recognise a painting of Tagore, thinks of Big Boss when the subject of voting is brought up, and thinks men doing Kathak is funny. He is mocked and insulted by Rani’s Bengali family for all of this.

Rani, played by Alia Bhatt, is the quintessential liberal intellectual. She, however, does not have contempt for the unenlightened. She is able to see that learning is a journey and someone who is innately compassionate will be able to figure out the rest also. She is subjected to loathing and hatred by Rocky’s father and grandmother. This hatred is not on account of her not being Punjabi like them or patriarchal like them or conservative like them. She is not them. And that is sufficient reason to hate her and harm her.

So intellectual condescension on one side and unreasonable hatred on the other. Does this ring a bell?

I could be talking about one of the many cleavages during Brexit, I could be talking about one of the fractures in the discourse in India, or I could be referring to the chargesheet against Karan Johar.

Activists of Hindu Sena burning a poster of Karan Johar film ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ in which Pakistani actor Fawad Khan has acted, in New Delhi on October 28, 2016

Activists of Hindu Sena burning a poster of Karan Johar film ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ in which Pakistani actor Fawad Khan has acted, in New Delhi on October 28, 2016 | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

I don’t know whether this was intentional or not, but I felt that through his medium, Karan Johar was responding to the socio-political moment in India. The discourse around him is only a sub-set of this moment after all. There is a particularly poignant and moving scene in the movie where Rocky expresses anguish at the derision and contempt he faces—not with defiance but as a plea for empathy and accommodation for the fact that his lived reality, privileged as it may be, did not offer him a window into other worlds. His world is all he knows, but he’s trying, and trying hard, to learn and do better, and surely everyone deserves a chance.

Rani on the other hand reaches out and tells Rocky’s grandmother that while there are differences between them, there is also one thing that unites them—their common love for that which connects them. She is of course rebuffed. The one grouse I have with the movie is that Rani sometimes comes across as a perfect saviour of the other women in Rocky’s family. She is their liberator with a halo, and there is absolutely nothing that she learns from them. A friend pointed out that Alia Bhatt’s character is an echo of how Karan Johar sees her in real life: flawless.

The tagline for Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham was “It’s all about loving your parents”. For this movie, it could well have been, “it’s all about acknowledging each other’s universal humanity”. (Does not have quite the same ring, I know). Rocky’s father and Rani’s family learn that the ‘other’ is more than the sum of the lenses they see their world with. That is the lesson Karan Johar seems to want the audience to go back with as if saying—you all are more than what you believe about each other, and I too am more than everything you’ve heard about me.

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

Shortly after moving to Mumbai, I met a senior journalist friend who told me that she had begun an investigation for a profile she wanted to write about the culture at Dharma Production, Karan Johar’s corporation, but she soon dropped the idea. When I probed for her reasons, expecting an attempt at censorship and intimidation, she said and I quote, “His co-workers, across the board, worship him; wherever I asked, I got anecdotes about him being generous. He gives opportunities to people who slam him, and is lining up projects with countless new writers and directors who wouldn’t have had a chance without him.” She didn’t want to write a hagiography or something, which would have looked like an advertisement for Karan Johar; so she junked the story.

Quite the plot twist isn’t it?

(*Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was directed by Aditya Chopra. )

Dushyant Arora is a lawyer and writer based in Mumbai.

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