Karan Johar: The man of all seasons

Karan Johar, the director: Being the son of a producer, Karan was obsessed with Bollywood right from childhood but was too embarrassed to admit in front of his ‘Malabar Hill’ friends as they used to look down upon Bollywood. During childhood and teenage, Yash Chopra, a family friend, was his favourite director.

But the movie which inspired him become a film director was Sooraj Barjatya’s 1994 blockbuster ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’. He assisted Aditya Chopra during the making of ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ and also essayed a small role in the movie. He made his debut as a director with ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ (KKHH) – starring Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Rani Mukherjee and Salman Khan (in a guest role) – which went on to become the biggest hit of 1998. It notched up Rs 48 crore net in India and was a huge success in the overseas market, too.

One could clearly see the influence of Chopra and Barjatya – his mentors- in KKHH. His debut movie had the traditional tropes of Barjatya, while the syntax, presentation and ethos were reminiscent of Chopra’s movies. But what worked tremendously in favour of the movie was the blend of pure innocence and panache Karan adeptly infused into the film. The stupendous success of his debut movie established him as one of the most promising directors and also marked the beginning of his successful professional and personal association with SRK.

After KKHH, he went on to direct Kabhi Khushi Kahi Gham (2001), Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), My Name Is Khan (2010), Student of the Year (2012) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016). Out of these, K3G was a blockbuster and 2nd highest grosser of 2001 (after Gadar). KANK and MNIK did decent business in India (Rs 44 crore net and Rs 73 crore net, respectively) but fell below expectations in India: however, both were big money-spinners overseas.

Critics have often criticised Karan for making ‘NRI-friendly’ and overtly opulent movies, featuring only rich people. His movies are labelled as fluffy and flighty. One gets the feeling that after KKHH and K3G, Karan started taking critics and avant-garde directors too seriously and perhaps subliminally tried to pander (or appease) them.

KANK and MNIK were not the ‘quintessential’ Karan Johar movies as he attempted to make something ‘different’. The reaction of the audience was mixed and box-office numbers validate that.

KANK received flak for being long-winded and high-strung, while MNIK was bit too sombre. The fact remains, KKHH and K3G – his first 2 movies – remain his biggest hits and most loved movies among the audiences to date.

Although MNIK, ADHM and SOTY proved hits, none of them came close to becoming huge grossers or blockbusters like his first two movies. At a time when Hirani’s ‘PK’ grossed Rs 340 crore net in India (about Rs 700 crore worldwide) and ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ fetched Rs 320 crore net in India (over Rs 600 crore worldwide), Rs 106 crore earned by ADHM looks like a drop in the ocean.

In terms of commercial success, directors like Rajkumar Hirani, Kabir Khan and Rohit Shetty have surged ahead of him in last 10 years. Also, in ADHM, it seemed as if Karan was attempting to emulate Imtiaz Ali. The language, idiom and narrative style of ADHM bore uncanny (and heavy) resemblance to Imtiaz’s standard template.

How one wishes Karan harks back to his own unique palette and sets the cinematic canvas ablaze with his archetype hues. Critics be damned!

Karan Johar, the person: In an industry riven by factions, Karan Johar stands out as a unifying factor. He shares a warm, and often intimate, equation with most of the movie stars. During the much-publicised Salman-SRK feud, Karan was perhaps the only director who was equally close to (and adored by) both the megastars.

No matter what the personal equation between actors is, everyone seems to be truly fond of him. Not just stars, even directors, choreographers and almost entire industry (barring a few exceptions) get along very well with him.

Karan has always maintained that he has inherited his genial nature from his late father who was always the first one to stand up for everyone in the industry.

In one of his interviews, Karan confessed that he is among very few people who still see film industry as a fraternity and it is getting increasingly difficult for him to try and keep everyone happy. He has had his fair share of run-ins with people like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Rishi Kapoor, Kajol, and Kangana Ranaut, to name a few. But to his credit, he made up with Bhansali (and stood by him during the ‘Padmavati’ controversy) and Rishi Kapoor.

In his autobiography, he wrote that he might never talk again with his once best friend Kajol due to what happened in the run-up to ADHM-Shivaay (starring Kajol’s husband Ajay Devgn) clash at the box-office. His loyalty to his friends like SRK and Aditya Chopra is legendary and he misses no opportunity in crediting them for his success and professional growth.

His knack of laughing at himself and making fun of himself has stood him in good stead. It is amusing to see him taking his most successful movie – KKHH – apart with waggish flourish. Be it his oeuvre, characteristics or even sexuality, he is never short of self-deprecating zingers. It is in sharp contrast to the delusion of grandeur that most of the ‘celebrated’ directors are cocooned in. He doesn’t mouth self-aggrandizing humbug.

Genuinely praising others’ work and their feats – especially if they’re competitors – is an extremely rare virtue among Bollywood folks. But Karan is a rare exception. He has publicly eulogized his contemporaries like Aditya Chopra, Bhansali, Rajkumar Hirani, Kabir Khan, and others.

He makes it a point to extol exciting off-beat movies and directors. He has generously lavished adulation on directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu and Dibakar Banerjee.

One has to be quite magnanimous and secure about his own standing to commend one’s contemporaries in this cut-throat industry. He has good things to say about almost every prominent director, actor or a technician. This is one quality that has endeared Karan to many people in the industry.

He candidly confesses to lying and manipulating in order to be in everyone’s good books. He doesn’t bat an eyelid while admitting that many a time, he praises stars, directors and their movies falsely.

It is easy, and convenient, to dismiss Karan as the ‘flag-bearer of nepotism’, frivolous, double-faced and a sycophant, but if one digs deeper, he comes across as a warm, witty, earnest and deeply sensitive human being. As for frivolity and sycophancy, let’s just call them occupational hazards… or survival mechanism of showbiz!

Karan Johar, the host: Karan dons many hats: he is a producer, a director, a designer, a chat show host, apart from being the friend, philosopher, guide and a shoulder to cry on for many industry people.

However, it is the role of being a chat show host that has brought him as many laurels as he won as a director. His chat show ‘Koffee with Karan’ is outrageously popular among Bollywood people as well as among common folks. Almost every estimable person from the industry has appeared on the show.

Karan’s eloquence, razor-sharp wit and affability make him a truly terrific host. He shoots the breeze with his guests with amazing ease and oodles of oomph. The camaraderie and bonhomie between the host and the guests are invariably on display.

It is fascinating to see stars letting their guard down and open up on issues that they usually shy away from. Many a time, his guests stirred a hornet’s nest and kicked up controversies by their sensational or sweeping comments. On the whole, his chat show is a glitzy affair. Karan often jokes that due to the thumping popularity of his chat show, people seem to have forgotten that he is first and foremost a director.

There’s no denying the fact that ‘Koffee with Karan’ has added impressive heft to the brand ‘Karan Johar’ and has made him a household name.

It is admirable how effortlessly he juggles different roles, and pulls each one of them off with flying colours. There’s no greater evidence or endorsement of his versatility and verve.