The cult of Karan Johar
He doesn’t get enough credit for pushing the envelope in his films
Last month, at an awards event, Karan Johar walked past me wearing statement high-heeled boots. I’m not fashion forward enough so I did a double take. I was startled in the same way that I sometimes am when I see his Instagram posts – he’s preening in impossibly fashionable clothes, a poster boy for death by styling. Karan is ubiquitous – as talk show host, radio jockey, awards show host, a society page favorite, fashionista, high priest of nepotism, erstwhile jewelry designer and brand model. Currently, among other things, he’s selling soup. He’s also the architect and arbitrator of Bollywood’s social pecking order – you know you’ve made it when you’re invited to a KJo party. All of which makes it easy to dismiss him as a filmmaker.
On IMDb, Karan has 10 titles as director and 45 as producer. The films he’s made have been successful but not necessarily game-changing. The most notable titles in his filmography are The Lunchbox and the Baahubali franchise – both of which were presented by Dharma Productions but not creatively incubated at his studio. Karan is often accused of having ‘affluenza.’ His cinema, especially the films he directs, documents Posh People Angst - everyone suffers in Gucci and Prada. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, one character asks another: Are you first-class rich or private plane rich? This would only happen in a Karan Johar film. Cinematically and literally, he inhabits a rarefied world. So when his short in the four-film anthology Bombay Talkies (2013) featured a beggar, he asked the costume designer how many changes she would have. He was told: None. It didn’t occur to him that a beggar perhaps wouldn’t have clothing options. He tells this story himself.
Which is what I like about Karan. Despite the fame and power, he isn’t delusional. He knows where his fault lines are. He also doesn’t get enough credit for the envelopes he has pushed – like bringing gay characters into mainstream cinema, even if it’s through problematic narratives such as Dostana, Kal Ho Naa Ho (both of which mined homosexuality for comedy) and Bombay Talkies; bringing infidelity into mainstream cinema (before Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, could you imagine two A-list stars playing characters who check into a hotel to have sex with people they aren’t married to?); bringing the female orgasm into the mainstream (Lust Stories – I can no longer hear the title track of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham without thinking of Kiara Advani and her errant vibrator).
Karan has given us outsized consumerist fantasies (in K3G, UK was a substitute for New Delhi because Delhi isn’t pretty enough for him), showy rituals (Karva Chauth, choreographed dances at weddings) and some of the most memorable film music of the last two decades - from Iktara to Kabira to Badtameez Dil to Suraj Hua Maddham to Mitwa to the entire soundtrack of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil .
Somewhere, underneath the blinding bling, the Gatsby-style parties and the camera-ready pout, there is an artist. So far Karan’s life has been more groundbreaking than his films. Over the years, Karan has helped to change conversations around same-sex relationships. Which other public personality could pull off the innuendo-laden Knorr commercial? He’s also a single parent. The birth of his twins made headlines but there was no controversy. He made it routine for a famous man to have children with surrogacy.
I hope Karan’s next – an ambitious period drama called Takht - brings to the forefront his many talents. He described it to me as the ‘K3G of the Mughal era.’ Which, like the soup he serves, sounds delicious.