Karan Johar: A student of instinct

Karan Johar wears many hats, but he doesn’t need downtime. Because downtime is what he does. Downtime is what he loves—movies


Karan Johar (left) and actor Shah Rukh Khan pose during a promotional event for his autobiography ‘An Unsuitable Boy’, in Mumbai on Monday. Photo: AFP
Karan Johar (left) and actor Shah Rukh Khan pose during a promotional event for his autobiography ‘An Unsuitable Boy’, in Mumbai on Monday. Photo: AFP

Mumbai: In a Mumbai theatre a long time ago, a six-year-old boy watched wide-eyed as Zeenat Aman, the it girl of the 1970s Bollywood, blazed the silver screen. Born into a film family and as someone always attracted to the arc lights, Karan Johar made up his mind then: he would grow up to be in a world that created women like her.

Nearly four decades later, Johar is not just a movie director, but has also expanded his horizons to become a producer, dancer, blogger, television host and mentor to actors and directors. The six movies that he directed have grossed a combined Rs350 crore, with the last one—Ae Dil Hai Mushkil—alone clocking Rs100 crore at the box office. His TV show Koffee With Karan is in its fifth season. His blog on NDTV.com is a runaway hit. He has just released his autobiography, An Unsuitable Boy, which has created a viral stir on social media.

Doesn’t he need any downtime? No, downtime is what he does. Downtime is what he loves—movies.

Helmsman

With opulent wooden doors and walls with framed photographs of actors and directors, the swanky office of Dharma Productions in Andheri West reminds you of a set from one of his movies. The company, founded by his father, shifted here recently after 16 years in Bandra. We are here ahead of the 28 October release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, a movie on unrequited love, and there are standees and posters everywhere. Johar is in a black hoodie sweatshirt by Off White, a Milan-based hipster brand that actor Ranbir Kapoor introduced him to, and a pair of jeans.

Quiz him on being a popular culture phenomenon and he’s not convinced.

Karan Johar with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who featured in his latest directorial venture ‘Ae Di Hai Mushkil’.
Karan Johar with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who featured in his latest directorial venture ‘Ae Di Hai Mushkil’.

“Am I a pop culture reference? No; I’m not. I’m a bit of an anomaly. I don’t know how to explain myself. When people meet me, it’s very tough to express who I am to anyone. You would not be able to describe me to anyone because I’m beyond being a film-maker,” he says, sipping tea. “I don’t think there is a reference for me anywhere else in the world. And it’s not that I created that. I just did what I loved.”

How does he manage so much work? “I don’t like holidays. I don’t like Sundays. I don’t like downtime. For me, downtime is what I do. Downtime is what I love. I don’t have a spouse, I don’t have children. I have an exceptionally accommodating mother. And I don’t have very much family. My responsibility is my company and the work I do. So, that gives me so much time,” he adds.

That time is put to good use, it appears.

At present, Johar is hosting the fifth season of Koffee With Karan, his pet project on television, interviewing celebrity friends over coffee, which gets a season average of 116,000 TVTs (TV viewership in thousands) on Star India Pvt. Ltd. Nearly two years ago, he made his full-fledged acting debut as Kaizad Khambatta (based on Dosoo Karaka, a feisty Parsi journalist), in Anurag Kashyap’s period movie Bombay Velvet. On Twitter, he has over 9.9 million followers.

And according to Suparna Singh, chief executive at NDTV Convergence, Johar’s columns on NDTV.com have been a traffic magnet. “Karan is easily among our biggest hitters for traffic. We really wanted a Web version of Koffee with Karan—but without any of the guests! He’s always been the best part of the show—and we wanted 100% him. He has also, over the past few years, shown a passion for straight talk on complex issues that few celebrities, especially in the world of entertainment, were willing to comment on publicly. He has proven that in his columns, talking about everything from sex to censorship with such jaw-dropping honesty that often, at first read, we’re quite stunned. His quick-wittedness is brilliant—and maybe serves as a defence system on matters of sensitivity—but he never uses it to gloss over either the topic, or his own thoughts on it. He’s all sorts of disarming,” says Singh.

At present, Johar is hosting the fifth season of ‘Koffee With Karan’, his pet project on television, interviewing celebrity friends over coffee, which gets a season average of 116,000 TVTs on Star India.
At present, Johar is hosting the fifth season of ‘Koffee With Karan’, his pet project on television, interviewing celebrity friends over coffee, which gets a season average of 116,000 TVTs on Star India.

Typically for his columns, Johar talks into his phone, which is later transcribed by his staff. He fine-tunes it into the column the night before deadline.

Scroll through Johar’s Instagram feed or his profile pictures on Twitter, and you see him pouting in various selfies. “I don’t know how that happened. I like that top-angle pout; it makes your face look thinner,” he quips.

Film critic Anupama Chopra, founder of Film Companion website that features movie reviews and interviews, showers praise on Johar. “Karan is the ultimate star director. He is a director who is a star. I love his pouting selfies on Instagram, his red carpet presence; he does endorsements, designs clothes, etc. He does everything a star or an actor would do. He is a singular, a director first and everything else later. He connects with the audience because of a certain honesty and authenticity which is a result of his evolution over the years. He has gained huge comfort in his own self. If he wants to dance in America, he does and people pay,” says Chopra.

"Karan is easily among our biggest hitters for traffic. We really wanted a Web version of Koffee with Karan—but without any of the guests!"- Suparna Singh, CEO of NDTV Convergence

They do. At a two-week US dance tour in August, the Dream Team, a bunch of leading actors from India performed live to packed audiences across major cities. The youngest of them was 44-year-old Johar. Amid blinding lights and cheering crowds at the 18,700-seat Prudential Center in New Jersey, Johar, dressed in a black jacket with shimmering gold collars and intense sequin work paired with jeans, performed a 3-minute act to Say Shava Shava, with the hook step and matching every beat. The song is from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, one of his most successful movies and also his late father Yash Johar’s favourite.

“I thought this has got to be really appalling for other film-makers in the world to know that there is a film-maker who does this (dancing). The only way to do this convincingly is to believe you’re a movie star in your head. Go and dance like you were born to do this. And forget that you’re a 44-year-old film-maker who runs a company called Dharma Productions who is not meant to be on stage dancing in front of thousands of people. But if he does that, then he’ll be the first and he shouldn’t be the first and he shouldn’t be the last. There may be others who will follow suit perhaps and do it,” says Johar.

Karan Johar was recently part of Dream Team, a bunch of leading actors from India who performed live to packed audiences across major cities.
Karan Johar was recently part of Dream Team, a bunch of leading actors from India who performed live to packed audiences across major cities.

“Look—I’m Punjabi, I like to dance and I dance in a strange way that can be a cross between a Hindi film heroine and a mad Punjabi man. And I’m OK, (with that)” he says.

For Ayan Mukerji, who directed his first film Wake Up Sid for Dharma Productions, the Johar phenomenon is led by an instinctive ability to create moments. “He’s a massive pop culture phenomenon. The reason that happens is because he has a natural energy and willingness to share. Over the years, he has become more himself, the filters have dropped, and his natural instincts have led him to the right people and places,” Mukerji said over the phone.

Johar agrees: “I am a result of my instincts; I don’t know any other way. I don’t know how to explain it to you. I have an instinct when I meet a person. I’m all about the energy of the moment.”

"Karan is the ultimate star director. He is a director who is a star... He does everything a star or an actor would do"- Film critic Anupama Chopra

Selling soul and much more

It was when he was promoting his fifth movie, Student of the Year, in 2012 that he first put himself out there as a dancer. “I felt like I should do anything, besides selling my soul; I was willing to sell every part of me to make sure people came to watch a film with three newcomers,” says Johar, referring to a promotional event at a Nagpur mall where he grooved to the tunes of Disco Deewane from the film. “Then it became a template that I would go dance and they would dance with me,” he adds, referring to actors Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan who were new to film promotions and found themselves perhaps intimidated by the crowds back then.

Loneliness creeps into the conversation.

"He’s a massive pop culture phenomenon. The reason that happens is because he has a natural energy and willingness to share"- Ayan Mukherji, film director

“Somehow these fascinations of mine in my childhood have resulted in parts of my existence today. I never wanted to say anything, I don’t want to portray anything. I just want to do everything I love. I never started off by saying I want to be this person. Things happened organically. And I just went with it,” adds Johar.

“Every year, he does more and more work,” says Mukerji, who hopes his mentor and friend can step back a little and make time for his personal life.

A young Johar with his mother Hiroo Johar.
A young Johar with his mother Hiroo Johar.

Flamboyance and freedom came with age, says Johar. “If you’d ask me to do this in my early 30s, I would be like—No, that’s not what I should be doing. You have preconceived notions about what the world expects of you. And that’s all they are. I have inner freedom. It has just happened over the years. It was just a sense of self-confidence that comes from your own zone in your head. I’m not religious; I don’t even know if I’m spiritual; I could be. But I don’t have a guruji talking to me or a guidance that tells me free the mind and the rest will follow,” he explains.

Was Johar always the social type? Not if you believe film critic Chopra. She recalls the time she first interviewed Johar before the release of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham in 2001 and remembers he was “shy” and “awkward”.

“I remember speaking to his mom (Hiroo Johar) and she said he used to hide behind her pallu (loose end of a sari) as a child. She wasn’t even sure how he’d direct established actors on the first day of his shoot for his film.”

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Apoorva Mehta, chief executive at Dharma Productions, and Johar’s friend from his school days, disagrees. “From very early on, he was somebody who was comfortable in speaking well in front of an audience. A lot of the traits that he excels in now were there back in time also,” says Mehta who recalls Johar, a kid on the heavier side, dressed in a dark blue sweatshirt all year round during his childhood.

“He doesn’t say no to help anybody if it’s within his means to do it. These are traits which are more amplified today but they were very much present in those days also,” recalls Mehta, while sharing an anecdote about Johar helping him on a history project for school. Over time, Johar’s cinema has evolved as a result of his state of mind, he says.

The red lines

Johar whose sexual orientation has been a matter of gossip for long, recently drew praise and blame in equal measure for writing that he wouldn’t say those “three words” because he does not want a police investigation—a claim he repeated in his autobiography. In this interview, he said he has drawn a line between the secrets he has and the secrets he wants to share. He also acknowledged, without specifying any instance, a recent “recklessness” within him about communicating some aspects of his life.

“Like when I started writing these blogs for NDTV or when I started speaking to people in interviews that I believe would matter, I realized that there has seeped in this certain exhaustion in me over a period of time of saying the right thing, being the right person, pretending to be affable, amiable, accessible almost like being the congenial powerhouse of the fraternity. I think one fine day something snapped within me and I’m not sure when that happened. What resulted in that were some great things creatively,” says Johar.

Speculation about his sexual orientation comes up against a stone wall.

“What happens in the confines of my bedroom is my life. I would talk about it if I felt like. I’m saying what I feel the need to and if there is conjecture around my orientation or my sexual orientation, it’s fine. It comes with the territory. It’s because I don’t blame people. I’m also pussyfooting around it all the time. I’m not saying it. I don’t wish to say it. When I want to talk about my sexual orientation, I will talk about it. But the noise doesn’t bother me,” he says.

Johar’s productions such as Kal Ho Naa Ho, Dostana, and Kapoor and Sons have dealt with the subject of homosexuality. He claims that a pivotal scene in Dostana set a benchmark in Indian cinema about homosexuality. The homophobe (Kirron Kher) has a change of heart and the climax is Bollywood’s first gay kiss.

"When I want to talk about my sexual orientation, I will talk about it. But the noise doesn’t bother me"- Karan Johar

“There is a scene which people just refuse to remember where a traditional Punjabi mother actually accepts that her son is gay. But people only see the caricature nature of some of the comic scenes which was all part of the territory of that comedy,” he recalls.

In this interview, Johar reiterates what he has said about his own sexual preferences before. “Even today if somebody asked me I would say I don’t wish to answer that question. When I feel the need to answer it, I will. There has to be some guard. If there was no filter, I’d be wearing no clothes. There are some basic things, rules and regulations that you do conform to. There’s a ceiling to even your bohemian aspect of self-liberation,” he says.

“I’m talking to you at 44, at 50 I might say other things. Allow me to grow and let me go through my own path. I’ll find my ways,” he adds.

The rise of Dharma Productions

At 32, Johar wasn’t too old when he took over Dharma Productions after his film-producer father died in 2004. Like many of his peers, he converted an accident of birth into a business advantage with the help of Mehta, who took over the company the same year.

"I’m always trying to cut down budgets of his films and he keeps telling me to give the money. I’m working for him but I’m working against him—it’s a bizarre situation. We laugh about that very often"- Apoorva Mehta, CEO of Dharma Productions

“Apoorva is a large part of monitoring the money aspect. I do the creative and he does the money; it’s a very clean divide. I have an instinct about business but I’m not organically a business-minded person. I have an instinct about what the right thing to do is. But I don’t know how to follow it to the T. I’m not good with money, I’m really good at knowing how to spend it,” explains Johar.

Mehta was settled in the UK and handling the international operations of Yashraj Films when Johar came calling. “I had been there for six years but Karan and me would still be in touch on a daily basis. We share this very old bond from school and college. On one of his visits, he came and spoke to me and it came as a bit of a shock. He said ‘my dad is not well and can you come back and look after the operations at Dharma?’,” he recalls.

Mehta did not even wait to check with his wife.

“I’m always trying to cut down budgets of his films and he keeps telling me to give the money. I’m working for him but I’m working against him—it’s a bizarre situation. We laugh about that very often,” adds Mehta.

Today, Dharma Productions employs over 120 people and is credited with multiple money-spinners that Johar has produced or co-produced, largely by mentoring young talent. The company now typically makes four films a year. “The role of a mentor comes very naturally to me. It was always in me. It’s the absence of a baby and a sibling. It’s the absence that gives you this nurturing quality within you,” says Johar, whose pet dog Nobu is the closest thing he has to a baby.

And for Mukerji, Johar is a father figure. “In our line of work, there is a very fine line between the personal and the professional. It’s the little things that count. His success is not limited to his films, his legacy will be his generosity of spirit,” says Mukerji, who is currently doing pre-production work on his next fantasy fiction film project starring Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt.

Karan Johar and Ranbir Kapoor.
Karan Johar and Ranbir Kapoor.

Back to school

Success is great, but Johar the top producer-artist once realized that even he has a sell-by date. That was how Student of the Year was born. “It was my reason to connect with pop culture. I suddenly realized kids who are 10-12-13 years old didn’t know of me,” he says, slightly perplexed.

“And I was like, dude, if I want to be here long, I need to be relevant. And to be relevant, these kids have to know me at this age, so that they can grow up knowing me. I knew then and I told everyone on the team that it’s never going to be a great film, it’s going to be popular culture, a lot of people are going to think it’s nonsense and lot of the kids are going to make it their Bible,” he says. The film eventually grossed Rs70 crore at the box office in India.

Student of the Year was when Johar first worked with actors Bhatt, Malhotra and Dhawan, ushering them into the world of entertainment. Johar has mentored not just actors but many young directors like Shakun Batra, Karan Malhorta and Mukherji. “You give love to get love, right? It’s as simple as that,” he says. And it does come around.

“I just came back from a world tour with all three of them—Alia, Varun, Sid. I thought I was going over there being protective about them but they were all about taking care of me. They felt like they had daddy on the trip and daddy should have a good time, daddy should sleep,” he says.

Johar took a month to write Ae Dil Hai Mushkil while taking care of his mother, now 73. “I took a trip to New York with my mum. She had some medical treatments happening for a month-and-a-half; so I dropped everything and went with her. But that month-and-a-half gave me a lot of time to myself and that time resulted in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. I came back, narrated it to the three lead actors, and they were on the film. And I dropped what I was doing before that because I felt more connected to this,” he adds.

When the first promo for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was launched, Johar wasn’t in the office, but was shooting for dance reality show Jhalak Dikhla Jaa. However, all his students were in the office, tracking the film.

“That’s how things are at the Dharma office,” he adds.

Karan Johar and Hiroo Johar.
Karan Johar and Hiroo Johar.

At present, his mother’s health issues are quite worrisome for Johar and this has led to a change in their equation. “I have become the parent in the relationship. It had to happen at some point. My love for cinema comes from her love for music,” says Johar, as he recalled childhood memories of dancing to Elvis Presley songs with her.

His mother is a co-producer on all movies made by Dharma Productions. She is also the glue that keeps Johar together. “I got my sense of rhythm from her. Her influence has been everything, what she eats I like to eat, she was always someone who loved the aesthetics of life, that’s what she has given me. My sense of humour, which I believe I might have, comes from her,” he says.

World of Johar

His phone rings and his assistant reminds him about his next meeting, with his screenwriter-lyricist friend Niranjan Iyengar.

As we wrap up, he reiterates that his entourage is him mostly. “I keep it tiny. You’ll always see me connecting one-on- one. Once you know me you don’t need to get through the world to get in touch with me,” he says.

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The Karan Johar universe, he adds, is not self important. “It’s accessible and it’s easy. It could be your universe as well. It should not be any different from your world. I do this as a job; it’s my life; it’s what I love. And because I do something that attracts the attention of people for right or wrong reasons, that doesn’t mean I should change my core to accommodate my environment,” he says.

And his core is that of a film-maker.

“I want to be remembered as a film- maker. Hopefully it’ll cut through everything else,” says Johar.

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