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Karan Johar | Billion-rupee man

There’s no better person to analyse the secret of his success than Karan Johar himself
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First Published: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 12 53 AM IST
Karan Johar, 41, is among the most successful second-generation film-makers. Photo courtesy: Karan Johar
Karan Johar, 41, is among the most successful second-generation film-makers. Photo courtesy: Karan Johar
Updated: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 10 44 PM IST
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s fate was sealed on the opening night, when an esteemed member of the Rs.100-crore movie club predicted that the Karan Johar production would storm the box office.
Johar was poring over negative reviews with the movie’s director, Ayan Mukerji, when he got a text message from actor and producer Aamir Khan. “Aamir gave us a very big figure about which we were, like, are you nuts,” Johar says. It turned out Khan, whose Ghajini and 3 Idiots mopped up Rs.100 crore and more, wasn’t playing guessing games. “He was bang on more than anybody else,” Johar says. “We were like, yippee, he is the ISI standard of excellence, so let’s have another glass of wine.”
Defying all expectations, Yeh Jawaani is headed for the record books. Produced by Johar’s banner Dharma Productions and distributed in India by Disney UTV, the Rs.40-crore Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone starrer has survived lukewarm reviews to emerge as one of the highest-grossing Hindi films of all time. It opened on 3,200 screens on 31 May, mopped up Rs.104 crore between Friday and Sunday, according to veteran trade analyst Vinod Mirani, and kept soaking it up in subsequent weeks. Its estimated net earnings, as of 24 June, are Rs.183.19 crore.
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‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’ and ‘Agneepath’ are two of the most successful films produced by Johar
Johar’s analysis of the stupendous showing is that the stars, both in the film and out of it, worked in its favour. “Ayan was keen on making a simple love story with all the prerequisites that our production house is also known for—the music, the dance, the youth factor, the energy and glamour,” he says. “Ranbir had given a big success out of a slightly unusual movie, Barfi!, Deepika coming into her own post-Cocktail, the thumping soundtrack, the right timing—everything fell into place. But I would be lying if I said I expected this kind of a response.”
There is also the fact that Yeh Jawaani goes the whole hog on the old-fashioned movie romance angle and is stuffed with beautiful and young people, mushy moments, and 1,000-watt song-and-dance sequences. “Post-2001, there were only two-three love stories, we stopped making them,” Johar observes. “Yeh Jawaani revisited the genre that was lying vacant.”
Yeh Jawaani has leapt to the top of the Rs.100-crore club, whose members include 3 Idiots, Ek Tha Tiger, Ghajini, Dabangg, Rowdy Rathore and Ready. It isn’t impossible to make what seems to be a sinful amount of money, Johar says, given the increase in the number of movie screens as a result of digitization and aggressive pre-release promotions.
Is there a replicable formula? “Yes, there is, but you might just about be covering your costs,” he says. “When you come during a celebratory period, like Diwali or Christmas, you have a humungous movie star and a project screaming mainstream—what you call an event film—you cannot not achieve that number. But the formula to making a really fantastic film doesn’t exist. A film like that comes only once in five years.”
Johar entered the club in 2010 with Agneepath, directed by Karan Malhotra. It posted around Rs.115 crore. Since he turned producer in 2003 with Kal Ho Naa Ho after directing two titles under his family banner, the 41-year-old film-maker has displayed an astute sense of what audiences want to watch, and need to be watching. Johar’s transformation from second-generation film-maker to a one-man mini studio testifies to the power of family-run companies to teach a few lessons about popular Hindi cinema to the suits flitting through Bollywood.
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Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, Johar’s friends and actors
His name on a movie poster guarantees, at the very least, a parade of desirable people, clothes and locations. It could be said that Dharma’s golden run represents the triumph of commerce over creativity. It could also be said that the banner understands and influences the post-liberalization generation’s aspirations and consumption patterns (personified by the presence of 1990s poster boy Shah Rukh Khan in several Dharma movies).
“The forte of Dharma is that it makes love stories with which Indians can identify,” says Mirani, which is why Johar’s adultery drama, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), missed its mark. “The film didn’t need stars but logic. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband for no reason and a father who brings home whores,” Mirani says.  
“Karan’s publicity skills are also very good. He had limited himself to a couple of actors earlier. Now, he has not only opened his doors to everybody but he also also gives breaks to newcomers,” he says.
One of the trademarks of Dharma, which was set up by Karan Johar’s late father Yash Johar, is its skew towards the young and the young at heart. Yash Raj Films might have set up a division called Y Films to make movies for the sizeable Indian cinema-going youth, but arguably nearly every Dharma production targets the urban, urbane, affluent, fun-obsessed adolescent and young adult who laps up the cheerful colours, designer clothes and accessories, gossamer love stories, and slangy dialogue.
"Despite my father, I was disconnected from the movie industry—nobody around me really watched Hindi movies. All the music we heard was George Michael and Madonna."
“I am obsessed by youth,” Johar says. “Throughout my 20s, all I did was to make three films. I assisted on Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and then I made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.... I had studied for a BCom (bachelor of commerce) and studied French for six years. I hadn’t done anything adventurous. I feel the loss of experiences in my younger days and I try and compensate for that by hanging around a lot of young people.”
Dharma is swarming with youthful types and is a training ground for assistant directors, some of whom have gone on to direct films for their boss. “I wanted to make my version of High School Musical, so I made Student of the Year,” Johar says. “It is a conscious, calculated decision to cater to younger audiences.”
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Hrithik Roshan in a still from ‘Agneepath’
Johar wasn’t too old himself, just 32, when he took over Dharma after his father died in 2004. Like many of his peers, he was born into a film family and he converted an accident of birth into a business advantage. Yash Johar, who entered movie production in the 1940s, went on to produce such films as Dostana (1981) and the original Agneepath (1990). However, Karan Johar grew up in south Mumbai, far away from the city’s north where most of the dream factory is concentrated. He lived in Malabar Hill and grew up at a time when Hindi movie culture hadn’t breached the invisible walls that separate the city’s more genteel neighbourhoods from its brasher suburbs.
For a while, Johar “play-acted at being a snob”, he says. “Despite my father, I was disconnected from the movie industry—nobody around me really watched Hindi movies. All the music we heard was George Michael and Madonna. I was trying to fit in, but how was I to tell them that I was dancing to Hindi film songs or watching a Hindi film a day?”
Aditya Chopra, himself a second-generation movie geek, forced Johar to confront his true self. Chopra, Johar and film distributor Anil Thadani hung out as adolescents and had the privilege of watching movies ahead of their release at previews. Johar recalls: “I had a take on every movie, which Adi (Aditya Chopra) used to call a ‘townie take’ (townie is slang for a person from a south Mumbai neighbourhood). I was going to France to do an advanced course in French, and he said, why are you doing this, you are cut out to make Hindi movies. I saw reason, eventually.”
Like the other movie kids, Johar worked with both old friends and new talent. His family connections eased his access to A-listers, while his business smarts helped in forging long-term distribution deals with Disney UTV and Eros Entertainment. Disney UTV and its earlier avatar, UTV Motion Pictures, have co-produced many Dharma films and locally distributed each one except Agneepath (that was handled by Thadani’s AA Films).
Yeh Jawaani has been the most profitable venture between Dharma and Disney UTV, and has helped overcome the indifferent response to Kurbaan, We Are Family and Gippi. “We had gone way over budget for Yeh Jawaani, so we needed somebody we could be comfortable with,” Johar says. “UTV has its act together. I am glad we did Yeh Jawaani with them, because we wanted to give them that one big success. It makes me feel that there is an equal give and take.”
"My whole argument with ‘Dostana’ was to bring the conversation out... I am not a politically opinionated person, but what bothers me, I put out there"
Disney UTV has no hesitation associating with Dharma because of Johar’s personal worth, says company CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur. “We do deals with people with whom we know there is quality control and a sense of the movies being made,” Roy Kapur says. “Some films might not have done too well, but whatever we have done in the past, Yeh Jawaani has led us into positive territory.”
Johar also brings several marketing ideas to the table, Roy Kapur says. “Karan is savvy and, unlike a lot of people, is not deluded about what he is making.”
Movie marketing isn’t about having a Rs.10-crore budget, Johar says. “We have a tiny unit at Dharma, there are about five of us who do everything,” he says. “What we have achieved in our cottage way has taken us very far.” Part of that achievement comes from being obsessed with every aspect of the business. “I love my office, I love the work I do,” Johar says. “I can’t bear to be on holiday. If I am not doing something constructive, I feel I am not doing anything.”
One of his obsessions is movie reviews, which can be disapproving of Dharma produce. Johar claims to read everything, from the critiques to the comments below them. “I am obsessed with my iPad on opening night,” he says. “I see the number of stars given to a review first. Three stars are neither here nor there—three stars are two in denial. Many three stars are also four in denial.” Does he need to, given the fact that so many filmgoers seem to be ignoring the reviews? “I can’t throw back the box office to a reviewer,” he says. “Initially, you do feel vulnerable and sensitive, but post-Monday, you have to grow a brain about it.”
His learning from unfavourable feedback is that his productions sometimes suffer from the Dharma tag. “We are often told, you make bubble-gum films, but have made only one bubble-gum film, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” he says. “Or, you make family films. I made only one, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. We get branded a lot, and sometimes our films bear the brunt of it.”
Dharma gets a lot of unofficial branding for its unusual handling of homosexual themes. In its own fumbling way, the banner has championed queer friendliness, whether it’s the “Kantaben sequence” from Kal Ho Naa Ho, in which a maid misunderstands the friendliness of the male leads, or Dostana (2008), in which two men pretend to be gay.
Johar’s contribution to the omnibus film Bombay Talkies (2013) was about a gay man who outs the closeted husband of his colleague. The segment features a gay kiss, unusual in Hindi cinema, and certainly eyebrow-raising in a project as high profile as Bombay Talkies. “My whole argument with Dostana was to bring the conversation out,” Johar says. “I was very excited when I directed my segment of Bombay Talkies because I could work outside my comfort zone. I am not a politically opinionated person, but what bothers me, I put out there. My cinema is reflective of who I am—bad or good, that’s who I am.”
Johar has used several “coming out” devices, says Shohini Ghosh, professor at the mass communication research centre at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, and a commentator on popular culture. “He used successfully a cinematic ploy inspired by Bend it Like Beckham wherein the queer is rendered visible through the eyes of the homophobe. In Bend It, it’s the mother of Jules who thinks the women are lovers, and much of the humour comes from this misreading; in Kal Ho Naa Ho, Kantaben is a homophobe but she is the one who is able to see what most people would see as homo-social bonding,” Ghosh says.
Johar has, “in his own way and with his own brand of films”, pushed the envelope. “For example, in Dostana, the homophobe (Kirron Kher) has a change of heart and the climax is Bollywood’s first gay kiss. The Hollywood film from which much of the plot is inspired couldn’t cross that bridge but Johar and (director) Tarun Mansukhani do,” she adds.
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Johar: Photo: Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times
It was easier for Johar to push the envelope for Bombay Talkies, which he didn’t produce, than in his own projects, for which he wears the two-feathered hat of director and producer. “It is the dichotomy of the situation that causes your cinema to take a beating—it came in my way for Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna,” he says. “I started off making a brave film about adultery, but I ended up making a hotchpotch. As a producer, I got worried about my expenditure. When I am a producer, I am green-lighting what I think is viable.”
Johar’s sense of what is worthy or unworthy of attention has especially paid rich dividends on television, for which he hosted the chat show Koffee With Karan and appeared as a judge on shows like India’s Got Talent and Jhalak Dikhla Jaa. The association boosts his movie promotions—conversations with actors on Koffee With Karan were timed with the release of Dharma movies in which they were appearing, while the ongoing season of Jhalak Dikhla Jaa featured a performance from Yeh Jawaani’s Ranbir Kapoor and fellow judge Madhuri Dixit, who makes an appearance in one of the movie’s songs.
But behind the professional pursuit, there is often a personal longing.
“I have been obsessed with being a member of the media, it was on my list of things to do in life,” Johar says. “I felt I had the ability to say something irreverent without offending people. I speak so much to these movie stars I might as well get paid for it.” A new season of Koffee With Karan is scheduled to go on air on Star World in October.
He can give professional television anchors a run for their ratings, but Johar doesn’t plan to extend his involvement with the small screen. “I don’t get the medium, I don’t get the TRP (television rating points) madness,” he says. “I can’t do week after week, the rising and dwindling numbers. I take a pill for blood pressure every morning in any case. Cinema has taken enough of a toll on me.”
Apart from working on the script of a Partition-era romance that he will direct, Johar is preparing for Anurag Kashyap’s forthcoming Bombay Velvet. Johar plays Dosoo Karaka, a feisty Parsi journalist who chronicled Mumbai from the 1940-70s. “I have always wanted to act in one film—it’s been the only thing left to do in the film domain,” he says. “It’s my bungee-jumping act.”
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Keep it simple (and) stupid
Never mind what the trade pundits tell you. The main ingredient in the Rs.100-crore hit formula is simplicity. The louder the hype, the more expensive the mounting, the neater the packaging, the brighter the movie star, the simpler the movie.
Some of them are heavily dressed-up versions of B-centre cinema, such as Ghajini (vendetta flick with memory loss twist), Rowdy Rathore (superhero policeman on one-man mission with cartoon-style violence), Son of Sardaar (cartoon-style violence with Punjab setting), Ek Tha Tiger (action movie with spy angle), Singham (rowdy cop movie with rural-versus-urban twist), Dabangg (rowdy cop movie laced with irony) and Agneepath (old-fashioned bash-in-the head-vendetta).
The broader the comedy and the higher the rate of pratfalls, the better the opportunity to win over audiences divided by regions, languages, caste, religion, income levels and cultural backgrounds. So Bol Bachchan is like Golmaal 3, which is like Ready, which is also Son of Sardaar, in a way.
Complexity, ambiguity, tension, debate, dissent—any hint of trouble ahead of the inevitable triumphant ending isn’t going to result in Rs.100 crore at the end of the theatrical run. Any anomalies will have to be initially balanced and eventually outweighed by a conclusion that will be acceptable to the hundreds of thousands of highly differentiated filmgoers.
Rancho of 3 Idiots is the most conformist of heroes despite every unsubtle attempt by the film-makers to convince you otherwise. He is a boy genius who tops his class (go figure). By the end, he has creative satisfaction, several lucrative patents, a cool pad in Ladakh and a conventionally attractive woman who loves him despite his evident lack of interest in her. A movie that attacks the results-oriented Indian education system finds many other ways to peddle the message that in order to be a hero, you must be successful.
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani tries to stray off the beaten track (it values friendship over family ties, celebrates the virtues of alcohol and other mind-altering substances and appears to be making a push for individual choice) but eventually sticks to the straight and narrow, like its leading man. Its morality is so conventional—conservative, even—that it’s hardly surprising that the movie is a giga-crore earner. The itinerant hero comes home at last, the woman who patiently loves him is rewarded, the sassy female friend settles for matrimony with an unattractive, anxious type, the risk-taking male friend gets to nurse loneliness along with his drink in a corner.
The biggest marquee names have powered all the titles that are tagged Rs.100-crore earners in the last few years, proving that audiences remain star-struck to the point of being blind to a movie’s obvious shortcomings and illogicality. Only a few movies in the Rs.100-crore movie club have dared to occasionally step out of line. Anurag Basu’s Barfi! is deeply derivative of Chaplin comedies and its pairing of the mute man with the mentally challenged woman is sad rather than uplifting, but it smoothly transports viewers into a fantastical world filled with love and lightness. Dabangg is a clever and irony-laced update of the rowdy cop movie that constantly upends genre conventions—superheroic leading man, love at first sight and blacker-than-black villain are balanced by dysfunctional families and a commentary on the Indian film hero and small-town cinephilia.
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First Published: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 12 53 AM IST
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