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A roller coaster of emotions

With two hit films behind him, director Karan Johar wants to make diverse and different movies but feels that the audience mindset should be ready for it first, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

"Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" ... a runaway success.

AT AGE 30, filmmaker Karan Johar has two runaway successes in "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" and "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham". He is producing "Kal Ho Na Ho" directed by Nikhil Advani with Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, but also working on a script for the film that he hopes to start directing in November 2003. Decisive, articulate, clear-headed and ambitious, Johar wants to make a whole range of films from thrillers to comedies. But one step at a time... as he explains in this candid interview. Excerpts:

With your affluent, urban background and public school education, do you feel that there is a contradiction between the kind of person you are and the kind of films you make?

Ever since I can remember I've been obsessively in love with mainstream Indian cinema — Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Hrishikesh Mukherji, Yash Chopra... I have been moulded by the cinema I watched. Today, as a filmmaker, I see myself as a viewer first. In fact I make the kind of films I like to see. So I don't have to alter my overall thinking to accommodate any scene or situation. I want to make the kind of cinema. I enjoyed as a child — with the madness, glamour, and grandeur of the emotions — the whole roller coaster ride from laughter to trauma and tears. I wanted my first film to make you laugh, cry, go back feeling that you want to fall in love.

I wanted a saga for my second, the kind I had loved in "Kabhi Kabhie", dealing with parent-child relationships. The posters of all those big stars glittering on a banner had entranced me in childhood. I said one day I will make a film with big stars standing together in one frame. I integrated both ideas in "K3G".

"Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" ... Johar roped in six of India's most popular actors.

Fantasies apart, is there also something of the real you in them?

I am very close to my parents. "K3G" has my thoughts about them — why did I stop hugging my father when I was 15 and why your mother is your best friend, but you suddenly put up this wall before your father. "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" was about first love and heartbreak, yes, that happened to me in college.

Do you think your generation is anywhere near evolving a distinct style as in a Raj Kapoor or a Manmohan Desai?

Guru Dutt or Raj Kapoor evolved through a body of work. You can't talk of a contemporary director's style if he has made only two or three films.

When Hrishikesh Mukherji made his first film, didn't you know he was into something different?

Not at once. Only when he made six films. Now you know that Mani Ratnam has a certain way of treating his songs, background score and characters. One didn't recognise it in "Mauna Ragam". You know Farhan Akhtar's "Dil Chahta Hai" is different, but you don't know whether this is a style with his stamp, or his first burst of energy on celluloid. Hmm... in a strange way you can say Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a certain sense of music which comes across in the three films he has made so far, whether it is "Khamoshi" that had a Goan touch, or "Hamdil De Chuke Sanam" that had a Gujarati feel, and now "Devdas" with its Bengali flavour. And Sooraj Barjatya. His characters have a saccharine sweetness. The Barjatyas are like that — polite, gentle, dignified.

To develop a style you need not have only a body of work but variety as well. You are yet to try anything very new.

Yes. I am. I wanted my production house to walk before running. I need to be streamlined, build my infrastructure. My father set up this company, we have gone through failure. With "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" we re-emerged, with "K3G" we established ourselves. I do want to make all kinds of movies because I have watched all kinds of movies. (Smiling) When I charge I will charge in every direction!

What kind of movies?

(In a rush) A comedy. A period film, in my own way. A film that breaks international barriers. I'm dying to make a thriller. I have grown up on Agatha Christie. I'd love to make a "Gosford Park" where we get so entangled in the emotional web of each character that the murder is forgotten. Just lovely! But when I make a different kind of film, the audience mindset should be ready for it. Over the past five years niche films have begun to train audiences. A "Chandni Bar" would have gone unnoticed before, but it came at the right time and created an awareness. It's up to Madhur Bhandarkar to follow it up. Ramgopal Varma, poor fellow, doesn't stop trying. The new multiplex theatres are pulling in a slightly more upmarket audience who are willing to try a different kind of cinema. Yes, it is a limited audience, but it is there, so make films on a viable budget. Of course you have to release a "Leela" differently, not like a "K3G". A lot of people will have to succeed before more filmmakers gain confidence to go ahead with such ventures. I think in the next five years I am seeing a clean up act in Indian cinema, mainstream or niche. The substandard stuff is going out of the window. Hopefully, in 20-25 years, we shall be back in a golden age, to the quality we saw in the 1950s. Meanwhile, we are still recovering from the 1980s fiasco, when Indian cinema slumped to its lowest ebb.

Is there a place for writers in Indian cinema the way it is developing now?

We need writers more than anything else in the world, who know their work must be seen by an audience. We have amazing literary works in many languages, which can be adapted for the screen. Filmmakers like Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) and Ashutosh (Gowarikar) read a lot of novels. I've started doing the same because I am searching for the kind of depth that you can portray in your own way on celluloid.

Why do you think the family has come back in a big way in Indian cinema?

There is no faith now, East or West. So we are all trying to go back to our roots. In a way it is sad that lack of trust in humanity is making everyone go back to parents and families as the only source of unconditional support. Even marital relationships have reached their ebb and everyone finds shelter in families with the result that the family theme is favoured the world over.

Especially when they come with exaggerated emotions and sentimental trappings. A film like "Beautiful Mind" is Hollywood all through but not without finesse in depicting relationships. But we...

(Cutting in) I was amazed to see audiences in France and Scandinavia weeping uncontrollably over "K3G". In the scene where father and son weep together I look at their faces and it's like they have never... they can't... probably don't understand it, yet it touches them. It IS melodramatic, it IS exaggerated. But I've tugged at their heartstrings. Finesse? That needs time. Filmmakers will evolve as audiences evolve. In 2002, for the first time audiences are revolting against the mass mediocrity churned out week after week. They are saying no, we're NOT coming into the theatres. I myself will have to make something different from my earlier films to draw them in, so will Bhansali, Akhtar and Gowarikar. More filmmakers will have to do that and films will eventually make headway.

As in "K3G", the lavishness too seems a fixed component.

I wanted to celebrate Indian cinema, to represent all that Indian cinema stands for — the emotional graph, romance, opulent sets, songs, music. The lavishness had to do with the kind of film I was making.

What about "Devdas" and even "Ashoka"?

People did say "Devdas" was over-ostentatious. "Ashoka" would have been tremendous if it had stuck to its genre and made like "Umrao Jaan". It started as a niche film, went mainstream and got lost midway.

We have good actors in Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan but they are not the legends Bachchan and Dilip Kumar were. And where are the fine actresses? So, is the Indian film industry less star dependent at this point?

It is more film dependent. We will not have an Amitabh anymore, stars are too approachable and available for the mystery and mystique of legends. Everybody has got quite a jolt now and a Shah Rukh will start taking risks as he did in his early films. Aamir has broken the mould several times, but every actor wants to do that now, they are open to negative roles as well.

Actresses? There was a time when we had ten of them round the block, all brilliant. Think about it. Do you consider any of the girls today even half a Madhubala, a Nutan or a Meena Kumari?

This is a country with the most intriguing political situations but Indian cinema has not dared to explore them.

How can you make films if their release means stress and tension, legal battles, censorship hassles, bans and riots? For heaven's sake in my little `feel good' films if I can have a problem over a simple scene with the national flag...

Iran makes strong political films despite stringent censorship.

What you end up doing here is find a solution that dilutes the impact of the theme you started out with. Political parties may object because you've offended certain sections. With a strong theme you have to make bold statements, express your point of view. I believe Mani Ratnam's "Kannathil Mutthamittal" didn't go down well with the masses. "Iruvar" too ran into trouble. Look, with the blandest subject in the world filmmaking is not easy, especially in India. Just try to make a film that will appeal to the man in Bihar right up to the Indian in New York and see that it contributes to your trade, your fraternity, and yet somewhere it reflects your sensibility...

Can Bollywood come up with an international hit like "Crouching Tiger... "? Remember we are a Third World country. We can get only that much appreciation, no more. Ang Lee had to establish himself with a "Sense and Sensibility" before "Crouching Tiger... ". The West will consider a "Life is Beautiful" as something lesser than a "A Beautiful Mind". Where is that poor man who created the big stir with "Life is Beautiful"? The West recognises Bollywood now ...

I think they are reacting to the kitschiness of it, to how many costumes in a song sequence. They are not looking at the depth of our emotions, content, or performances. The fact that "Lagaan" had five songs must have excited them a hell of a lot though it had somewhere an aesthetics and a sensibility to arouse international fervour. But at the end of the day they will look at us for just those differences in our cinema. Yes, we have to create cinema that will make a stir in the world. But first let us make good cinema for our own country. If it crosses over, well and good!

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