Speaking at the 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, filmmaker-producer Karan Johar said that he is a ‘proud feminist’ who does not see gender when it comes to promoting powerful narratives through the cinematic form.
Johar’s upcoming production, Ae Watan Mere Watan, is a patriotic saga set during the Quit India Movement in 1942. The film stars Sara Ali Khan as a young freedom fighter who starts an underground radio station to counter imperial propaganda during the freedom struggle. The makers launched the film’s poster at the opening ceremony of IFFI in Panaji, Goa. A day later, Johar along with his lead star Sara and director Kannan Iyer discussed the themes and making of the period drama at a live panel and Q&A. They were joined by Aparna Purohit, head of Originals for India and South-East Asia at Amazon Prime Video. Ae Watan Mere Watan is set to premiere directly on the platform in early 2024.
In the past, Johar’s banner Dharma Productions has backed inspiring female-led dramas like Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) and Raazi (2018).
“I’m a proud feminist raised by a strong mother and very, very strong aunts,” Johar said in response to an audience question. “For me, choosing a female-led story is almost an instinct. It’s something I’m just drawn to because, like we said, we live in a vastly patriarchal society. And even in the recent film that I directed, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, it was a commentary I made within that film. The USP of any story, I don’t see by gender. I see by narrative and soul. Ae Watan Mere Watan was once such story that needed to be told.”
Director Kannan Iyer said that in the film, Sara’s character is “inspired by”, but not directly based on, Usha Mehta, a student activist and Gandhian from Bombay’s Wilson College who organized the clandestine Congress Radio (also known as Azad Radio) for a number of months in 1942. She was 22 years old at the time.
Mehta’s valour and ingenuity helped coordinate protest movements against the British, and also kindle feelings of patriotism and dissent in her fellow countrymen.
“We have remained true to the essence of actual events that took place around the Quit India Movement of 1942,” Iyer, who has co-written the script with Darab Farooqui, said. “There was a clandestine radio which was started by young, brave freedom fighters, the main one among them being Usha Mehta. But having said that, we have taken a lot of creative liberties in order to make the story much more engaging for the audience. That’s why I would say Sara’s character is inspired by Usha Mehta, but it is not based on her.”
Sara, a graduate of history and political science from Columbia University, said that there are many heroes of the Indian freedom struggle who haven’t ‘received their due’.
“I’m a history student but I still don’t think I can name you more than 25 freedom fighters on a good day,” the actor said. “And there are many, many more. And the story of sacrifice takes many forms. There is the bravery and the strength that we can visualise, like when we think of Bhagat Singh. But there’s also so many unsung heroes whose sacrifices take the form of just personal strength and valour that’s not necessarily physical, but so much of the mental fortitude required on a daily consistent basis to fight for what you love.”
Johar said they have made the film for the younger generation of today. “Whenever we use the word Gen-Z, there is always something derogatory in that tone. But the kids of today are great! They are more well-researched and intense than we are. They know more about their country than we do. They read much more. They’re all alert. They know about the politics and history of our nation. This is, in every way, a Gen-Z story.”
The session was not without its moments of levity. At one point, Johar ventured that his ‘next mission’ after the release of Ae Watan Mere Watan is to get Sara Ali Khan married. “There is a bit of a Seema Taparia (from Indian Matchmaking) in me. I just can’t help it. I’m that Punjabi aunty that wants to get people together,” the Koffee With Karan host joked.
He also conceded that the lyrics of the song ‘Ishq Wala Love’ — parodied for its cross-vernacular redundancy — made “no sense”. The romantic number was written by Anvita Dutt, and featured in Johar’s 2012 directorial Student of the Year.
“It made absolutely no sense. I remember so many parody videos were made and TVF started their career with a parody video of ‘Ishq Wala Love’,” Johar said, adding that the film’s composers Vishal-Shekhar looked “traumatised” by the lyrics.