Karan Johar: On ‘Koffee with Karan’ and taking on the universe

The director-producer discusses the new season of KWK, why he feels he has the best job in the world, and promises more directorial ventures along with a potential legacy-defining project

August 18, 2022 02:37 pm | Updated 06:16 pm IST

Karan: ‘Multi-tasking is to me what spinach is to Popeye. I get my adrenaline and mojo from it, and it keeps me alive.’

Karan: ‘Multi-tasking is to me what spinach is to Popeye. I get my adrenaline and mojo from it, and it keeps me alive.’

Karan Johar is astonished that I’ve flown from Chennai to Mumbai to meet him.

“Really? You came all the way just to talk to me? I’m sorry for the trouble, but I really hope we can make this worth your time then,” he smiles, then assures me that I have his rapt attention, despite several members from the Koffee with Karan team around us. 

The 50-year-old director is swathed in one of his now-customary oversized jackets and even more oversized spectacles, as he does a quick round of interviews between shooting for the seventh season of KWK, his next feature film Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, and promotions for several upcoming productions like Liger and Brahmāstra: Part One.

Karan with his Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani stars, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt

Karan with his Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani stars, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt

Though the Dharma scion has confessed that he doesn’t sleep much — or very well — these days, it is hard to guess that from his instantly infectious energy. He is not a talk show host for nothing. Still, it is tempting to wonder how he winds down from the constant charade that is his everyday life; Karan insists he doesn’t need to, since he revels in keeping busy.

Looking at his last few years in Bollywood makes for a fascinating thought experiment. On one hand, Dharma Productions has churned out several pan-Indian successes and is a true-blue media powerhouse. But on the other hand, Karan’s status as a director – by his own admission – has waned since the heydays of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, K3G or even 2010’s My Name is Khan, his last directorial collaboration with Shah Rukh Khan.

And then of course, there has been all the off-screen drama, from the infamous nepotism debate, to the clamour over him over-sexualising conversations with celebrity guests on his chat show. But does Karan care what people think? Recent episodes of KWK suggest that he does — and strongly at that — given that his monologues seem directly aimed at a section of the audience… and maybe Bollywood.

Yet, it can be argued that the Padma Shri awardee constantly makes a case to be the most-influential name in the Indian film industry today, even as he embarks upon a new decade in his life and career — one that promises to herald more directorials from him — as he continues to balance his two favourite things in life: fatherhood and filmmaking.

Excerpts from an interview:

Has there been any star you have tried to get on the show over the seven seasons, but still haven’t managed to?

Well, I did bring it up once with Rekha ma’am, even as recently as a couple of seasons ago. I was very keen to have her appear on the show, but she wasn’t convinced. But after that, I felt she has such an exotic, beautiful mystery about her… it has to be protected always. So I didn’t push it after that.

Everyone has their favourite ‘Koffee’ episode; one of my personal go-to rewatches is from season six when you host Aamir Khan and end up doing the Rapid Fire alongside him. In it, you reveal who your actual best friend in the industry is: Aditya Chopra. Both of you grew up together and are filmmaker-producers who have shaped modern-day Bollywood… yet, you couldn’t be more different as personalities off-screen. Talk to us about this relationship?

He has been my mentor, my guru, my grounding… my everything. He’s been also my conscience, in many ways, and I think he severely disapproves of many things I do. But I think that he still kind of endures it because of his immense love for me. Ever since I remember, he has been the biggest reason why I am in the movie industry today; I am eternally grateful to him for really pushing me and encouraging me. 

And yes, when I said that he is my actual best friend in Bollywood, I meant it. I mean it today as well. When I’m in a deep crisis, and in the most emotionally fragile moments of my life, I find myself calling him and reaching out to him, because he’s always been such a solid voice of reason for me. 

Many times I also find that my mother calls him and complains about me! Even though we are only a year apart in age, in terms of my respect and love for him, we are many decades apart. When I lost my dad in 2004, the two men I really looked up  to — who have been part of my nurturing and growing process — are Adi and Shah Rukh, and I’m very grateful to have them in my life. 

Will I ever have Adi on KWK… I mean, I think I’m not brave enough to even ask him, right? (laughs)

You get a plethora of feedback after every episode airs; the good, the bad, and of course, the downright ugly. How much of this do you take to heart? Is there a process to weed out the abuse and take in constructive criticism?

So, I don’t know how much of the hate and trolling is actually about the show; it’s really more about the fact that a show like this exists, and has this kind of abandon.

Of course I read all the feedback. I’ve always said that the show is only as good as the guest on the couch. If the guests are in form, that episode will fly. But if sometimes they are having a weaker moment, the show is going to suffer. So there’s very little I can do. The only feedback that I take is figuring out how to keep it tight, not let the conversation meander too much, things like that. 

Karan: ‘The show is only as good as the guest on the couch’

Karan: ‘The show is only as good as the guest on the couch’

A lot of the hate sometimes is entertaining, because I wonder why they are cursing it so much, but also watching it? I read the threads on Twitter and other portals; reels and reels of discourse that people are having about KWK… and I feel very moved and touched. I’m like, that’s a lot of time you have taken out of your lives to write such a long column on something you hated so much. 

Okay, fair enough. But in this new season, you actively address this trolling almost in every episode. After all this time, do you still feed the need to justify your actions to the audience?

I’ll be honest; I’m definitely not justifying anything to anyone, but I feel like I owe it to myself to talk about it. It’s cathartic for me. I feel sometimes, if I don’t talk about it, people may think that I’m actually still affected by it.

Expression is very important. Talking about what bothers you or doesn’t bother you is critical to me; you cannot keep it all within and pretend that you’re above it. I’m not above it for sure. The hate and trolling has bothered and upset me earlier… I am human after all. But then comes a point when you reach indifference, and then amusement, and I’m in that stage right now. So the fact that I can talk about it means that I’m taking it just fine.

Why was the decision taken to get an in-house audience to vote for the Rapid Fire winner? We all enjoyed it when the stars sulked and accused you of favouritism.. ​​Abhishek’s “I am ready to do anything for you, Karannnn” is still iconic.

That was because I genuinely believe that when I’m the host, and I’m watching two people in the Rapid Fire, sometimes I may not be able to have a third-person perspective on who has been better. Now, this audience has brought in a lot of energy on set. We are in a closed room, so the stars can’t see them, but they can still hear them laugh, exclaim, etc. So I kind of also get that feedback on how the show is going. Plus, there’s the waiting percentage which indicates who’s won by how much... I love it! This concept has worked very well this season, and I think we’re going to stick to it.

Karan with Abhishek Bachchan and Preity Zinta on Season 1 of KWK

Karan with Abhishek Bachchan and Preity Zinta on Season 1 of KWK

‘Rocky Aur Rani…’ will be your seventh directorial feature film in almost 25 years. After your dad passed away, you took over Dharma Productions and evolved it into the behemoth that it is today, but did that perhaps put your creative process on the backseat? Have you ever felt that if you hadn’t turned producer (for other directors) and focussed on your filmmaking alone, you’d be more content today?

It does cross my mind occasionally. But the joy I get out of collaborating with so many directors, telling so many stories, working with so many incredibly talented people… I think I would have been miserable if I was just directing my own projects. I think I have always been cut out to doing ten things at one time; I’d go mad if I was just focused on just one aspect. 

Karan’s filmography as director
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)
Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006)
My Name Is Khan (2010)
Student of the Year (2012)
Bombay Talkies (2013) (short film as part of an anthology)
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016)
Lust Stories (2018) (short film as part of an anthology)
Ghost Stories (2020) (short film as part of an anthology)
Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani  (2023)

I like to make a 24-hour-day feel like 48 hours. Multi-tasking is to me what spinach is to Popeye. I get my adrenaline and mojo from it, and it keeps me alive. The fact that I can make so many films, have so many marketing meetings, launches, discussion strategies… all of this keeps me going.

You remarked in a recent interview that the events of the past few years — the pandemic, the negativity, everything else that’s come your way — have made you an angry filmmaker, and that the anger may reflect in one of your scripts. Is that where your recently-announced action film is coming from?

Shah Rukh once told me, many moons ago, that I’d make a great action film. And I went, ‘Huh? I don’t know anything about action! I’ve made the most emotionally-charged family dramas with you, full of love.’ But he said he sees it, and it’s because I have a lot of hate and anger inside me.

Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar

Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar

Maybe I do. I’m not an angry person. But all of us have a quota of emotions within ourselves, be it love, fear, anger… and I think I haven’t expended my quota of anger yet. We always live vicariously through our films, so maybe that angry film is actually going to happen with all the pent-up anger that I haven’t expressed outside as yet.

Is there a germ of an idea you currently have to make that one record-breaking, pan-Indian film, one that will be touted as your masterpiece? If so, will it be a romance?

I don’t know. But I know when it’ll come to me, it will come to me. As of now, it hasn’t.

I don’t think that you can plan a masterpiece that can go down in the archives of Indian cinema. I don’t think the teams of Lagaan or Sholay planned it. They just did their best. They had a story they believed in and told it and it happened. 

So, when I say I haven’t made that one film that I believe should be in the archives, I truly mean it from the bottom of my heart. I haven’t made that film. Am I capable of making it? Yes, I think I am. Have I thought of it yet? No. Will I do so in the future? I hope so.

But I hope I never say that I have a masterpiece idea, because that’s the end of it; it will never become one. The moment you plan a masterpiece, you make the biggest disaster.

‘Liger’ is one of your first big forays into the southern film industry; is the plan to get more involved with filmmakers and actors in the regional industries going forward?

I actually began this journey a while ago with the Baahubali films, and I also presented Shankar and Rajinikanth sir’s 2.0, as well as The Ghazi Attack. So I’ve had my fair share of experience with the southern industry, that I have tremendous regard and admiration for. 

Actors Vijay Deverakonda and Ananya Panday during the promotions of their upcoming movie ‘Liger’

Actors Vijay Deverakonda and Ananya Panday during the promotions of their upcoming movie ‘Liger’

Liger is a co-production with Puri Jagannadh sir and Charmme, and has Vijay Deverakonda in it, who I absolutely love. I think he’s going to really blast the screen; it’s a full-on masala entertainer with Vijay at the helm of it being a bonafide movie star and owning that space. It’s going to be a fun ride for everyone.

Karan, you love the movies so much that your life is like one. Are there any regrets at all looking back at your career?

No! I think I’m blessed, because where else can you sing, dance, laugh and cry and still be at work? I have the best job in the world.

Some of Karan’s upcoming production ventures:
Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives (Season 2)
Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva
Govinda Naam Mera
Mr. & Mrs. Mahi

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