It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we’ve never seen a filmmaker like Karan Johar. It isn’t just the films, those unabashed celebrations of very pretty people in very pretty locations shedding very pretty tears as they get their very pretty hearts broken. It’s the way he has positioned himself outside his films, like you can ask him anything, like he’ll tell you everything. Interviewing him feels like catching up with a friend over a beer — a friend who’s flown you first-class to a biergarten in Amsterdam. It’s a bit surreal. But it doesn’t feel like an act. It feels real. Of course, the problem with talking to someone whose life is such an open book is that everyone’s read the story. Many of the anecdotes are familiar. You know he’s been through therapy. You know he was the only kid in his South Bombay neighbourhood who watched Hindi films. You know his new film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil , is based on his experiences with unrequited love. But maybe you don’t know that he hates being called KJo. Or Uncle. Or Sir.
So what does your mother call you?
Karan. My college friends call me Karu, which is the worst. Only in our country can we make a short form for a short name. But otherwise, I’ve never had a pet name all my life. But now, in official meetings, someone will call me KJo. And I’ll judge that person in my head. Just call me Karan. You have some kids who will come through family friends and work in the company [Dharma Productions]. You cross a certain age and you are Uncle. And — pardon my French — but I’ll f*** you if you’re going to call me Uncle.
Is it vanity?
I think so. It’s not like I think I’m a beauty queen. But I feel that if I am called Uncle, my thoughts have to constantly be relevant. It’s not the reminder about my age. It’s the formality. I can’t function with it.
Ae Dil … is a wall-to-wall homage to older films and music. Did it bother you that these references might go over the heads of this younger generation you talk about?
I knew some of it would. But I was hoping the emotional core of the film would tide it through. I hoped that they would like the friend-zoning bit of this girl saying, “I am not attracted to you and I am happy.” I didn’t write Ae Dil … trying to balance everyone’s tastes and sensibilities. If there is honesty in the emotion, it will resonate. If the core honesty fails to connect, then the peripheral elements won’t matter.
The core of the film is something you’ve handled earlier. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai , Kajol’s love for Shah Rukh Khan is unrequited (at least for a while). But this is the first time you deal with this flavour of love from start to finish.
The first time I fell in love, I was in my 20s, and I loved someone right till I was 31. And then I felt that emotion died within me. I wasn’t feeling alive at all. But the second time I fell in love — this was another 7-8 year phase — I realised that while it is heartbreaking and the worst feeling in the world, it made me feel alive. I felt something had woken me up. You can take the power of that feeling and translate it to every other aspect of your life, including your work. You don’t have to get it back. The moment I felt it come to a close — I knew I wouldn’t even be able to handle the friendship at the time; it was that difficult — it got a little messy in my head, which is why I needed to talk to a stranger, like a therapist. That was the zone I was in when I wrote this film. I felt that I needed to hold on to that feeling about the positivity of love.
Have you ever been in a relationship that was a two-way thing?
But both times the other person knew about your feelings towards them.
Yeah, yeah. There was total honesty.
And all this spilled over into Ae Dil … Is Karan Johar no longer a fan of happy endings?
I don’t know about happy endings, because I don’t think, eventually, anything is happy happy. You feel a bout of happiness with good news. Five minutes later, there could be a traffic jam, or a phone call from an irritating relative, or a weird thought, or it could be a tweet that annoys you, and your emotion will flip immediately. I believe happiness is the most overrated feeling in the world.
Has this tonality played a part in the decreasing box office of your films? Ae Dil … will make a little over Rs. 100 crore, but that isn’t much of a target these days for a big movie.
Ae Dil … is an overseas blockbuster and a domestic hit. Could I have done things to make it a bigger hit? Yes. But I can’t write those films anymore. I don’t how to write Kuch Kuch Hota Hai anymore. I was 25 when I made that film. I was being a producer’s son who wanted to give my father and the company a big blockbuster. So there were “designed” moments. There was religion. There was a Muslim character. These were things you were told to work in so that the film would reach a large audience.
So how would you have “designed” Ae Dil … had you been that younger Karan Johar?
I could have pushed the cancer angle. I could have been as emotionally manipulative as I was in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . I remember people exiting the previews of that film and they had mascara running all over. Those days it was considered an achievement to make an audience cry. I chose to make Ae Dil … lighter.
When you are so open about your personal life, do you wonder if some day an interviewer is going to ask you the names of the two people who broke your heart?
Of course they want to ask me, but they won’t ask me because I won’t tell them. There is this constant conjecture about my sexuality but even I have my boundaries. And for various reasons. They could be deeply personal. Or they could be familial. My sense of liberation has definitely happened in the last decade. I am that much more open and liberated about large parts of my personal life, but there are some things that I will not share.
Apparently, the fact that you got botoxed isn’t one of them.
That was a joke. I have not been botoxed. Who botoxes a nose? I said it as a joke and it became a headline. But when I do, I swear I will talk about it.
Have you thought about the fact that your films can be read through a lens of sexuality? In Kuch Kuch …, the “tomboy” is rejected and she has to transform into the hetero-normative idea of female beauty in order to be loved back. In Kabhi Khushi... , the “sensitive” son is cast out by the father, while the macho, cricket-playing stud of a son is cherished…
But those are stereotypes too. It’s not because we feel those things. It’s because that’s our first impulse. Today, it’s not cool to say these things, but your mother has been a housewife, your father has been the one working, Some stereotypes are a the result of your upbringing, so you will have that tomboy that the boys don’t go for. You’ve seen her in your own school, while growing up. Similarly, the girl with long hair is always more beautiful. Because that’s what you saw. Then you grow a brain and because your brain listens to other people, you say, “Now I should not say these things because they are politically incorrect.”
How do you respond to the criticism that your characters don’t seem to need to work? In Kabhi Khushi … Shah Rukh wears a tie and sets out, but what does he do?
I don’t know either. Those days we never gave professions to our actors. Here, Ranbir is an industrialist’s son, doing an MBA to join his father’s business. He gets into music. Maybe he is helped by his father’s money while setting up his own digital music career.
Would these criticisms go away if you set your films in a Lunchbox kind of milieu?
Yes, they probably will think I am doing something new. But what about me? I won’t be happy. I don’t know that world. I wanted to get out of this country and make this film. I am constantly accused of being ‘First World’. So what should I do? I can’t apologise for my environment, upbringing, aesthetic.
Yash Chopra made films about First World problems too. His characters lived in houses with glass roofs and wore coats with fur collars. But people did not seem to mind then.
Because those days people were not writing columns and blogs. There was no social media. We are in a regressive zone of cinema viewing. Yash Chopra’s films were applauded for showing a new facet of human relationships. He was never shown the thumbs down because there was no Facebook and nobody felt the need to fill up a page. They liked the film or disliked it in their own personal capacity. Today, you must have an opinion – every bum on the seat is a critic. I have learnt to live with it.
It’s interesting that you pointedly made the poetess Saba, played by Aishwarya Rai, a minor name in the world of letters.
I didn’t think you’d take Aishwarya Rai seriously as a really good poet. It’s very clear that she’s living on her husband’s alimony.
So this was a decision that came from the casting.
Yes. Had I cast, say, Konkana, maybe Saba would have been more respected. It’s like me. Who’s going to take me seriously if you cast me as a prolific filmmaker who’s made path-breaking cinema? Some of us may do major films in our lifetime but we’ll never enjoy the glory because we’re always going to be glamorous celebrities who judge reality shows, host talk shows.
But surely you see that a show like Koffee With Karan will contribute to this perception of you. The new season just got going, and you asked Shah Rukh to read out a recipe for butter chicken “like somebody who orgasms with loud moaning noises.”
Yes, of course it does. I was told not to do a talk show because it would take away my mystery as a filmmaker. I said, “Why am I being mysterious?” It is not my personality. I am very happy doing these shows. It gives me happiness.
We see you more on TV than on the big screen, despite that scene-stealing performance in Bombay Velvet .
I enjoyed being an actor. I know I can act. But I don’t know if I can stop being me. I have a slightly effeminate quality that creeps up. I have body language that is unusual. I have a demeanour that is larger than life. So you can’t push me into every zone. I’m the devil who wears Prada. You can’t take that away from me. Unfortunately, there are very few parts that could be enacted by me, so I feel like I’ve not been offered anything.
Some people said the controversy around Ae Dil … was a publicity gimmick. Was there any point you felt you have to stand up to them, or to the political powers that brought about this turn of events?
Who would want to go through this stress? I don’t want to speak any more because there’s just so much else involved. But nothing was manufactured. It was genuinely a stress that I and my company and the studio we are attached to went through. Even now I’ve been told you’ve lost an audience because of this, because they’d feel handing over their ticket money to see your film would be anti-national. I walked into conversations saying this and it was bizarre. I just want to believe that my film was well-intended and hopefully everyone feels the same.
Are we in a hyper-national zone where people won’t come out and watch, say, the new Aamir Khan movie because of the controversy around his remarks some time ago?
I don’t think so. I believe that the audience that gives love to films is above anything that is political. Anything creative has never been political for me. Whether it’s Salman, Aamir or Shah Rukh, I think their films will all fly if they are good films. I don’t think anything can stop it. I don’t think anything stopped my film either.
What do you have to say to people who say you keep making romantic dramas all the time?
Usko wohi aata hai . [That’s all he knows.] When have I said I was versatile? The other day, my mother and I got into an argument. Someone asked me, “Karan, why don’t you make a thriller?” My mother answered for me. “He can’t make a thriller. He doesn’t like them.” I got defensive. I said, “How do you know? If someone gives me a really great script, I could make it.” She said, “I don’t think you’ll be good at it.” My mother is somebody who grounds me on a daily basis. She doesn’t think I am capable of anything.
You’ve spoken a lot about your desi influences. What are your favourite international films?
Dead Poets Society moved me. When Harry met Sally,Amélie , The Shawshank Redemption . Everything Almodóvar made. Everything. Also, Woody Allen. Deep love. Intense love. I was at an airport lounge and I saw him there. I went up and said I was a filmmaker from India and a huge fan and can I have an autograph. He looked at me, and after a beat, he said no. I love that I was snubbed by Woody Allen. I will always hold that against him, but I will continue to love him. It’s another instance of one-sided love. I love Iñárritu’s work even though I didn’t like The Revenant . I love Cuarón.
Do you think an Oscar is a necessary goal for Indian cinema?
I’d love to win one, but I’m not going to chase it. I don’t know how to. But I want to make that speech. I’m so dying to say, “This one is for you, India.” I want to be in my tuxedo and have that big tear coming out of my eye, because it will come. I don’t know if I will live to have this dream come true, but I know that speech. I have practised it many times in my head.
Your next film...
Could be anything. Not a thriller. Because my mother doesn’t believe I can make it. But just to prove her wrong, I might.
When was the last time you flew Economy?
When I was 21. I was an assistant on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge . I was very uncomfortable.
Which would you choose? A hit, or a non-performing film that makes people call you a great filmmaker?
If you could date an international film star, who would it be?
I pass. That would be giving away too much.
Complete this sentence. If I woke up and found myself poor, I would…
Shah Rukh Khan is in a career crisis. True or false?
False. He is in a career metamorphosis.
If you had to be a blue-collar worker, what job would you do?
That’s not blue-collar.
What is blue-collar?
Are you serious? You’re really living up to your stereotype now.
No, no. It’s something I’ve read but never knew what it meant. I guess that’s my Paris Hilton moment today.
If not a filmmaker, what would you be?
A fashion designer.
The last film you saw in a regional language.
Premam . I loved it. I love that director. Loved his Neram too.
If you could make a film in a South Indian language, which language would it be and who’d be the star?
I like Vikram very much. I think he’s got something about him. So the film would probably be in Tamil.
If you could be reborn with a superpower, that would be...
The ability to tell the future.
What was your biggest dream growing up?
To be famous.
Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’s cinema critic.