Ok, so is Karan Johar going to turn naughty at 40? Actually, far from it because in his quest to set up Dharma Productions as a premium brand, he has lost his sense of fun. If fun means making crisp, uncomplimentary comments on all and sundry, strictly off the record, then sure, Karan is still a fun guy to be with. But if fun is to be equated with a sunny-warm, affable-nice personality, then Karan shed that somewhere on the way.
Karan was once upon a time a generous people’s person. Perhaps the ambition to take Dharma Productions to heights — that his illustrious father Yash Johar didn’t manage to take it to in his lifetime — had something to do with the swift changes one has noticed in Karan. Perhaps the fact that he had to power the banner on his own, without the unflinching, indulgent support of his universally liked dad, also had much to do with it. Karan grew up prematurely, overnight, after Yash Johar succumbed to cancer.
You can see the clear lines of transition in his life when you look at his cinema. As Yash Johar’s young debut-making son who couldn’t have enough of Aditya Chopra’s company, he happily drew from all those who had impressed him with their cinema (Sooraj Barjatya’s grand family sequences included) and made the much-liked, campus-based film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. But it wasn’t all fun — there was depth in the emotions and some very fine writing, much like Karan who was fun but never superficial-frivolous. He was a guy you could rely on; he always had that quality of stability and substance in him. It was there for all to see in his next Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham which again exuded opulence and merry-making bound together by strong relationships (touching on adoption too). Even if he only produced it, it was also there in Kal Ho Naa Ho (directed by his erstwhile chief assistant, Nikhil Advani), this time delicately treading extra-marital territory (in the track with Jaya Bachchan), suicide and sacrifice without burdening the script and taking away the general joviality.
That’s what he has lost after he had to single-handedly take Dharma Productions to its goal of being one of the most prestigious names in showbiz. This was the phase when Karan wanted to be taken seriously and show that he wasn’t all about frivolity and please don’t take him for granted as a person or as a professional. It was like a single woman prickly aware of her vulnerability and keen to keep at bay those who’d take advantage of her situation. When he’d be snowed under building Dharma and juggling various social commitments simultaneously, Karan would uncharacteristically threaten to become a recluse like his pal, Aditya Chopra.
It reflected in his cinema as he talked of “maturing as a filmmaker” and made a mish-mash called Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (to explore extra-marital outings), produced a confused “issue-based” Qurbaan (directed for him by Renzil D’silva) and topped it with My Name Is Khan. What Karan didn’t seem to realise was that even earlier, when his films connected flamboyantly and universally with a much wider audience, his cinema was never fluff alone. He always had the sensibilities to weave in issues that came through the gloss and glamour. His films always had a very fine balance of opulent traditions and progressive thought (girl in love marrying another as Preity Zinta in Kal Ho Naa Ho, boy marrying outside his social strata as SRK and Kajol in K3G, girl dressing up in revealing clothes but not turning vamp as Kareena in K3G).
Issues don’t have to be flaunted; they can creep into a script that is joyous and fulfilling. The writing has to flow naturally and not be distracted by issues. That’s what substantial mainstream cinema is all about.
After being bogged down by his “maturity” which made him take up issues like an art filmmaker but never going the whole hog because of commercial whips, when Karan Johar saw Farah Khan’s unfettered masala film Om Shanti Om, he sighed and longed to go back to making a big fun film. I hope he does just that in Student Of The Year (on release, year end) because knowing Karan, he has the brain and the heart to entertain and elevate, if only he’d shake off the need to seriously tackle issues.
It would be nice to see Karan go back to being naughty and a little dotty too, even if it is at age 40. Happy 40th birthday, Karan.
Bharathi S. Pradhan is editor, The Film Street Journal