Karan Johar: The man, the cinema and the persona

With 'Student of the Year-2' all set to hit the big screen on Friday (May 10), a look at Karan Johar's journey in Bollywood, pop culture and his own persona.

 |  6-minute read |   09-05-2019
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Despite directing a handful of films that place him, at best, somewhere between being a reasonably passable storyteller and a competent craftsman, Karan Johar nonetheless is now seen as someone whose mere association guarantees a shot at stardom.

It’s not like Johar is the only A-list name who can manage to do that — in fact, a Sanjay Leela Bhansali or a Rohit Shetty could deliver the same.

But what makes Johar different is, whether one agrees or not, there might not be too many contemporary Hindi filmmakers who could match up to him when it comes to leaving an impression on popular culture.

main_karan-johar-at-_050819072552.jpgIn Fashion: There's no denying Karan Johar’s impact. But is it really due to his film-making or smart branding and PR? ((Photo: India Today))

Ever since his first film, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) — a teenybopper love story centred around college students that was realistic enough, despite being based in a location that literally did not exist — Johar has come to be identified with a certain degree of panache. Over the years, Johar has also transformed into a brand that transcends the definition of a traditional Hindi film producer-director. He has a successful television chat show, his production house is amongst the biggest in the trade, he makes it a point to be seen at some of the world’s biggest fashion weeks and is associated with a few of the biggest movies in recent times.

There is no denying Johar’s impact — but is it really thanks to his films he has directed and produced or is the extent of his influence more of a product of smart PR and great branding? 

As a filmmaker, Johar’s arrival coincided with the transition of the Bombay film industry into the global dream machine called 'Bollywood'. 

The transformation has commenced with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) — a film that Johar made his bones on as an assistant to Aditya Chopra, where the ‘cool’ factor still had a desi heart at its core. But it changed finally with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 the film could be described as a 'typical Hindi film', but Johar spun it around in the same way one of his idols, Sooraj Barjatya, did with a village-based story of his grandfather Tarachand Barjatya’s Nadiya Ke Paar (1982). The way Nadiya Ke Paar transformed into the more urban Hum Aapke Hain Koun…? (1994), Johar made the Yash Chopra-esque Kuch Kuch Hota Hai somewhat slicker by setting the first half in a fantasy land-like college.

This bestowed upon Johar the mantle of being Bollywood’s smart-thinking filmmaker — someone who could make the local turn into global, without being apologetic about it.

main_kuch-kuch-hota-_050819071834.jpgKuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998): Karan Johar learnt to be local and go global, simultaneously and unapologetically. (Photo: Twitter/ @taran_adarsh)

This was also a period where access to Aditya Chopra was not possible, Farhan Akhtar was yet to arrive, Laagan (2001) and the (re) discovery of Ashutosh Gowariker had not happened, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali was not elevated to the point of veneration. Johar had the flair of combining his lineage (he is the son of the late Yash Johar, a well-respected producer), his pedigree of having grown up on Yash Chopra’s films, with his storytelling flair — and consequently, he became the bridge between the old Hindi cinema and the shiny new Bollywood. 

In the last few years, Johar, to the mind of this writer, has lost a bit of belief in his kind of cinema.

Before going further, one needs to be clear about what ‘Karan Johar cinema’ is all about.

Johar’s narrative has been about people finding themselves in the wrong emotional plane at the wrong time.

This trait makes them seek some emotional acceptance, and they don’t care if that comes in the shape of a lie. One can see how Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dev in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) and Ayaan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), all want a reassuring lie from people who might not reciprocate their feelings in the same form. The punch that Johar packed in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna — which remains by far his best film — is missing from his more recent work. One reason could also be that Johar — like most successful popular Hindi filmmakers — is content telling the same story ad nauseam, at least up until now.

Johar’s next, Takht — a historical set in the Mughal era — is also the first film he is directing that is not written by him.

One wonders how much of Johar’s filmography would have changed, had he stuck to the original ending he had envisioned for Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. He had felt that Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) and Maya (Rani Mukherji) might not have their happily ever after and although they get together in the end, after leaving their respective spouses, Rhea (Preity Zinta) and Rishi (Abhishek Bachchan), they eventually drift away.

main_karan-johar-col_050819074707.jpgDev in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (L), Ayaan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (C), Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (R) — Typical KJo characters. (Collage: DailyO)

A few days ago, as he introduced Tiger Shroff, Tara Sutaria and Ananya Panday on his talk show Koffee With Karan, who also happen to be the actors in his forthcoming production Student of the Year 2, Johar mentioned how the prequel was his way of responding to a midlife crisis. As he turned 40, Johar felt the need to make a film that made him feel young — that is why he made Student of the Year

This is not an uncommon phenomenon when it comes to filmmakers. The most famous example that comes to mind is the Swedish great Ingmar Bergman, who, upon hitting midlife, faced ageing and death via two of his seminal films — Wild Strawberries (1957) and Seventh Seal (1957).

Of course, Johar is not that kind of filmmaker and one doesn’t expect such films from him. But if the two filmmakers Johar looks up to, Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra, made one of their all-time great films, Sangam (1964) and Daag (1973) around the time they turned 40, the crisis debilitating Karan Johar is something else.

Also read: 5 reasons why we love to hate Karan Johar


Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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