Big daddies, big budgets and cartoon-strip kitsch — is Karan Johar ever going to grow up? Jerry Pinto comes up screaming for air from a survey of Bollywood’s saccharine king
There are two narratives of success in Hindi cinema. The first is that of the struggler. Armed with nothing more than good looks and talent, the struggler arrives and makes the rounds of studios. He is insulted, rejected, spurned, but he never gives up. The other is that of the insider, the super-cool narrative of refusals and oh-god-don’t-force-me-to-do-this... and then the huge success.
Karan Johar’s trajectory falls into the latter. His good friend Aditya Chopra pushed him to do something or the other — handle the wardrobe? take spot boy attendance? — on one of those big Chopra movies and the little monster was born [hohoho].
Is that being harsh?
He is a very successful young man. He started off with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which was a fun film with young people, even if it was a bit silly. And because he had such connections — his father was Yash Johar, his best friends were Shahrukh Khan and Kaajol — he could get what he wanted while he was making it. In his second film, the nauseating Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, he seemed to be playing it very safe. Let’s take every big star you can think of. Let’s take some smaller pretty people. Let’s put in Big Daddy Bachchan and let’s pair him with Big Mummy Bachchan and then mount a few songs in perfect colour-coordinated symmetry. Then he made Kal Ho Na Ho, which had Jaya Bachchan [I loathe this new Jaya Bachchan] who is always a bit of a pain, but it impressed my America-returned friends who thought it was so cool that the stars drank the right kind of coffee and went to the Hamptons for weekends.
(The Bachchans? They’re legacy too, part of Karan’s inheritance. His father made a clutch of movies of which the only ones you can remember are Dostaana (Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha vie for the hand of Zeenat Aman) and Agneepath (Amitabh throws away his best asset by faking another voice but manages a National Award). By those standards, he’d be small fry but Yash Johar was very close to Yash Chopra and that helped.)
Then Karan wrote and produced Kaal which was a stupid horror movie which neither followed the classical rules of horror movies nor broke them with panache. The best scene was the first item song. The most frightening moment came when Shahrukh Khan grew pectoral muscles that have not been seen since.
Now he’s made Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna which makes Kaal seem like a Wajda masterwork. To paraphrase a friend’s acerbic comment: “KANK is meant to be mature and unconventional. So, if your spouse doesn’t give you enough attention (she’s earning money, bringing up a kid and has your mother living in her house), and you’ve hurt your leg (and presumably not got the kind of massive sports insurance they have in the US), you can hang out drinking nasty milk coffee-substitutes (American lattés) with someone else’s wife because she’s sulking because she can’t have children and can’t love the very nice man she decided to marry. Then you shag her [Shag! Horrible word. They make love.]. She leaves her husband soon after his dad dies and he’s got no one else.
You have some rock song favoured by men with hairy arses and repeat scenes from KHNH like a Basant Movies mythological reusing its sets. Throw in some white slappers for effect…”
The earlier Karan Johar films were about nice people. Stars are always nice people. This is the assumption that you make in the Barjatya-Chopra-Johar (henceforth, the Barchopar) school of filmmaking [This essentially completes the Hindi filmdom trio]. Even when they’re behaving like the most impossible shits — the Amitabh figure in Mohabbattein who drives his daughter to suicide, the Amitabh figure again in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham who squashes his wife and children each time they differ from him — the assumption is that we should like them.
But there’s a problem. The three young Bachopars are impossibly regressive. All three of them have had every benefit their parents could confer on them. They’ve been abroad. They’ve had freedom to make choices about their marriages. They’ve breezed into Bollywood simply because of their DNA. When they started thinking about their first films, all the goodwill that Papa had acquired began to be put into operation on their behalf. The best stars? Naturally. The best music directors? Of course. The best distributors to put the films into the best cinema halls? Phit-phaat.
What do they then go and do? Karan Johar makes Archie comics. He does his own telly show, Koffee with Karan, and he has all his favourite stars in and he talks to them in the honeyed accents of a gurgling fan. He offers them coffee hampers with charming irony — oh look, we could buy the company that’s sponsoring this show but they’re going to give you an ittle-wittle chweechie hamper. And look, look, me the little boy with the peculiar voice and the odd looks who would never ever get a job on the telly if I weren’t my daddy’s son, look I’m on television. And look at all those poor geeks pressing their noses against the glass and trying to get into our charmed circle. Don’t they know what we cost, Shahrukh, even for an appearance of a few minutes?
(Sidebar: if push comes to shove and Shahrukh splits with the Chopras, as seems to be imminent, will he also lose Karan? Or will love triumph?) [I loved this and especially the intended pun on love]
When he decides to push the envelope in his next film, Karan sets it in New York. Gosh, talk about taking risks. Next, he puts in a whole bunch of stars including the by-now standard Bachchans (the little one dancing grotesquely, as he always does, because no one has found the right idiom for him to express himself; the older one now only surprising when he does not turn up in a movie). Then he makes it about marital infidelity, thus acknowledging his debt to the Chopras.
He says he wants to take risks. He says he will no longer make feel-good films. What a pity. Karan Johar was a maker of Agra pedhas. For those of you who don’t know, those are the high-selling, sweet as syrup, completely homogenised, slightly green ones.
Kundan Shah once said to me, “We all make the same film again and again. Guru Dutt made a film about a tormented poet in Pyaasa, about the tormented wife of a landowner in Saahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, about a tormented filmmaker in Kaagaz ke Phool. I made the same film [Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro] again and again.”
It should be a warning to Karan Johar. He made his most successful films with cardboard cut-outs, animated Archie and Betty cartoons going through unreal, colour-harmonised romantic misery that works out in the last panel, sorry, scene. That’s what he ought to keep doing.
Because trying to do something else makes the hollowness of the enterprise apparent. (Yes, Archie comics tend to be hollow, but then we don’t want them to be nuanced multi-layered reflections of the dark areas of the human soul). Another friend, who does not want to be quoted, said to me about the Barchopar school of film making (and it could apply to Karan as much as to anyone else): “They make these films about happy families because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to offer happy families to their parents.”
Available at http://www.tehelka.com/story_main18.asp?filename=hub082606Karan_and.asp
The Smart Ass comments in bold are very obviously my little effort to push myself into this Bachopars bash.