Karan Johar Curated
Actor, director, producer, screenwriter, costum...
CURATED BY :
How do you deal with social media trolling?
When you make a movie, is it just for entertainment or you think about its impact on the young generation?
What happened between you and Shahrukh?
Can you tell little about the fallout between you and Kajol?
How fatherhood is treating you?
If you had to remake the character of Rahul in KKHH how would you do that?
I'd give him a spine and more EQ [emotional quotient]. I'd also introduce more confrontation. Rahul, today, would be able to have an open conversation with Anjali. He'll know that she likes him and he'd address that with her. If Tina were to die, he'd come to terms with his feelings for Anjali and go back to her, not sit moping.
How did you convince Saif Ali Khan to play the character of Rohit Patel?
Saif [Ali Khan] was apprehensive of playing Rohit Patel. I had to tell him that it wasn't a sign of weakness but rather quite the opposite. I explained that a man who can stand by someone he loves while knowing she loves someone else is a strong person. It's not what makes him weak but human.
How did your sensibilities change ?
my sensibilities changed because I surrounded myself with newer and younger energies. I became more democratic and began practising an open-door policy; that helped me understand where I was going wrong and act on it
How did you get the idea of making KKHH?
Growing up, I saw my mother play Hindi film songs - everything from Rafi and Kishore Kumar to Geeta and Guru Dutt. KKHH was a homage to all the movies I grew up watching - everything from Kabhi Kabhie and Bobby to Silsila
Tell us about the ethics and politics of your movies?
There was no logic or backstory to the characters. You don't know what Shah Rukh, or anyone else, does for a living in the movie. And the eight letters - one for each birthday - made no sense, either.
Tell us about the character 'Rahul' in Kuch kuch Hota Hai?
Rahul doesn't stand for very much. He's a deeply confused character, doesn't know what he wants and, really, didn't do a lot much in the movie. Whatever happened to him was because there were people pushing him - his dead wife's spirit, his eight-year-old daughter, and Anjali herself. What made him endearing was his charm, his large heart and Shah Rukh's personal charisma
Is it easy for your to accept your own mistake?
For me, I’m always the first one to point out my own flaws. When I fumble and fall, I acknowledge it. When I make a film that I know hasn’t I work, I admit to it. Because I know that I’m not the most versatile filmmaker in this country. I’m certainly not the most talented and have a lot more to learn. I know that there are much better people than me regionally, nationally and internationally. I feel like you must know where you stand. I also feel that you must acknowledge your previous mistakes to do better with time. But I don’t see those qualities in people that surround me
Is managing so many stars challenge for you?
thought it was going to be an easy ride. But I have realised that people have become increasingly difficult to deal with. People are just tough. I wish people were just easier to deal with. I think delusion has become a disease. And there is no cure for it, unfortunately,
How creativity is important for the job you are doing currently?
I used to think that was not true. I used to think that eventually, creativity supersedes everything. I really believed that the final benchmark of entertainment was creation, and nothing else
What is the toughest part of your job?
My father (Yash Johar) had told me that the world of entertainment can be challenging. It’s going to have people that are difficult to deal with. It is not just about creation and entertainment. It’s more about people management
What is the most challenging thing in directing a horror film?
What is the one thing that puts you out as a person?
How was your journey from big screen movies to web series?
Why you decided to make horror movie which is totally different from your other movies?
Do you believe in ghosts?
Which is your favorite scene from My name is Khan?
How digitization like social media, web series, etc changed your life?
What advice you would give to lovers?
Why you have death scenes in most films?
Tell us your experience of using a dating agency.
Do you remove someone from a project and bring someone else into it?
Do you feel that kids need a mother?
When you decided to become a father?
How you manage to write such beautiful scenes?
How you have this easy going attitude towards everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Siddharth Malhotra?
How you choose Aishwarya Rai as Saba in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil?
Together the two Bahubali films have done more business than most of your films put together. What are the lessons from this?
Emotional understanding is that conviction is everything, otherwise big scale is the way to go. There were a lot of technicalities and when I was doing Bramhastra and Ayan (Mukherjee), I even had a meeting with the team, just trying to understand because in many ways they set a benchmark of logistics, modalities and conviction and they are the gold standard right now.
Many Hollywood and Bollywood studios found it difficult to establish a presence in South India. Why do you think this is so?
Look it’s the same thing that happened when the international studios came to the Hindi film industry. They had a certain way of working. The Indian film industry is a very self-sufficient, insular, know-it-all fraternity who’ve never depended on Hollywood money, or external money. We make films with belief and conviction. I remember my father sold his films to territories individually and then later on, it became more structured so it became all India and then it became music, satellite, overseas diaspora and India. And then you did your calculation and made your film. Initially even when the studios came, they were not able to immediately get into the same structure that we are so used to doing. They also needed a while, whether it was FOX or Sony and you know a lot of them now have understood how to play the game. So, in India you do what the Indians do and that is the phenomena that also operates in the South. And they are another extreme. They are really talented, they have a strong state and domestic market of their own. You don’t care if the film doesn’t release here. They know their thing and they’re not bothered. (Therefore) they’re not going to be able to conform to studio logistics, modalities or contracts. Even when I was told by my studio, “this is an 80-page contract going to Mr. Amitabh Bachchan”, I was like “Dude! It doesn’t work like that. Mr. Bachchan is like a member of my family. He’s like a father figure to me
Why did it take up to 2015 for this explosion of south indian film Bahubali to happen,even though we’ve had South Indian film working in the North even before Bahubali?
Because up to that point there was nothing like this. You must understand when emotions are universal, storytelling is universal whether it’s made in the North or South it becomes immaterial. But this may not happen time and again. You know it’s going to happen with the big event films but not the high concept films. The high concept films will work in their own region. Like if you take a Badhaai Ho and dub it into Tamil and Telugu it may not work. And if you take a high concept Tamil or Telugu film and dub it into Hindi it will not work. But when I saw the rushes of Bahubali I said this is the biggest Motion Picture Made in India. And when they came to us to present it, I said how do I make this engaging to a national audience? And the one thing that I could say is to call it the biggest film made in India. It was true. There was nothing big up to that point in terms of scale, technology and vision. It was out there. So that was the trigger to sell it. So, whether you’re sitting in Delhi or Kanyakumari you’re going to react. Even if you don’t see it on day one, you would have still heard of it. So, I think that’s why the film in 2015 and then in 2017 worked the way they it did because nothing was of that scale up to that point.
How do you deal with the trolling of social media?
You initiated your career with Aditya Chopra who is completely opposite to you. What does he say about the things you do?
Do you miss a wife in your life?
How do you feel that you are the only director who is also seen as a star?
Do you have some true friends in industry?
During the review of your film, could you understand who is lying?
Are you a true gemini with 2 faces and split personality?
Rumours are that you are seeing Katrina Kaif. Would you confirm?
(Laughs) I would still like to guard my personal life and not comment on the same.
Actor-filmmaker Rajat Kapoor was in town, and he told us that he wrote a script long back with you in mind, but he rues that now you are busy.
Yes, it was a gangster movie, Baavla, and had a fantastic script. I told him to let me know whenever he planned to make the film, but yes, I am committed to a few films right now and I can do it only once those projects are over.
Are there any other films that you are working on?
There’s this superhero film Immortal Ashwathama by the makers of Uri, and a biopic on Field Marshal Sam Mankeshaw by Meghna Gulzar.
How was it working with Shoojit Sircar for Sardar Udham Singh?
He is fantastic, and I have been waiting to work with him for a long time. Because of Shoojit, I have started to understand Bengali, and I have picked up a few very common words like ‘bhalo’ (good).
You will be sharing screen space with Ranveer Singh in Takht. How are you feeling?
I really can’t wait to share screen space with an actor whom I admire, respect and love.
We will see you playing Aurangzeb in Takht as well. How are the preparations going on?
The preparations are on in full swing, and we are going to dive into Takht from next month. I have been training rigorously for the past two months for my role and bulking up for the film. I need to learn horse riding, take lessons on sword fighting, prepare my Urdu diction, and also learn a musical instrument.
How was it working with Bhumi — you both debuted in 2015...
She’s amazing. We have been wanting to collaborate, and we are happy to be finally sharing screen space. With her, there’s no barrier and no need to break the ice. We are very frank with each other. She is extremely lively, and it has been good fun working with her.
Have you overcome your fear of ghosts and water after Bhoot Part One?
To a great extent. It’s because of those two fears that this film will be my most natural performance so far. The fear was so evident on my face. I have overcome my fear of ghosts a bit, and I have got over hydrophobia to a great extent. I do know how to swim and I can swim now.
Has the National Award placed any pressure on you, as an artiste?
Yes, it has increased the pressure, but it’s a beautiful pressure that I really craved for, and worked hard to have.
How are you tackling stardom?
You don’t need to tackle stardom, you need to embrace it, and let it flow in whatever capacity it comes to you. You shouldn’t be desperate to hold on to it. Life is full of highs and lows. So, I feel, if I am having a successful phase, I should embrace it and evolve. It’s a beautiful phase and it motivates me, encourages me, and I am looking forward to the coming times.
Vicky, We are seeing you on the big screen after over a year. Are you becoming choosy with your work?
No, it happened very organically. There was no plan to release a film every year. This film was supposed to come out last year, but the VFX in a horror film is very important, and you have to get it right. So, it took a bit of time. Half the film was shot before Uri was released and the other half after Uri’s release, but the graphics and post-production work took some time. I still follow my gut when it comes to choosing films. If I read a script and it impacts me, if I am sold on the vision of the director and it appeals to me, then I follow my gut, and dive into it.
How your cinematic approach to love has changed with time?
From where all your enthusiasm come from?
Why there is so much resistance between you and Shahrukh?
Why do you tend to hide your true feelings behind humor?
Why didn't you date someone?
From where you get ideas for your films?
What does it feel to be most popular person in the film industry?
Can you talk about the 2.0 version of yourself?
I have a new energy, new vigor and two wonderful new babies. I'm hoping that with the 2.0 version of my directorial life I will be able to be that filmmaker who not only danced at a wedding but also made great films.
How is your relationship with Sanjay Leela Bhansali?
I have an indifferent relationship with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It used to be love and appreciation but over a period of time, I think his expectation of me is not something I was matching up to. Today, I just think he has gone into a space of negativity and darkness and I'm sorry because I have no space as I'm all about light and sunshine. According to me, he is an immensely talented man, but I just don't want to deal with him. It's as simple as that.
what are your thoughts on having a family?
I've thought about getting a dog or a child. Those are my two options. It sounds retarded but it's true and I've been discussing it for a while. I think that's what I need because I don't have a relationship, I'm not falling in love, no one's falling in love with me and I'm not going to find the right person to settle down with. In the absence of that, the next best thing is your own genetic pool so that's where I got the idea of having a child. All else fails and if that doesn't work out then there's always a dog to lean on.
What is your biggest fear ?
The only thing that gets me worried is ageing alone and not having a family to lean on when I'm physically invalid. So, that's my biggest fear in life, loneliness.
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.
Which would you choose? A hit, or a non-performing film that makes people call you a great filmmaker?
Do you worry that people might get bored with your work?
I hope not. But I also think I am shaking it up a lot. When I made My Name is Khan, I chased a certain global audience. Then I confused them with Student of the Year. I went the other extreme because I got the 12-and the 13-year-olds in. These kids have now come to see Ae Dil…, because they know of me through that film. Then I make a film that’s a slightly different take on love. I might do something completely different next. In my head the only thing strategic is paradigm shifts.
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 practiced it many times in my head.
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.
Don’t you care that you’re going to be perceived as this filmmaker who keeps making ‘formula’ films?
I’m a cine-goer first. I’ve said this before. I grew up in Malabar Hill. Nobody watched Hindi movies there. Everyone was into comic books. My dad made movies and he was one of the few film people who lived in South Bombay. My connection to Hindi cinema, my passion for it, is more from the fact that my mother used to listen to old Hindi film songs – Rafi, Kishore, Lata, Asha, Farida Khanum, Noorjehan. And Elvis Presley. She married my father because he convinced her that, on their honeymoon, he would get her tickets to an Elvis Presley concert. Which he did live up to. They went to Las Vegas and saw Elvis Presley. Halfway through, my mother fainted from excitement. They ended up in the ER. I grew up with a combination of all this music. So when the VHS phase came out, when I was about nine or ten, which would be about ‘82 or ‘83, I wanted to see the movies that those songs were in. I took all in – Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt and Yash Chopra and the cinema of the time, films like Himmatwala and Tohfa and Justice Chowdhury and Maqsad. My mother was never interested in Hindi cinema. My father was never at home. He was always too busy. My maid at that time, Vimal, was equally cracked, like me. After school, I didn’t want to play football or cricket. We’d go to the movies. And sometimes we’d see the film five times. I loved Sridevi. I was crazily, madly in love with her to the point where I used to be jealous if Jaya Prada did a big film, because Sridevi was my territory, my property, and Jaya Prada was competing with her. So I was also competing with Jayaprada for some strange reason. So when I saw Tohfa, it was like a coup, because it was both of them and it was a chance to see my Sridevi outperform Jayaprada. All these were stories in my head. Yes, they were not considered great cinema. But for me, it was my life – Hai hai garmi hai, which is in Ae Dil…, or Ice cream khaogi from Justice Choudhury, or the flying sari song in Mawali, or the naag dance in the temple performed by Sridevi and Jayaprada in Maqsad, with sweaty armpits. That was my thing. It was considered my quirk. I never talked about it in my neighbourhood and I never spoke about it to kids at school because I didn’t think anyone would understand. I knew I would be judged, and I didn’t want to be judged. So with them I was like, “Yeah, I listen to Madonna and George Michael and read Archie comics.” But secretly, I used to be dancing to these songs. So it’s not formula. It’s my love for Hindi cinema. It’s my love for cinema.
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.
Do you want more respect from the new-age filmmakers?
Yeah I do. But I think it’s too late for that. I don’t think it’s going to come in my lifetime. And that’s not a goal anymore. I still would like Anurag Kashyap. I still respect a lot of his work. But I am not chasing adulation anymore. I am not chasing love.
What if you controlled your budget?
Then you have to be that filmmaker who’d want to make that film. With all those restrictions, I may not be interested in making that film. So I am restricted by commerce. My art is restricted by commerce. Unless it’s something like Bombay Talkies, an omnibus film where each filmmaker had a crore to make the film. I’ll push the envelope there. I won’t tear it. But I’ll push it. I will have two men kiss each other because I am allowed to. I was also trying to be as prolific as Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. I felt I had to make something that falls into the same slot as them. It was me trying to gain brownie points from a zone that does not acknowledge me as a filmmaker.
So why doesn’t the film industry, which is so strong and so well-connected, stand up for at least creative liberty?
I don’t know. I think there are just so many factors. I have to say the Producers’ Guild has been immensely supportive. But what happens is this. If you show explicit sex, you don’t get satellite money, which contributes to 30 per cent of your recovery. So it becomes a commercial decision for you to not make a sexual film. Then there is the adult certificate. You are told by data that 40 to 50 per cent of inflow is families and they won’t come to your film if it is A-rated.
Do you think you have become a bolder filmmaker?
Thoughts of me being bolder keep coming up. Then there’s the fear of our times and where we are. What’s the point in being bold if they’re going to cut the film? In Ae Dil…, there is an underlying desire and sexuality right through, especially in the relationship between Aishwarya and Ranbir, which is very physical from the onset. But I couldn’t have gone bolder than that because I didn’t choose to. It was not about what they did or did not do.
Do you consider yourself a filmmaker or a storyteller?
I’ve always been a film person and my referencing for film is film itself. All my learning has come from cinema. It’s never been the books I’ve read. Books train you to tell stories. Films train you to tell them on celluloid. I don’t think Kabhi Alvida… has any story. It’s just the characters. When your characters supersede your story, you know it’s also about the moments you are creating. Now Raju Hirani is a storyteller. More than a filmmaker, he is a storyteller. He will never lose his story. My films are more about the characters and their journey, which is zindagi. Life. Perhaps only Kuch Kuch… among my films was heavy on story.
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.
Do you know when someone is really being nice and when someone is saying they loved your film to get into your good books?
You can cut through the crap. But when you isolate yourself, you also start disrespecting opinion. And that is very important. I’m amused when I read every review that praises me or criticises me. Amused because I am thinking, “Shit, maybe he or she is right.” When I read criticism, I am like, “Yeah, this is probably wrong. But what can I do, it was my organic thought at that time.” You have to be aware and you have to read what’s written about your work. I tell every filmmaker, “Read your reviews. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist and believe they have something against you.” Of course it is. It’s very upsetting. This particular time, I read the bad reviews only four days later. I was too stressed on Day 1 to start bringing my morale down. But everyone had a perspective. Everyone came from a place that was not a conspiracy theory. They had nothing against me. They had opinions. And you must read what they write.
What keeps Karan Johar relevant?
Awareness. Observation. Youth connect – because everyone in my company is young. Updating skills with the people you employ. Just listening to people. And not being deluded about where I am. If you isolate yourself from the world, it’s very easy to get carried away and then you’ll fumble and fall as a creator. I’ve seen many filmmakers and actors do that. They go so inward that they block themselves from reality. I’ll tell you my film is a blockbuster overseas and a hit in India. I’m not going to tell you it’s a superhit. I know it has received polarised reactions. I am not saying, “What do you mean? Look at these congratulatory messages on my phone!” Or should I believe these messages on my phone and the praise and the flowers that came on the weekend? Or the love that came through the previews. Then I would be mad.
Why do we see you more on TV than on the big screen, despite that scene-stealing performance in Bombay Velvet?
I enjoyed my time on that set. I enjoyed being an actor. I know I can act. But I don’t know if I can stop being me. There will always be a lot of me because that’s baggage that you carry. I would really like to do it once more, but for some reason I have not even been offered a film I could refuse. Perhaps because of the failure of that film. Perhaps because 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 sometimes. So you can’t push me into every zone. You have to cast me very specifically. 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.
Where is this Bodhi-tree wisdom coming from, this Zen-ness?
I think it’s because you realise you have just another 30 years on this planet. Are you really going to waste your time on emotions and feelings that are not going to add up to anything? I know that eventually, in retrospect, I will be respected. I have done enough work to gain that. I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t. I mean, should I now chase those 100 people who don’t give me love and respect, or should I be concerned with the millions who do. How can I dilute that love? I’ve been in this business for 20 years. When a film by me comes out and I get that opening day, no matter what the circumstance in the country is, it’s obviously because people want to see my work. That only comes from love and respect.
What do you make of the criticism that you have borrowed the bit about a man needing to feel pain in order to make great music from Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar?
I am influenced by Imtiaz’s banter, and I knew I was going to be compared to his film with this plot point. But I needed music in the film because I love music, and there was no way Ranbir was going to break out into song if he was not a singer. So I did it my way. Ranbir and I were both very conscious about Rockstar, so we played down the rock star bit . Because I don’t believe there are rock stars in this country. We don’t have Jay Z and Kanye West and Beyoncé. Who’s bigger than a movie star here? I didn’t want to be like older Hindi films and show that Ranbir is a huge star now. He is just an Internet sensation, like the Coke Studio stars or the guys who do YouTube videos.
Would the criticisms go away if you set your films in a Lunchbox kind of milieu? Because some people do find it hard to care about “First World problems.”
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 have always faced this. Zoya Akhtar faces this. And it’s true. Someone said, “Why don’t you set the whole film in India? He could bump into her in a bar in urban India.” Yes, that may have been possible. But would that have made me happy? No. I am constantly accused of being First World. So what should I do? I can’t apologise for my environment, upbringing, aesthetic. I am very clear about the movies I make. When I started making Student of the Year, I knew it was going to be criticised till kingdom come. But it was meant to be fluff. I wanted to have fun after My Name is Khan, and I wanted to make a high-school musical. I didn’t want to work with movie stars. I wanted to take three kids and launch them. It was a film that had gone a little off in the writing and I made it more musical in order to salvage it. It is possibly my least liked film, but it was me doing something in my head at the time.
Have you thought about the fact that your films can be read through a lens of sexuality?
But those are stereotypes too. We grew up with those. Shabana Azmi called me and fired me about this aspect of Kuch Kuch… 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.” But I am Gemini. I can adapt to any situation. I can sit with a festival audience and sound very cerebral, and I can be completely ditsy with a 21-year-old. It’s who I am.
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 I don’t want to ever talk about details that I don’t want to divulge. Even I have my boundaries. And for various reasons. They could be deeply personal. Or they could be familial. Other boundaries you can cross. I say a lot of things in interviews or on stage or in my own thoughts on a blog or a column, and they are not meant to be sensational. I just feel like sharing them. 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.
Do you have friends in the industry? Is it at all possible?
I have some great friends. But I also give a lot to my relationships. It’s not a one-way street. Most movie stars are surrounded by very few people. A lonely movie star is a very common reality. I get it from my parents. They were people’s people. I am in touch with people all the time. I wish them on birthdays. I call them when good things happen. I make that effort. I have a reminder about everyone’s birthdays anniversaries, big days in their lives, and I will make sure I do what I can to contribute to their special moment. If someone’s parent or relative is in the hospital I’ll be there. If they die I’ll be there. It’s who I am.
For someone so invested in love and romance, even if in an increasingly philosophical and cynical way, does it bother you that you don’t have someone to share your life with?
I look forward to that. But I think I’ve gone way past that time. I haven’t found it and I don’t know where to go from here. I am so in control of my life that I don’t know if I can share it anymore. When you’ve been single for 44 years of your life, you wake up when you feel like it, you go to sleep when you want to. I have no responsibilities other than my mum. We have no other family. We have close friends that are like family and they don’t expect very much. My life is all about my work, which I love. My biggest relationship is with my work. So I don’t feel the need and I don’t know if I have the bandwidth to handle a relationship now.
Why your characters, too, have turned darker. Shah Rukh in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is whiny and self-pitying. Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil… is a self-absorbed man-child?
Maybe. But there are more men like Ranbir and Shah Rukh in the real world than there are people who always say and do the right things. These are people that I know. They are people around us. If they don’t say it, they are feeling it. Many of them want to do what Ranbir does, which is show her the middle finger. He says, “I wish your husband falls off the horse and dies and I hope you die too.” Because that is what I have felt. But our heroes don’t talk like this. So the film is speaking a new language literally and emotionally. I suppose there are people who are going to misconstrue this, judge this.
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. What is happiness? There’s a line in my film which I cut out. He asks her if she is happy. She says, “Khushi ka kya hai? Gham ke aas paas hi to bhatakti hai.” [What’s happiness? It’s just something that hovers around sadness.”] 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. It’s like that Dosti song Rahi manwa dukh ki chinta kyon satati hai, dukh to apna saathi hai. It’s not actually a sad song. It’s the most positive take on sadness.
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. It’s a film that just came to me. I felt it. And I wrote it. These were characters who, like me, have grown up on Hindi cinema. They may be younger than people from the era I am addressing, but when you are a film buff, you go back in time. And it did not cross my mind that I am alienating an audience. I knew the Farida Khanum and Noorjehan references would go over people my age. So I did what I wanted to do. And if there is honesty in the emotion, it will resonate. If the core honesty fails to connect, then the peripheral elements won’t matter.
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. My parents never gave me one. But now, in official meetings where you’re supposed to be taking things very seriously, someone will call me KJo. And I’ll judge that person in my head. I can’t help it. Just call me Karan. You have some kids who will come through family friends and work in the company [Dharma Productions], and we are an Uncle-Aunty kind of nation. We are not a Mr Johar, Mrs Johar kind of nation. 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.
Top five ideal dinner-party guests? Dead or Alive
Well, I'll have to call my mother because she might get offended, so she'll be on my party list. And I'll call, Shahrukh and his wife, Gauri, and the Bachchan family, and that will take care of the rest of it.
What you want Paparazzi or privacy?
Paparazzi. Love them, love them. Who wants privacy? I mean, I love being photographed, I love being out there; I love facing cameras and why deny it?
What do you prefer Presenting or directing?
Directing. Presenting is a hobby. Others play tennis or listen to music, I host a talk show. But yes, making movies is my passion.
What you say about youth and sexuality? Do you think that alternative lifestyles are now more acceptable in India now?
Well, I'm not saying people can scream from the rooftops if they are gay. I don't think they can do that today. Yes, it's far more open, there are spaces that now exist where there are spaces, now, for the gay people, and there are people who have come out, and people are very comfortable around them. Ten years ago it was a little tougher, ten years later, as in today, it's much easier. A decade later, it will be even easier. Yes, if you walk out on the road and say, "I'm a homosexual," it's going to create a certain euphoria. It going to be written about...In the urban world it's much easier. Of course if you penetrate further into the heart of country, it gets tougher. But, having said that, if you go to America, New York or Los Angeles, it would always be more accepting than say, Kansas.
Do you have a temper?
Not really. I can get, for the lack of a better word, bitchy. With a sense of humor that only I get. If someone comes late I look at them and say, "Did you have a lot of traffic?" I'll give the excuse before they do. And, then I laugh. No one really is ever scared of me on the set and that's something that I have to work on...
Give us a bit of an idea, Karan, what your work day involve?
Well, I can't say that I'm an early riser....Although I'd love to have said that, though I'm not. I wake up at about 9, 9:30, I'm in my office at about 11...I'm exceptionally email un-savvy, so to reply to my emails is like a torture. It's like literally, half of all my emails; I get my secretary to type out for me. And the personal ones, I avoid, and just pick up the phone and call them. So, going through that process takes care of the morning. And then, I invariably I have meetings, there are script meetings, there are young writers and directors that you interact with on a day-to-day basis because I have a production house that I'd like to expand, so you meet people through the day. So about 6:30 about three or four times a week, I try and accommodate some kind of physical fitness.
If you've got a cracking script, what do you need that for?
Well, you know the thing is that song and dance has been such a tremendous part of our lives in films for many years. And I am a product of Indian cinema; I've grown up watching Indian films ever since I can remember. And song and dance is part of our lives, it's part of our culture we wake up to songs, we sleep to lullabies, you know, we celebrate every religious and traditional function with music. So, it's so a part of our lives and therefore cinema is a reflection of our social existence.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Name a book of which you’d love to make a movie version.
I would love to adapt, if I could, Fountain Head.
Would you like to be Aditya Chopra in your next life and live an invisible life as opposed to your current one?
I would never want to be invisible. What part of me looks like I would want to be invisible?! I SO want to be visible. It’s not funny. Aditya Chopra – in no life. Yash Chopra – in every life.
What’s the one thing that makes Kareena different from all other actresses?
She was born to be a star. She has “star” in her demeanor like no other girl has.
When will you direct Deepika? Could you please cast Sidharth and Deepika in a film together?
Oh! I’d love to. Sidharth and Deepika would be great together. They’re both tall and beautiful. I think it should happen soon.
What was your first reaction when you were told to play a villain in Bombay velvet?
I was like – “who me?”
If you could go back in time and be a part of one Hindi film from any decade, which one would it be?
If you had to replace favourite couple SRK-Kajol in your movies, who would the likely duo be?
Varun and Alia or Sidharth and Alia.
How was your experience like, acting for Anurag Kashyap in Bombay Velvet and will you be doing it again?
Loved it! Great experience. Would do it again in a heartbeat.
Does Ae Dil Hai Mushkil suffer from a Tamasha and Rockstar hangover?
Tamasha toh I saw when we were shooting Ae Dil in London, and Ranbir never told me anything about it in reference. When I signed him, our initial apprehension was, oh it’s a bit like Rockstar. And I said, “It’s not about your musical journey. You are a singer but it’s about your journey of love.” What it had in common with Rockstar was the angst of both characters and that they were both singers. I knew there would be a comparison and I was okay with that because I knew that other things in the film would take over.
Would you concede that the Hindi industry is highly sexist?
It is, but it is also true that men command more money at the box office. A Salman film will open to Rs 30 crore and no matter which leading actress you take they will not cross a certain number. That power comes from the audience. So blame it on the audience.
Conversely male actors are routinely cast as the boyfriend or husband of female stars 20-30 years their junior, the age difference usually isn’t even an angle in the story and the older male actor usually plays a character much younger than his real life age. Why?
Because we have such few megastars and nobody in India wants to give women stronger roles once they cross a certain age even if they are big stars. I’d like to work with women of all ages depending on the role, but somehow you land up just not casting women in their 30s with men in their 40s. It’s very commercially calculated. Invariably the top movie actresses are in their late 20s, the superstars are now in their 50s, and the project becomes more viable when they are together. It’s accepted in India. Not just in Bollywood, even down south. It can all change though because cinema is evolving, so people are also casting as per the role. Aamir’s wife in Dangal is played by Sakshi Tanwar who’s not that young and is from television, not even a leading actress. Simultaneously of course there’s Anushka with Salman (in Sultan). So the change is in baby steps.
Do you believe Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor’s character) matured through Ae Dil Hai Mushkil? c
His relationships with Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) and Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) definitely brought a lull and calm in his demeanor, but it was not his coming of age, it was about his love. He matured but the change was not drastic. It’s not that he was grossly irresponsible before, then became responsible. It was his discovering that part of himself that could be demotional – detached and emotional. He had immense love for this girl that he can’t let go of although she does not reciprocate his feelings, but he comes to peace with it because he realizes that that love, as Shah Rukh’s character tells him, is enough to complete you, you don’t need reciprocation.
Has Karan Johar cut the payment of the actors of the upcoming movie ' Brahmastra '?
My hugest request to my media friends not to reach any assumptions on our fraternity films...these are challenging times for the business and false news only makes the situation worse! Please wait for official news on any account!! This is a humble request. After several delays, the makers announced that the Ayan Mukerji directorial will hit the theaters on December 4, 2020. However, due to the coronavirus crisis, the shoot of the sci-fi trilogy has come to a halt.
What is it like, as a producer, to nurture talented young directors like Anurag Singh (Kesari) and Raj Mehta (Good Newwz)?
I’m proud of the fact that we have introduced so many first-time filmmakers amid all the nepotism talk. Out of nearly 20 filmmakers, 16-17 are from outside of film families and have been given an opportunity to create something special. I have then leveraged these opportunities. Our next film, Bhoot: The Haunted Ship, is directed by Bhanu, while Colin D’Cunha is making Dostana 2; both debutants. Shershaah is Vishnuvardhan’s first Hindi film. We are proud that as a film company, we extend opportunities to not just actors but technicians, too. As a producer, I can tell so many stories and cover so many genres. It’s a great run into a new decade.
In a career replete with awards, did you ever feel that this one was overdue?
There’s a right time for success, achievements and accolades. There is no award that you should have received. If you didn’t get it earlier, maybe it was because you didn’t deserve it. Maybe I don’t deserve this today, but it has come my way and I should be grateful for it and protect its sanctity.
In a career replete with awards, did you ever feel that this one was overdue?
There’s a right time for success, achievements and accolades. There is no award that you should have received. If you didn’t get it earlier, maybe it was because you didn’t deserve it. Maybe I don’t deserve this today, but it has come my way and I should be grateful for it and protect its sanctity.
Did you feel your father’s presence that day?
I always believe that when you lose a parent, you gain God. Every night, I talk to my father like I am praying. I tell him about my fears, excitement and reservations. I have a conversation with him every day and that day, too, I told him, “Papa, we did it together.” Just as I made my father proud, I hope my kids will make me proud one day.
Was that an emotional moment for your mother? Tell us about that feeling?
For both of us. When Kuch Kuch Hota Hai bagged a National Award (for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment) in 1998, we got the call at home and my father (late producer Yash Johar) turned to me, saying, “Ek din main chahta hoon tu Padma Shri jeete.” Id protest then, saying I was too young to know where my life would go and asking him not to give me this kind of stress. But papa reiterate it, saying it was his desire, and while he knew he would not win it in his lifetime, he wanted his son to get it one day. My momma reminded me of that conversation. It’s the fourth most prestigious civilian award in the country and my heart is bursting with pride. A national honour brings a little more responsibility which I am willing to shoulder.
What was your first reaction to the Padma Shri?
I was shocked! I was trying to call my mother to speak to my kids while scouting for locations for Takht in a forest in Italy but couldn’t get through. I walked around exasperatedly in search of reception when suddenly the phone rang. I don’t usually answer calls from unknown numbers but thank God I answered this one. It was from the ministry. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I managed to thank them but after the call ended, I went numb. I was standing there alone, when this news dropped. I called my mother despite the terrible network. She broke down when I told her I’d got the Padma Shri.
Have you ever been compelled to be silenced after knowing about something that has happened?
Fortunately, it hasn’t happened in my immediate surroundings. I don’t believe in hearsay either. I need factual incidents to believe something. And yes, I believe the women, how can you not? No woman would open her heart and mind and revisit a traumatic memory if it wasn’t coming from a place of truth.
How have you processed the #MeToo movement?
The movement has led to tremendous accountability in the environment I occupy. When I read the narratives, it was heartbreaking. It was saddening. Sometimes you know about stuff around you and you brush it under the carpet and say that’s not my thing. But it is your thing because you have to be socially accountable to your fraternity. Those are things that have opened my head up. I feel like I should now take charge of this. Apoorva, my CEO, is at the helm of things. He updates me with everything. I’m glad that no reported incident has come from my company. Women have always been, I’m not generalising, but respecting a woman than a man has always been important for me. I have been raised by my mom and my aunts and they’ve always been cooler than any men in my life. It’s natural to me. I am a feminist. When I hear of these incidents, it makes my stomach churn. It makes me feel like, if we’re at a privileged position and we cannot take charge of this, then what’s the point of any of this?
Do you seek validation, a reinforcement, a confirmation that others share worldview?
I seek it, sure. I feel I am yet to make my best feature film. The day I feel like I’ve made a good film that I am wholeheartedly proud of, that’s when I will tell people to shut up. Right now, maybe they are justifying their opinion I know I can’t make a Lagaan or a Mughal-E-Azam or a Mother India. I can’t make it happen. I have never claimed to be the best filmmaker in this country, neither have I claimed to be the worst. I’ve always claimed to be having a great time with the movies and I always feel very welcomed by the fraternity. I listen and read everything written about me. I still pop up in every intellectual circle. I’ll pop up everywhere, It’s branding. If you don’t like my work I have no problem, I may still love yours. I am very zen about that. I don’t react to social media hate anymore. I love the trolls now. Every-time I say something profound and they ask me to shut up, I love it. I’m like—unhappy, unemployed and especially unattractive people cannot bother me.
Do you fear becoming irrelevant?
Of course. There is a fear that the flowers will stop coming. I know that there is a section of people that doesn’t take me seriously and I’m ok with that. Maybe it’s my own doing but I’m not apologising for doing anything I’ve done because I’m really living my life, I wanted to do these things, I wanted to host my own talk show, I wanted to host award shows. These are things I wanted to do as a child. Whenever I used to go to a Film-fare Award, I thought that I’d love to be on that stage either winning or hosting. When I saw films, I said I wish I could be a part of this world. Now I am. I don’t need to conform to anyone’s idea of being cinematic or being prolific—that’s their idea and not mine. My idea is to do what I’m doing best and I am doing it to the best of my ability and maybe this is all that I’m capable of.
How do you react to people calling your films superficial and lacking a soul ?
I’ve stopped justifying myself because I feel, maybe I haven’t made the film to earn that respect, I haven’t made a film that will go in the top 100 films of all time. I haven’t. Maybe I will, I don’t know what my capabilities are and my films have always reflected a certain lifestyle. The characters, I am aware, are often entitled. I’m also a little doomed by my own reputation. Even if I do something pathbreaking now, I wont get credit for it because it’s going to be like, he is better off doing the other thing. People forget that I made a film called My Name is Khan that spoke about the misinterpretation of religion. People are very selective about their outrage. They will talk about what they want to talk about, I’ve dabbled into a film with a strong homosexual theme, a film about infidelity at a time where people were making saccharine love stories. Even Ae Dil, I believed, pushed the boundaries but all people will say is how Ayan is rich and how is he in a private plane? The larger-than-life approach becomes a problem. I’m a director that’s always very in your face but that doesn’t mean I lose the right to stand up for the cinema I make. If I live my life to satisfy people and what they say on social media, I’ll go crazy.
Do you think you have been unfortunate in love?
I think I’m very messed up in that department. I have too many dos and don’ts and blocks in my head to find the right life partner so I feel like it’s my own doing. I’m so absorbed by the work I do, l don’t want anyone to come in the way of my work. I cannot have an accountability to somebody and that’s not fair because relationships are a lot of work. I don’t want to give that hard work to anything else but my work. So even if I see something happening, I stop it. Now to another thing—I don’t love anyone that really loves me. I need to love someone that doesn’t love me back. If I get abundant love from someone, it throws me off. I like to give, I don’t like to receive. So the moment I know someone is really into me, I know I can’t be into this person. It’s a brutal situation and of course, I’ve taken this up when I’ve been in therapy and I don’t know why it is that I don’t want to receive the love I get, I just want to give the love that I don’t get. It’s twisted.
Have your children Ruhi and Yash filled the void of a life partner?
Completely, wholeheartedly and hugely. There was a gaping hole that now doesn’t exist. See, love of a life partner, spouse, a relationship is an exclusive feeling to that because it also entails a different kind of physicality and emotionality but a large part of it is covered. A little bit, of course, remains. My love found an avenue. My love found a platform. My love found a space where it can release love, I can channel it. It actually has a destination. It’s almost as if previously, it was going randomly to random people, and was being wasted and now, it’s going to the right place
Can you guilt-trip someone for not loving you back?
Oh, it’s a great feeling! I want to tell you that there is no right or wrong in the emotional half of a human being. This is how we behave and every emotion that can be faulted—jealousy or envy—the fact is that it exists. Self-pity is a spa. Sometimes you should not feel bad for yourself but you do. But then you have to yank out of it and face life but otherwise, self-pity is something that I love. After a bad relationship, I take 2-3 days to feel victimized, to feel like I did no wrong and to feel superior in other people’s inferiority. Why deny these feelings? I feel that, “Ek tarfa…” line caught on only because it’s very, very true. I love you and who are you to deny me that feeling? I mean, how do you even know you are in love? It’s when a third person enters the dynamic. It’s always jealousy that leads to love. You feel love for someone when you see someone else taking it. Until then, it’s sexual, it’s companionship, it’s friendship, it’s fun but the real love is when there is a third element and you feel like you’re losing your relationship to that third element. So that’s why I say that love is a slap on the face. It’s hard.
Did you hear back from the person who inspired the movie- Ae Dil hai mushkil?
Yeah, the person definitely has seen the movie and given me an opinion and everything and now it’s a part of my emotional legacy. Every other film is my love for Hindi cinema but this is my most personal film. I can’t see it anymore. I can’t see it ever because I go through a lot and it takes me back to a time that I don’t want to think of. Like that scene where he puts a gamla on his chest. Heartbreak is actually like a physical weight. The film takes me back to that space.
Were these the emotions you went through with the person you were in love with and who inspired the film Ae dil hai mushkil?
Yes, and Ranbir Kapoor gets it. He nails it. Having experienced it with my Dad, I believe that cancer comes out of emotion as well. It’s like when you’re inexpressive you can get a tumour, the blocks in your heart or your system, all have something to do with your personal dynamics. It’s emotional, stress levels can cause cancer, a lot of it is related to your mind. Eventually, a clear mind is also a clear body and I believe she was carrying a baggage of love herself which she wasn’t able to express everything and that manifested into the illness. She speaks about it, she says that all that hate became a tumour and it spread around her body. She speaks about her cancer like that because it’s my thought about cancer and I joke when I say I want to kill her but that was also a thought. I was like there’s no end to this film because there’s no way she could love him back ...that would’ve been a cop out.
Do you think you would change anything about your past films?
Actually I have a problem with all my films besides Ae Dil Hai Mushkil because that’s a film I wanted to make even while knowing that the last act may get a polarised response. It’s a film I wanted to make because it’s personal and was cathartic for me. Ranbir (Kapoor) played me. I wanted to deal with the injury caused by a heartbreak. I have issues with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Student of the Year, My Name is Khan, all of them but about Ae Dil, I wouldn’t change a thing. When I made this film, I felt that this should make Rs 100 crore. I wanted the film to make its money back, which it did and was declared a good film. Yes, the last track met with many polarised responses and rightfully so, but I was like she (Anushka Sharma’s character Alizeh who doesn’t reciprocate Ayan’s feelings) didn’t love him, she has to die. I wrote this character. He loved her so crazily. She could’ve loved him back, why couldn’t she? So she got cancer and she died.
How’s your equation with Kangana Ranaut? Can you work with someone you’ve had a heavily publicised ideological conflict with?
I have no problem with her. Tomorrow, if I feel like she is really required for a film, I will work with her. The film I was directing didn’t have any scope for her, in my opinion, and no director has come to me with the desire to cast her. I, therefore, have not cast her. No lead actor has asked for her. Just because we had personal differences doesn’t mean we are not going to work together. Anurag Kashyap and I had a huge problem but he still wrote dialogues for Kurbaan. I am a working filmmaker. I don’t have problems or issues with anybody and I certainly don’t take them to my workplace. If the film demands a Kangana, if a filmmaker wants her then why not? It’s a commercial deal and there are no emotions involved in commerce.
Why do you give some actors a considerable amount of push despite their failings?
It’s not like they are best friends or family. I just happen to spot them, see them and nurture them. If, tomorrow, a casting director gets me a great talent, I will definitely give them the same chance I’d give a star kid. It’s not that I’m choosing one over the other, it’s what I get, it’s what I’m surrounded by. If tomorrow, a genius actor is born, not to a fraternity background, and I feel like he or she is great for a part, obviously I will cast them. But why is this only my burden? Why am I just the flagbearer for this? Why won’t the others do it? Why can’t everyone share that responsibility? Can every internet site stop writing about Suhana, Ananya, Aryan and Taimur from the time they are 2 years old? Can you stop reporting about them? Then I will say okay, well, let’s give this a fair shot. These kids become known names and viable options for producers because you made them. So you need to stop writing. But you can’t stop writing because that’s what sells and I’m fully aware that there is a certain excitement built already. It’s the same logic. When the stakes are high, we leverage that excitement and sometimes the stakes are not high, so you take new talent. About Varun and Alia, I am blamed for nepotism in retrospect. But at that time, nobody was aware that David Dhawan had a son who wanted to act or Mahesh Bhatt had a daughter that young—nobody knew as they weren’t children of movie stars. But no, the first thing you want to do is attack. And I would apologize but I don’t need to for doing my job. If you’re not happy, you need to deal with yourself and before you say that it’s complicity, it totally is. You report, you make them stars and then you attack us for casting them.
Has there been any self-reflection?
I don’t feel I should be accountable to anyone for my decisions. I’m making films and casting actors and I’m in a business. If I feel that something is a good commercial decision I’ll do it, I’m in the business. If I think I need a star, I will cast one. If I need a new face, I will take a newcomer.
How do you deal with the accusations of being elitist, working largely with stars or those who come from a family with pedigree?
In the past, I've taken chances but it’s not that I get any credit for that. Suddenly this ‘nepotism’ tag has been given to me. When I cast Varun, nobody else knew who he was or what was happening. I knew him before he was around. I saw potential in him. That’s what also happened with Siddharth, he’s not from the movies. Unlike today, nobody had even heard of Alia Bhatt, it was not that she was popular before. Today’s star kids are way more famous before their first films. If I cast Tara Sutaria, nobody will say anything, but if I take Ananya Pandey, I will be accused of nepotism.
Where does the need of you to be nurturing figure come from? Does it come from a place of wanting to keep power?
No. I don’t even have a talent management agency. I don’t want to have any kind of ownership on my talent.There’s just a deal for them to work with us for 5 years and then move out. Today, there is nothing that I have with Varun (Dhawan), Sid (Sidharth Malhotra) or Alia (Alia Bhatt), not even monetarily. I’m just emotionally in a relationship with all three of them If they reach out to me, I’m always there for them but I don’t have any stakes on them. I made it very clear, I don’t want to do talent management. I take on a lot of additional headaches, this is not one I want to. I want to do it selflessly. Kiara is not my talent, she is handled by Ashvini (Yardi), but she is always on the line with me. If she signs a film, she’ll tell me. I’ve read scripts for her and this is because I care about the people I work with, it’s that simple. There is no strategy. Similarly with Vicky (Kaushal), he isn’t my talent but I’ve worked with him and now he’s a part of my journey and I’d be there for him if he needs me. Most of us in the business see it from the outside and we know what is right and wrong more than the actors and unfortunately they need that hand-holding to make the right decisions. That’s where I come in.
How you’ve crafted this perception that an actor gets legitimized as a star if they have Dharma’s stamp of approval or an actor gets noticed by the industry if you spotlight them?
There’s no strategy to this. This is the energy that I bring in because I don’t come on as an individual director in their life. I also come in as a support system to them and for them to build that energy around their careers, I’m also there as their go-to person for decisions in their life and how they should make and project themselves because I always platform talent—writers, technicians, actors—stronger than I would platform myself. So when I had that work with Kiara, it’s not that I had a six-day shoot with her and she’s out of my life, she’s very much in my life. So when I work with you I’m a part of your ecosystem and I’m a part of your decision-making process and I’ll always ask you to do this and that, I become your advisory board and it’s not that I force myself onto you, it happens organically. I genuinely care. I’m that person. If you see my phone, there are these messages from actors who we work with, who send pictures of outfits that they’ll wear for events. I guide them. I take the time out to do it, I’ve never thought that it’s not my job. They are a part of my life and I like it when they do well even outside of Dharma because it makes me happy. I call filmmakers to tell them to cast this talent, I’ve done it for several filmmakers.
What have been the learning from the Hardik Pandya-KL Rahul episode? Going forward, are you going to be more conscious about how you deal with such scenarios?
I think it has driven me to a point of not caution, but fear, because I don’t want to feel responsible for people’s careers. It makes uncomfortable, unhappy and leaves a lingering feeling of guilt. All I can say is I hope the powers to really give them a second chance. They are young and dynamic cricketers. Everyone deserves a second chance. While I am in full support of trial by media—and I believe it’s a really essential powerful force, trial by social media, trial by media are very important to keep many things in check— sometimes, you know, the harshness of a punishment can really harm a career of an individual who may have already repented. They have their work like I have mine. Unlike cricket for them, the chat show isn’t my main work. It’s simply an irreverent, frivolous chat show. Don’t like it, don’t watch it. Yes, you might think that I am a giggly aunty sitting on a couch gossiping but that’s the nature of the show. So the ramifications of this episode were something I absolutely did not expect.
Don’t you see an issue with art’s proximity with politics?
Everyone can co-exist. Co-existence is very integral. Eventually, you know people need people to survive and coexist as a community. Of course there should not be an overlap because art must exist in its own independence and politics must exist as its own force and entity but if there is a coexistence of the two, done in a very amicable and peaceful manner, then why not?
It feels like appeasement. Do you get a sense that the ruling party expects Bollywood to cater to a certain ideological line?
None of us have been asked for anything. It has been pretty much a one-way street—we have asked and it has been graciously delivered.
How has the industry just moved on from very serious incidents to clicking selfies with the Prime Minister?
All I can say is what has happened when industry met with the Prime Minister a month ago to bring up the causes and many of the things which we brought up were addressed. There was the GST issue, which was immediately addressed. Then it came to shooting across the country, which has been a big obstacle. Now there is a single-window clearance for filming and that’s a humongous benefit. There’s also a mention of what we will do to combat piracy and he said stringent laws will be made. So, many of the moves which we went with the list have been activated and I think Siddharth Roy Kapur will be the right person for you to speak to, who is the president of the (Producers’) Guild. Many of the things have been addressed. The Prime Minister has been very proactive on industry needs and has promptly addressed them. Now, everyone can look into various meanings out of this. We look at it as a positive step ahead for the film fraternity, which has an industry status but really has never been given the empowerment of one. It finally feels like we are a soft power with relevance.
You were a shy child, so does your entire learning happen on sets?
Do you think too much information about you stops us to take you seriously as a filmmaker?
In your head, are you still that fat boy from school?
To an extent, yes, I am a fat boy in my head. I am an effeminate boy from school. I still sit with a cushion on my leg, it’s what I did as a child to hide it. I’m not trying to be more masculine anymore. I am done with that now, I am comfortable with my identity. I did work on my voice and my gait some years ago but I’m still wearing my shiny shoes. I love who I am. I could break into a dance on stage and wouldn’t care. I break into a dance at a friend’s wedding, knowing there will be some who will applaud or some who sneer. You’re a little scarred from your childhood but I’m no longer conscious about the thoughts that are stuck in my head.
Have there been friendships you’ve lost?
Not lost, they fade into oblivion. Sometimes, life takes a different course for you but somehow, no relationships of mine are completely lost because I don’t fight with people, everybody knows what they have been. There was never bitterness, somehow they’ve been lost because of time and other people in the mix.
You had a major fallout with one of your closest friends, Kajol. Has the relationship been fixed or the cracks remain?
I repent what happened. I feel bad that I wrote a whole chapter about it. I put out our personal feelings in a public domain but back then, it was a strong feeling. Kajol and my friendship is, like the Chinaware saying that once broken, you can mend it but the crack is still there. Our friendship doesn’t have that crack anymore. There was too much pure love there for it to break completely. Shah Rukh is my family. It’s the closest family I have in this industry. The relationship is too strong and it can endure a lot. They’re my first family apart from my mother. Adi (producer Aditya Chopra) and him are my two families. Shah Rukh will be there for me any time I want him to be and I would too. Shah Rukh has great love for my father, I love that about him. When my dad wasn’t even respected that much, he gave it to him. I will never forget that. My eternal gratitude for him will always give him my loyalty.
If you are close to two people and are aware of one’s infidelity, does that throw you in a moral dilemma?
Nope. My father told me when I was very young to never walk into a marriage or a relationship, they will always come back and hit you. So I don’t do that. It’s damn easy to handle relationships. You just have to give it time. You have to drop ego but hold onto your self-respect. Have issues? Have confrontations and conversations, not long emails and messages. The irony is because I haven’t found that sunshine in my mind. It is an eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! I used to be sad about it, now I’m not. Now I’m just amused by myself. Yesterday, I was talking with some friends that I should get into a relationship but it will happen in its own time. But I’m ready for it. I am feeling active and energetic for it.
You are close to all the major stars. How do you deal with a breakup between two of your friends?
I have thought about that and I realise I am able to do it because I always have a one-on-one relationship with everyone. I am never close to a unit. I have individual equations with everyone. I have strong dynamics with people. If they choose to distance themselves then that’s their problem. I will be there for you either way. If you are my friend, you’ll always be a part of my life. I was talking with some friends that I should get into a relationship but it will happen in its own time. But I’m ready for it. I am feeling active and energetic for it.
How conscious have you been about being an awkward kid?
For a long time, I was nobody in school. There is that famous story of me running away from boarding school because I couldn’t live without my mother. And something she said to me as a child changed me fundamentally. She said, “Do you want to be average all your life? I don’t want you to be mediocre. You’ve talent, why don’t you express it?” It got stuck in my head. The next day in school, we had this game, chit and the word, which is also a scene in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. When it was my turn, I got the word ‘Mom’. I spoke about it in an emotional and a funny way. There were 30 kids. They all broke into spells of laughter. Until then, nobody knew I had a voice. Nobody had heard of me till then. And here I was. My teacher was like, “Where have you been? Why haven’t you been a part of this?” I always feel that there are two turning points in life. For me, the first was that. Why? Because I had never received applause, I had never been at the forefront of anything and I wasn’t used to my name being called out. I was a kid that you were indifferent to. You didn’t love me, neither did you hate me. I was just around in a crowd that was indifferent to me. The only thing that stood out was my size. That I was large. I wore blue for the four years because I wanted to cover myself. And that’s how people knew me, as the blue sweatshirt boy. Until that day I spoke about mom. A week later, I heard my name out in the assembly and I’ve never heard my name out loud so I didn’t react for a whole minute. My principal wanted to see me and my heart was beating so hard. She told me there was an inter-school competition and the kid that was supposed to go had typhoid and I was supposed to be his replacement. I competed with Aditya Chopra. Both of us made it to the finals. A month later, the finals happened. Adi didn’t participate because of an exam. I did. it was time for the results and neither my school or I had won any awards ever before so there were zero expectations. We were ready to leave. I was announced the winner. I was stunned and walked like a zombie to the stage to collect this huge cup. When I reached home, my mother was like what have you got home? I burst out crying. My Dad came to the living room to see what was going on. I told them I won. I’ll never forget this visual, the three of us hugged each other and cried for a long time. It was a moment out of a really weird movie. But it was special. I hadn’t won anything, literally anything, before. Next morning the principal announced that for the first time, we have won something in an inter-school competition. It went without saying that in my mind I became Hrithik Roshan from Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai. I got some swag, found a voice, and everything changed.
You’ve completed over 20 years in Hindi cinema. Your father lost a lot of money in films, especially at a time when you were coming of age. Despite the obvious red flags, what was it about cinema that you were able to reject the cynicism and start what was going to be a perilous journey?
It was the healing effect that it had on me, as a child. Cinema was my outlet, a release. It was a space where I found my chunk of happiness. I was an awkward child and I was combating weight issues but my go-to thing was Hindi cinema, the films, the songs, the world. I’d shut my room and dance for hours to Hindi film songs, hearing Lata ji, Kishore and Asha’s music. I mean, at the age of 9, who would watch the cinema of Guru Dutt? I did. I spent time discovering Yash Chopra and falling in love with everything that he ever created. My entire childhood is in Hindi cinema. When I used to go watch a trial show, which I was privileged to see because of my father being in the business, I used to get excited seeing the Censor Certificate as it told you how long the film would be. The longer the film, the happier i was. A long film was a good film because it meant that I get that much more time with the film and I used to go back and write notes in my diary about what I saw and felt. If I loved the music, I used to buy the audio cassette. I used to have this double tape to tape thing that I had in my room and I used to play and dance to the music and if I loved the film enough, I used to beg my mother to send me with my maid to watch it again. My whole childhood, I was awkward and different, but Hindi cinema helped me cope. So it was not surprising that this was the profession I chose but I always thought that it was not for me. I was starstruck all through my childhood. They were all my father’s friends but I was still awestruck. My only two big Bollywood days which I enjoyed the most were when I used to go to Abhishek (Bachchan) and Shweta’s birthday party and my mother’s birthday party where I’d meet the fraternity kids. I couldn’t relate to them because they spoke another language. They spoke only about Hindi films. Now, I understood Hindi films but only knew as a viewer, not as an insider. So I pretended to be as snooty as my Malabar Hill building kids because I was interested in what they were saying but I felt inferior because they knew a lot more. I used to go with an autograph book and I didn’t want anyone to know because I was embarrassed about it but it was signed by all the top stars. I tried to fit in.
What would bother you more, if someone said something bad about your film or you?
I would rather they abuse me than my film. I don’t mind being abused. I enjoy it. I have reached a stage of social media nirvana. I am really alright with anyone who abuses.
You make these big budget movies, have you been tempted to make small film because you make that much and you make so much more money?
No. I made a short film once which you are given a crore to make and it was a really strong exercise I have to say. I don’t design a film by its budget.There are some indulgences that I cannot do without. I see my characters in a certain way in my head and now I feel like I have earned the right to be indulgent. I would never do something that would cause huge damage to me or my company. So, I feel I can make much more... but really money has never been my driving force. I have always been fortunate that it has never been something that I have had to do without. Money is a great pre-requisite and a great kind of plus to the job that we do, and do well. But as long as I have the lifestyle that I have right now and as long as I can continue to make movies through my company and go on doing what I am doing, I am happy. I don’t want to make that kind of money that perhaps will take my lifestyle to another level.
You have always been criticized for making movies for the elite class and the NRI. Does it bother you anymore?
Nothing bothers me. I am beyond people’s perceptions of who I am. I don’t want to actually combat the perceptions anymore because I have faced it since 1998 and it was like I was straddled with this bubble gum, NRI and elite and when I am asked “why?” I have a simple answer, why not? This is who I am. I am not going to apologize for who I am. I am unabashedly in love with Hindi cinema and Indian cinema. I grew up on the movies that actually altered my mental fabric towards entertainment. I will make what I want to make. So why am I not making something else? It is somebody else’s passion and they are probably better at it than I am, so let them.
You are one producer who never goes on his set. Why?
I do not want to be there. As a rule I don’t go, I go once or twice to visit and wish them.When you are a director and you land up on set, I feel actors might react to me differently, and the director on set might be mildly intimidated. I am the producer and also a director so in both ways I could bring an energy that will not keep the environment easy and comfortable on the set. Also, when I take a director, I want their own individualistic voice. I want him or her to make their film and not have my inputs enforced into their narrative because then they will never make their film. I do not want me floating around the company.
How many checks does a writer have to go through before reaching you?
He doesn’t come to me at all. He or she can go to our development division, which at this moment is work-in-progress. But we have information on Dharma website and numbers that one can contact. If the team loves the script, it comes directly to me. So seeding and the wetting process is what we have a division for.
A lot of filmmakers watch previews and tweet nice things, then bitch about it on private groups, what's your say?
Of course, a lot of times one is lying... You can call it fake tweeting or as I call it; support tweeting. Sometimes I think everybody sees through it. If the film is not good and you are tweeting positively, you are doing it for friends. What are friends for? I have to say I am completely guilty of overdoing it sometimes. And I am going to try and control that. But I feel that I have to support something because a friend has made a product, but without getting carried away. And yes, tone down the level of praise, if it is not worthy. I have to somewhere find that balance which I am not being able to strike.
Why don’t we see your pictures at the theatre like we do of actors?
I haven’t been in a while, but I go to theaters. You know what happens is, I get called for screenings. But actually I don’t want to go to preview theaters anymore. I feel all we are doing is lying. You don’t like it, you can’t say it. Also, then you are obliged to tweet how great the film is, even if it wasn’t. Now I wish everybody one day before and I don’t have to give my opinion. That is my new strategy.
Do you talk to people from all walks of life like Aditya Chopra does?
Aditya Chopra may not be social, but he is very connected to the ethos of movie making. He is more informed than I am. He is far more with the times than you could imagine him to be. He is not in a social domain, but he meets everyone. Every single head of every organisation. In fact, he is better connected to the corporate sector than I am. He taught me how to watch a film, how to enjoy in its truest form.
How do you stay relevant?
By constantly listening and not talking. Because I think most people who live surrounded by glass walls and in delusion don’t listen to people and opinions. I do not want to be surrounded by yes men. I want no men. I want people to tell me what’s wrong because what is right, you always have a feeling about. Your instinct tells you what’s wrong. But sometimes it may not hit you, so you need to be told. So, you need to be surrounded by people whose opinions you actually listen to. If you walk through the corridors of Dharma productions you will find the average is between 19-25 and I listen to everyone. I listen, I am accessible, people can walk into this cabin, there is no appointment to meet me. I am accessible, affable, I am amiable and I am available. That is the most important criteria to stay relevant. It is also important to keep your ear to the ground. I am interested in what is happening in my industry.
What happens when someone you launch becomes successful and over time feels you have nothing new to teach him?
Fortunately, there is a lot of regard and respect that I get from directors who have dealt with me. A lot of it is success. Let’s not lie about the fact that eventually our opinions are driven from our success ratios. Our justifiable opinions come from the reason of our success. For that, it is important for me to constantly be relevant even as a filmmaker. I cannot afford to stumble and fall in this company as a filmmaker. The moment I do, it will immediately be thrown back at me. You know, like the question mark face of ‘What do you know?’ If Ae Dil Hai Mushkil wouldn’t have been a success, if the music wouldn’t have been a big hit, if the film wouldn’t have achieved what it set out to achieve, I may have been in a position where I would have felt, ‘Can I afford to give my opinion?’ I can because I’ve come on the back of a success. The moment I give a failure, I take a step back. People might think he is 45 years old, he could be losing the plot, so it is so important to constantly be relevant. I feel like I cannot flirt with failure if I want to be a relevant producer because I am nurturing so many young directors who won’t take me seriously if I come on the back of a failure, it is as simple as that.
You are a mentor to actors and directors. How is it different?
Directors go through equal amounts of fears, anxieties and insecurities. You have to ‘baby’ directors much more than the actors. Somewhere, the actors are happy in their zone of vanity and that is the cocoon they can find lot of solace in. Directors have all kinds of apprehensions. They always have a vision that they feel that perhaps they are not executing to its optimum and they think they are not getting as much as they deserve. Then you have to try to explain to them that economics of the market don’t dictate this kind of a budget. So, I feel almost like a principal of an institute that has children of all ages, stages, rages and I am just having to kind of handhold them. So, before I became a parent I was already parenting. So, I have had an amazing experience at nurturing and parenting.
You have made nepotism the most Googled word in India. What's your say?
I think much has been said and debated about that word. One person talks about it, everybody discusses it and it becomes a national issue. I don’t think nepotism is one thing we should discuss because it has existed in so many industries since time immemorial. Can we say once and for all, RIP nepotism and move on from that? I look for talent for the movies I do. We have screen tested people from all walks of life, and if some of them happen to be from the film fraternity, I am not going to be apologetic. What is the harm if a friend’s daughter or sibling or child is talented and cast for a part? I had nothing to do with Mr Mahesh Bhatt before I chose to launch Alia. David Dhawan and his wife Laali are family friends but Varun went through the grind of being an assistant director for five years before I thought that he was good enough. Sidharth Malhotra was not from the industry and I never get credit for that. Or the 15 directors, who are not from the film industry that I worked with.
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