As we reach the end of Director’s Cut, a section we started over six months back, we wanted to wrap up the series on a high note. Hence, we decided to feature one of Bollywood’s most popular film-makers — Karan Johar. Even though he has been shooting in the UK for his next, the 43-year-old spoke to us over the phone about his brand of cinema, why Shah Rukh Khan and Aditya Chopra are responsible for his success, and more.
What was your plan when you were assisting Aditya Chopra on Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ; 1995)?
I was confused at that time as to which [career] path I’m going to take. I knew it had to do something with cinema. But I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to become a director or not. I even contemplated becoming a costume designer. I worked in the costume department during the making of DDLJ. That was always a career option for me. But I never thought of acting, as I knew I didn’t have the personality or the ability to be an actor.
When did you finally know that you wanted to direct films?
Adi was the one who used to tell me, “You will become a director one day, I don’t know why you are running away from it.” He convinced me to direct. Also, when I was an AD on DDLJ, Shah Rukh told me, “When you direct your first film, I will act in it.” Adi and Shah Rukh made me realise that I, perhaps, may have the potential to become a director. Otherwise, it didn’t cross my mind. I owe my career to them.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) introduced Indian audiences to a new brand of cinema, in which a lot of attention was paid to the actors’ styling.
I never looked at creating something path-breaking or trendsetting. I had certain aesthetics. All my knowledge about Hindi films has come from watching movies made by greats like Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra, K Asif, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. So, all I could do was create a film that kind of emulated the creative works of yesteryear film-makers. Sometimes, Adi would tell me, “You are from south Mumbai. So, you bother about what people wear.” He would always joke that I was too much of a ‘townie’. Whatever it was, it was who I was. I don’t need to be apologetic when people say, “You make candy-floss cinema, bubble-gum films, NRI-friendly or good-looking movies.” I used to get annoyed at one point, but now I am amused. I’ve never apologised for my brand of cinema, as this is what I believe in.
There is a perception that you make expensive and glossy films.
Nobody has ever lost money on a film that I have directed, because before being a director, I am a producer’s son. So, whether it’s a studio, music company or a satellite channel, one of the reasons why our banner has stood tall for so many decades is that we have always made sure that our partners are ‘partners’ in every which way. I refuse to be a selfish producer who makes movies only to make money for himself.
Most of your films have starred Shah Rukh. Why?
He was the one who felt that I could be a film-maker. Working with him hasn’t just been an honour, but a big thing for my career. When he chose me, it was a big deal for me. Working with him has taught me everything about movies. His technical expertise and intuition as an actor has made me a better film-maker.
Since you have worked extensively with SRK, many feel that you have alienated other actors in Bollywood.
I don’t think so. Working with SRK was and is something that I always cherish. I feel whenever there are two people who are strong and close to each other, there is a section of people who are never happy with their closeness. Shah Rukh is beyond family to me. In fact, my equation with him has moved from him to his kids now. I always tell him, “I am going to maintain my youth quotient only because I want to launch Aryan (Shah Rukh’s son). No one else can launch Aryan but me (smiles).”
You directed your first film at 26. Was it nerve-wracking?
Luckily, for me, I was working with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol; I already knew them very well. I had already worked with them. Of course, Rani (Mukerji) was new at that time. But still, I was very nervous. Thankfully, the atmosphere around me was how it was during the filming of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ; 1995). The same energy continued on the sets of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH; 1998). And of course, Adi (Aditya Chopra; film-maker) supported me throughout the process. I constantly felt, “I have been with these people before.” But when I shot with Salman (Khan), I was very stressed for those 12 days as I had never worked with him. He had a very strong equation with my dad (late Yash Johar; producer). So he was absolutely fantastic. There were never any hurdles during KKHH. It was the most seamless film-making experience I had ever had.
Would things have been the same without SRK and Kajol?
I don’t think so. I think I needed to work with them to make KKHH the way it got made. I don’t think I could have created KKHH the way I did with anybody else.
Is it true that your dad once said ‘Mere bete ne film set lagaya hai, toh main raste pe aa gaya hoon’ (I have run out of money because my son is making a film)?
That was a joke (laughs). My father used to think I was mad. I used to spend a lot [of money] on strange things; sets and costumes have always been a big part of my cinema aesthetic. So, one day, he was standing on the road, and someone asked him, “Why are you standing here?” So he replied, “Mere bete ne film set lagaya hai, toh main raste pe aa gaya hoon.” He couldn’t believe that Manish (Malhotra; designer) and I wanted to go to London, UK, to shop for clothes. That was also because these were things no one knew anything about, and no one cared much about who wore what. But for me, that was a big part of KKHH.
Many feel that you got everything on a platter. Is that upsetting?
I get very upset when I hear that. I worked as hard, if not harder, as other people. It’s just that I don’t like to act like I am working hard. I have had my own internal struggles. Not having a sad story doesn’t mean one hasn’t struggled. I have had my own journey while climbing the ladder of success. Emotionally, it has been a tough road for me. Maintaining your success isn’t easy in an industry that is so competitive and ambitious; living up to your father’s legacy isn’t either. It has been daunting, but I can’t make my struggle sympathy-worthy. Creating a name for oneself is never easy. It takes a huge amount of energy, discipline and sincerity to create a space for yourself.
People feel that you make films for the upper class…
I don’t know why we ‘sectionalise’ our audiences. I make emotional films, and they are universal. What’s elite about an emotion? How do you classify an emotional drama? It’s about relationships, and relationships exist across all demographics. So I don’t understand when I am told, “You show posh peoples’ angst.” That may be a perception, but I make films about human beings.
You grew up in south Mumbai. Would you have been a bigger Bollywood fan if you had lived in the suburbs?
Perhaps. But who am I to say that? Whether I lived in Malabar Hill or not, I was a filmi kid, who was obsessed with Hindi movies. I used to dance to Hindi songs in my room, and watched every Hindi film twice. I would beg my mother to take me to trial shows and previews. I was obsessed with movie stars. Whenever any of them came home, I always had an autograph book ready, even though I knew they were my parents’ friends. I was a star-struck child, and I think some part of me still is (smiles). I still feel I am star-struck. Since we lived in south Mumbai, my childhood was divided into two parts — I was geographically disconnected from the rest of the fraternity in many ways. But I have grown up with Abhishek (Bachchan), Shweta (Bachchan Nanda), Zoya (Akhtar), Farhan (Akhtar), Adi (Chopra), Uday (Chopra), and Hrithik (Roshan). They are all my childhood friends, and we used to meet at parties; we would hang out at Abhishek’s birthday party every year. I knew Ekta (Kapoor), too, as a child. So, most of our relationships date back to our childhood days. I have a special connect with all of them. I saw it (the industry) from a distance; that’s the best way to put it. I wasn’t entirely immersed in it, but Idefinitely knew what it was like from a distance. I’m glad for that, because when I got into it, I came with my own perspective.
You recently said that people feel that anything that is intelligent is not meant for you…
Maybe, the perception is that I make glossy, mainstream and commercial films, even though I backed a film like The Lunchbox (2013). I try to get involved with different kinds of content. Unfortunately, I am a victim of perception; there’s nothing I can do about it. Perception always overrides reality. Even if I make a film like My Name Is Khan (2010), or something unconventional like Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), the baggage of being a mainstream, commercial director doesn’t leave me. And when you can’t beat them, you join them. Perhaps, decades later, people will realise that my career was multi-layered, and that I always took risks with content. The industry has not always been a safe place for me. Unfortunately, I don’t get that kind of due; it’s always about me being this big, glamorous film-maker. That’s not anyone’s fault. I am on a reality show, at award functions and talk shows. So, I’m in everyone’s faces. I am a victim of my own self-created imagery. I can’t do anything about it. If you can’t combat it, you accept the reality, and do the best you can.
You are a brand today. Have you built your name in a planned manner?
My life is an extension of my personality. I didn’t plan to host a talk show and judge reality shows. Such things come easily to me. I am a person who is comfortable on stage. I love the world of glamour, and I am not apologetic about it. I like to walk red carpets and pose for magazine covers, and I am having great fun. You can judge me or love me; that’s your problem. I love my life; I love the movie industry. I love making Hindi films. I can’t believe that my big dream is actually a reality today. When I was 15, on stage for an elocution programme in school, in my head, I was thinking, “One day, I want to be famous.” I don’t know whether I will continue like this or stop being famous one day, but I will deal with that when I reach that stage. Right now, I am on a high point in my career. I acted [in a few films] because it was a new experience. The same goes for Bombay Velvet. It has been something that I have enjoyed, and if I ever get offered a project that I believe in, and it looks like fun, I would be happy to do it. In fact, I told Anurag Kashyap (director) in jest, “No one offered me a role after Bombay Velvet, so you better write a part for me now.” I think I will start looking for acting assignments when I’m back [from London] (laughs).
You maintain good relations with most actors in the industry. What’s the secret?
If you come with baggage, you will create baggage in any dynamic. I don’t come with any. I am not judgmental about anyone’s life. People who have been in my life are always with me. I never let go of relationships.
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