I wait for Karan Johar in the Khar office of Dharma Productions, above a Costa Coffee packed to the brim with, not surprisingly, aspiring actors. He is talking to his colleagues, one of whom casually tells me, "Don’t worry, you are on time. But as soon as he is free, we all need a bit of him."
In his room, there is a large desk upon which lie a few scripts and a copy of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend. Behind his chair are piles of more scripts, and the Swiss cow bell that Raj bought for Simran in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).
On the wall are pictures of SRK and Gauri, a framed poster of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), and a picture of Johar’s parents. In one corner is a cabinet full of awards.
He comes in, in a black Givenchy sweatshirt – he wears only brands, he sheepishly tells me later – and when I say I saw the same one in Zara, he says, "I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been there."
Also read: Amitabh Bachchan has stood the test of time: Karan Johar
It’s this brand of honesty and directness that dictates this interview. After all, Karan Johar is Bollywood’s golden boy – what can he say wrong? Or do wrong? And he is doing a lot.
He started by being SRK’s sidekick in DDLJ, even styled a couple of his movies, then became the director of a brand of glamorous drama that has become synonymous with the last two decades of Bollywood, with movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001).
As producer, he took us to places other than Switzerland in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), spoke about infidelity (which we tend to avoid) in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), got people talking about homosexuality in Dostana (2008) and still retained his dramatic Bollywood aesthetic in his short film in Bombay Talkies (2013).
Besides directing, Johar has produced a host of successful movies and hosted what’s been India’s most popular talk show, Koffee with Karan, where he chats with his friends (basically all of Bollywood’s who’s who).
He has also recently curated a fashion collection for an Indian high street brand and designed styles for a jewellery brand, and now is playing an antagonist for his once nemesis, director Anurag Kashyap, in Bombay Velvet (to be released in early 2015).
This man is doing it all. And successfully too.
And then he spills his secret.
"Maybe it’s my temperament," he says. "I like to pack my day. I don’t have a wife or a child. It’s just my mom and me. My professional life is my personal life. The four to eight hours you would dedicate to extensions of yourself – maybe responsibilities, a parent, a spouse – I don’t do that, as I don’t have those. I love my job and I pack all my hours with it."
You would think that taking on too much would stifle his creativity. But he just laughs at the question when I ask him how he manages all this. "I am intrigued by the word ‘how’," he says. "I don’t know. I love to do it and I do it. I don’t regimentalise my creativity or compartmentalise my time by saying, ‘In one hour, I am going to just spend my time on cinema or fashion’.
Maybe I am fortunate to have a larger bandwidth where I can alternate between things. One hour ago, I was reading a screenplay, now I am giving an interview. For me, holidays don’t mean a thing. I hate Sundays, I create work for myself. What is a brunch? I have never taken an afternoon nap, not even when I was a child." Bollywood's child
The son of Yash Johar, producer of movies such as the original Dostana (1980) and Agneepath (1990), Johar grew up on everything filmi. He insists he was a curious child, who couldn’t sit idle.
"I was always doing something extracurricular. In fact, after college, I did some strange courses," he says. "Export/import classes, fruit and flower arrangement, public speaking, French, computer lessons and cookery classes as well – desserts, because I liked eating meetha. I even packed my summer holidays with classes. That’s where I met new people, and exchanged new ideas. I interned in an ad firm, choreographed fashion shows, acted in a play. I was always like this."
But he always knew movies were his calling. He hung out and exchanged ideas with friends like Zoya and Farhan Akhtar, Abhishek and Shweta Bachchan, Aditya and Uday Chopra and Hrithik Roshan — most of whom are now actors or directors.
Zoya remembers Johar being charming, bright and perceptive, but she never thought he would become the maverick he is today. "He used to be such a fatty then," says Zoya. "We used to just sit and eat chocolates! He was very intelligent even then, but I had no clue he was going to do what he does. It was only when I watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that I realised what he could do."
It was maybe because as Johar says, "Where else can you sing and cry and laugh and be at work? I used to feel bad for lawyers, engineers and doctors." He recalls having a great bunch of friends as a child. "We all went to the same birthday parties," he says.
"I had conversations with Zoya about movies, and about Farhan and how he was such a wastrel, just like Sid from Wake Up Sid. I saw Abhishek dance at his sister’s wedding and I knew he was a superstar; Hrithik who was such a thin and shy boy but worked really hard for Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai.
Aadi [Aditya Chopra] was the leader of the pack and we still look to him for advice. Most of the relationships I had still exist. Last night, I was at Zoya’s with Hrithik, Ranbir, Farhan and we were going down memory lane. Memories are great to fall back on – they give you strength."
Johar also remembers discovering fashion at a young age – when kids were reading Archie comics, he says he would read Vogue and Cosmopolitan. His love for fashion and things swanky later reflected in his movies — have you ever seen a college that looks like the one in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai?
"I was enamoured by the clothes and the men and women and how they looked. I later took the same aesthetic to my movies. Manish [Malhotra, the designer] and I just talked about movies – if I knew the song, he knew the movie and vice versa."
Johar created a new wave of Indian cinema. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was not just an explosion of Bollywood drama but also a celebration of the "branded" world Indians were just getting introduced to.
"When we were on the DDLJ sets, there was so little focus on costume or art direction. We all brought in a new brief – Aadi, me and Manish. There was a new sensibility in town.
For KKHH, we went shopping to London and my dad was like "Kaun jata hai kapde khareedne?" We wanted the labels to show – Gap and Polo were in your face.
That was our thinking. Remember SRK wearing that chain that said ‘COOL’. Today that would be so uncool." Karan the showman
If his movies were glamorous family and romantic dramas that you watched to escape real life – "Cinema is all about living vicariously," he says – his real entry into the everyday Indian’s life came when he started hosting the chat show Koffee With Karan 10 years ago.
He gossiped with his friends in an informal setting, often grilling them about their love lives and dirt we all wanted authenticated, and suddenly TV audiences felt they had found a new friend who just wanted them to feel included. He also was the most fun person on his show and I tell him so.
"Thank you," says Johar modestly. "I am a people person, and I thought it would be fun to chat with my friends. Not an interview, just an interaction, so that viewers could feel like insiders in an insider’s chat – like voyeurism. It was about the attitude, not information. There was never a grand revelation.
But I could ask questions that a normal interviewer couldn’t. Like I could say to you, ‘Are you having an affair?’ and you would say ‘Noooo’ and I would say, ‘Don’t lie to me. I don’t believe you!’ I enjoyed doing it. I was doing it at parties, I thought why not get paid for it!"
Along with being a director everyone wants to work with and hosting a show everyone wants to be invited to, Johar now is a producer everyone wants to collaborate with. In the last few years, Dharma has produced young and hip movies for an increasingly young, hip India.
Much like 2012’s Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu in which the heroine decided she didn’t want to be in a relationship, 2014’s Hasee Toh Phasee about two misfits who find each other and 2013’s Gippi, about a fat teenager trying to deal with life. It’s because Johar believes in moving with the times.
"Sensibilities evolve if your mind is open to changing times. You have to acknowledge what’s around you. We are a thinking population now – we want thinking cinema. I don’t think I would get away with KKHH today. When a mother leaves her daughter eight letters, how does she know what she would write in letters one to eight. How does a child that young comprehend what you are saying?"
"But that’s what made KKHH so Bollywood. You can’t put logic to it now," I object.
He laughs. "Of course you can’t. But you have to grow up. When I made Kal Ho Naa Ho I was more careful, because Dil Chahta Hai (2001) had changed the way we spoke in Hindi movies. So KHNH was more conversational. They are all more chatty… it’s how we speak today. The melodrama has reduced, but we still have songs. You can never escape the trappings of Hindi cinema but you can make it more relevant."
He is also an ace at making Hindi cinema aspirational. We have all watched his movies and wondered about these people and the grand lives they live. Even his old friends like stylist and fashion director at Vogue India, Anaita Shroff Adajania, remembers watching Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and thinking, "So this is how the rich of Delhi live."
She also recalls Johar as being a unique character when they first met in their college years. "He was a star choreographer, and I was a star model. Our shows were choreographed like dance routines. Everything on a beat — 5, 6, 7, 8. It was not about the clothes, it was pure entertainment. He showed us how Rekha danced — so we were privy to the early Karan performances."
She also knows why his movies work so well. "His characters are larger than life because he is larger than life," she says. "He works from his heart and that translates into commerce. He knows emotions because he is very emotional. He never holds grudges and bounces back quickly."
Directing his philosophies
Actress Alia Bhatt, who started her career in Johar’s
Student Of The Year
(2012), says the most important thing Johar taught her is how to behave with people.
“He is respectful of everyone – people who have been working for very long, and people who have just started out. I don’t just want to be a talented actress, I want to be someone who is a pleasure to work with. He has taught me how to be that.” She remembers his recent Blackberry Messenger status: Creativity is not a talent. It’s a way of operating. “That’s how you can describe him! He screams creativity and he screams genuineness.”
He is quite a quotable person, as his Twitter account also reflects. But then it would not be surprising for a director who deals with emotions so well in movies to be highly emotional as well. One tweet reads, “Black and white are aspirations... grey is the reality.”
“I don’t want to be black, and to be white, I would have to sit in the Himalayas. So grey is what we live. We lie to get out of situations, we manipulate – that’s grey. It makes you someone trying to live in the times of today,” Johar says.
He comes across as someone who has done his time. Johar quotes affirmations to himself every day. Like, “My only religion is humanity”. Perhaps this mantra has made him successful. And also made him one of the most liked people in the industry.
Is there anybody who doesn’t adore KJo, or confide in him? He is in the SRK gang, the Salman Khan gang, the Bachchan gang, the Kapoor gang and even Anurag Kashyap, who once criticised his films and brand of direction, insisted he be a part of
. “Anurag says I have a dark side. My alter ego maybe – after all, I am a Gemini.”
Johar says that could be because though he has pride, he doesn’t have a big ego. “I am not on a film set thinking I am a bigger star than SRK. I am not deluded about my relationships. I offer them my time, because that’s what matters. I get shocked when people ask, ‘Should we meet at your office or mine?’ I will meet you on the road ya! Mujhe batao, I will come anywhere… problem kya hai?”
He also wants to clear any misconception people may have that he leads a privileged life. “It’s a tough life – living up to expectations, holding on to your position, managing your work and relationships. I work at it. I get appalled when people don’t show gratitude. I will do anything for Aditya Chopra or Shah Rukh. I judge people by how large their hearts are and their level of gratitude.”
When he isn’t working, Karan spends time with his mom or has dinner with one of his famous friends. And he also watches one episode a day of his favourite international TV shows before he sleeps. “
Fargo, Game of Thrones, How To Get Away With Murder, Homeland, Girls, Downton Abbey, Orange Is The New Black
– I watch everything and anything.”
Right now though, he is excited about
, for which he says the biggest challenge was to reinvent himself. “I didn’t want to be an extension of myself.”
His next appointment is here and he is back to doing what he does best – multitasking without a sweat. His last line pretty much sums him up. “I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t do drugs. I am very clean. I am not addicted to anything except my work.”
"When I had coffee with Karan"
From the author's diary
I loved meeting Karan Johar, particularly because he gave me an insight into what makes a person successful. It’s not only about being creative but also working hard every day. I went thinking, this is Karan Johar, he has it all – his life must be awesome. And it is! But as Karan said, “It’s never been about resting on my success. You have to keep being consistent.”
I also understood why he is so loved by his peers. It’s because he always takes out time to be there for his friends and family. “The most precious thing that you can give someone is your time. They don’t want anything material.”
He is super fun to talk to: easy going, relaxed, candid and never one to mince his words – he charmed me off my feet. And damn, he is funny! As we talked about fashion and I confessed judging people who wear harem pants, he remarked, “What about Indian men who wear skinny pants! Those legs were not made for skinnies, please!”
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From HT Brunch, December 21
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