Excerpt: Game Changers by Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi’s new book includes essays on Arnab Goswami and Shashi Tharoor. This excerpt highlights how Karan Johar has contributed to a greater acceptance of homosexuality
There are many reasons why Karan Johar should be in this book, the most important being that he helped create a new genre of Hindi cinema that pretty much changed the rules of the game. And that he invented a new kind of celebrity talk show and made it impossible for any TV presenter who was less well-connected than him (i.e., every single TV presenter) to do a show that was as entertaining or informal.
But I didn’t choose him for either of those reasons. I chose him because he is the renaissance man of Indian cinema, a top director who wants to be so much more: talent show judge, actor, dancer, master of ceremonies, producer, author and god alone knows what else.
And because, in a country (and an industry) where nobody likes being honest about sex or sexuality, he has the guts to be himself.
First things first: is Karan Johar gay?
Yes. He probably is. He does not deny it and his conversations seem to assume that the person he is talking to knows that he is gay.
But here’s the thing: he won’t come out and say it. Not because he is ashamed of his sexuality but because he believes that there should be no obligation for gay people to come out. Sexuality is a private matter and it is nobody else’s business. People can reveal as much about their sexuality as they choose—but only because they want to, not because somebody expects them to.
Which is fair enough. Except that sexuality seems to have played a major role in Karan’s life. Even as a child he recalls being treated as a fat boy with effeminate gestures. He was, he concedes, probably very effeminate but was unprepared for the scorn that was heaped on him or the names that he was called: ‘pansy’ was the most common.
The jeering made him uncomfortable with his sexuality and for years he struggled with his own preferences. He went on diets and lost weight. He thought that perhaps his style of talking drew the wrong kind of attention to him so he went to classes to learn how to modulate his voice. He worried about his walk so he went to another instructor to learn how to walk.
…Even success did not help settle the conflicts that raged inside him. When his first movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai released in 1998, when Karan was twenty-six, the director was still a virgin. The movie went on to become a super-hit and launched a new genre in which the characters came from different backgrounds, wore designer clothes, had an international outlook on life, and focused on romance to the exclusion of nearly everything else.
…He had success and money now. But it made no difference to his inner confidence. Sex had always been something of a mystery to him. (‘I was very backward in this department,’ he says) and it took him a long time to even understand the mechanics. Till he was out of school, he did not know what the words ‘fuck’ and ‘masturbation’ meant.
And when he thought he did know what those terms meant, he was usually wrong. Take the term ‘blow job’. He had no idea what it meant till a classmate told him, ‘You take off all your clothes and put your fan on high speed and that’s a blow job.’
Karan was so curious about the mystery of sex that he went home and did just that.
It felt good and later, he bragged about his blow jobs, ‘I had three blow jobs yesterday,’ he announced proudly.
By the time he was twenty-six and one of India’s hottest young directors, he had figured out that fans were not required for blow jobs. But he had still never touched another person sexually. He longed for physical intimacy and to be touched.
After the super success of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, he declared that he needed to do something about his virginity. He had heard about a high-end escort service in London and decided he would pay for sex just to find out what it was like.
But even that decision was accompanied by a lot of trauma. He felt he was overweight. What would it be like taking off his clothes in front of a stranger? Would the other person laugh when he saw Karan’s naked body? Then he rationalised. He was paying for the sex. How did it matter what the other person thought?
So he decided to go ahead. He met the escort, paid the money and then, just as proceedings were about to commence, decided that he couldn’t go through with it. He told the escort to keep the money and ran away.
A week later he decided to try again. This time he did muster up the courage to have sex and finally managed to lose his virginity.
It was, he recalls, fun at a physical level. And the release was something he needed badly. But after it was through, he still felt empty. Because the escort had only been doing a job, the whole experience felt fake. ‘It felt like I was in a film with cameras on.’
He hasn’t paid for sex since (though he was tempted to do so once in New York, a decade or so ago) and has come to terms with his sexuality though he doesn’t seem to have found the kind of fulfilling romance that features in his movies. He has been in love, he says. And he has had sex. But the two have not gone together. He has not had sex with anyone he loves.
As painful as this personal journey has been, it has not been helped by the mocking, sneering attitude of people. In some ways, it is as though the boys who once called him a fairy have now grown up and still hang around saying the same sort of thing.
…He was giving an interview about a business venture one morning when the anchor suddenly asked if he was a homosexual. Another time, the interviewer asked straight out if it was true that he was having an affair with Shah Rukh Khan.
This time, something snapped inside Karan. He asked the TV anchor, ‘Are you having an affair with your brother?’ The anchor was horrified. ‘Of course not,’ he responded. ‘Why are you asking me that?’
‘Well,’ said Karan, ‘because that is exactly the sort of question you have just asked me. Shah Rukh is like a member of my family and yet you think I am having an affair with him.’
…Some of the stories, Karan remembers, were so ridiculous that he was astonished people even took them seriously. ‘One rumour was that somebody had chanced upon Shah Rukh and me in the Concorde Lounge at London airport and we were breathlessly making out,’ Karan recalls. ‘That was just so absurd. Even if we were having a clandestine affair, would we be kissing in a public place like an airport lounge?’
Eventually, Shah Rukh jokily alluded to the rumours when he appeared on Karan’s TV show. Karan asked him, ‘What if you wake up as Karan Johar?’
Shah Rukh shot back, ‘My chances of waking up as him are less. But waking up with him are more.’
But in a country where many people have still to learn what irony means, some gossips took this as confirmation of the rumours.
For years even as Karan battled speculation about his private life, he refused to discuss his sexuality. Then, in 2017, he published his memoirs titled An Unsuitable Boy, in which many of the stories about his early sexual confusion were revealed. When I read it, I was surprised to find that virtually every story one had heard (plus many that nobody had heard before), from the late loss of virginity to an escort, to his confusion about what a blow job is faithfully recounted.
Too much information?
Why did one of Hindi cinema’s top directors and a nationally recognised celebrity want to tell us that he had never managed to have sex with anyone he loved?
Soon after the book was published and shocked readers with its honesty about sexual matters, I sat down with Karan for a TV interview. Why was there so much sex in the book? I asked. Did he really mean it when he said that he still did not have enough sex?
Yes, he said, he did. That side of his life had never quite sorted itself out. And he felt it was important to talk about sex for several reasons. One: there was no point writing a memoir if he wasn’t going to be entirely honest. Two: there had been so much speculation about his sex life that it was time to finally put the truth on record.
But there was a third reason, and this was the most important. He can’t have been the only boy who was called ‘fatty’ or ‘pussy’ at school. There must be other kids out there who face the same kind of humiliation and ridicule. It was important to let them know that they were not alone. Others had been in that same situation before and managed to successfully overcome that phase of their lives.
As for the candour about his sexual identity and the confusion he felt about growing up when he was not attracted to girls? Well, surely there are still thousands of boys out there who are as confused. In a country where the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is not a cliché but a brutal reality, it is important for people in the public eye to be honest about their own sexual confusion and struggles.
Wasn’t he worried that the sexual candour in the memoir would detract from his many other achievements, some of which were not even mentioned in the book?
No, he wasn’t. He wanted the book to capture who he was. And he was essentially a product of those insecurities and confusions. Why lie about that?
It’s been close to two years since the book appeared and I think Karan has been proven right. The sniggering about the sexual anecdotes has died down (as have the Shah Rukh Khan rumours) and most people now accept that yes, Karan is gay but it hardly matters. In that sense, he has helped people with different or complicated sexualities find greater acceptance and has contributed to the normalisation of the public perception of homosexuality.
His achievements are too massive and too memorable to ever be overlooked. Yet, he feels, with some justification, that a professional caricature of his life is still firmly imprinted in the public mind.
According to this caricature, he is the spoilt rich son of film industry parents who makes movies about rich people and perpetuates the filmi tradition of dynasty. In his memoir, he recalls a conversation with the director Zoya Akhtar who once told him delightedly that people were calling her the new Karan Johar.
He says he told her, ‘Don’t take it as a compliment. They don’t mean it as a compliment. They mean you are making a film about rich people and frivolous things that don’t matter.’
And that, in fact, is the one raw nerve when it comes to his work. He is annoyed by the way in which the work is pigeon-holed...
He says, with just the slightest trace of bitterness, ‘I think if my name was not Karan Johar, but Karan Kaushik or something like that, then people would praise me for taking chances or for making edgy films.’