Bollywood Bookshelf: Reading between the lines with Karan Johar
Tasteful. That’s how I’d describe Karan Johar’s living room. I’m sitting there prepped with my list of questions as we chat aimlessly about what a crazy week he’s had. Sporting a bright red sweater with the golden words ‘Wild Ones’ across the front, he may be busy, but never dull, which is only to be expected from a Bollywood director, screenwriter, producer and television host!
Since he was young, Karan has been a lover of books, particularly stories with a little fantastical flair. In fact, the literary world has had a significant impact on his filmmaking career. I’m here to discuss all things literary, and how Bollywood is influenced by its books.
First question: in the film Ratatouille (2007), Gusteau states that ‘Anyone can cook’. It is later explained that he does not mean that anyone can be a great artist, but that a great artist can come from anywhere. Do you agree with this?
Karan: Absolutely! I know people study film and the art form of filmmaking, and go to art school, but for me, when looking at my own career graph, I feel I was always meant for the movies. I was dramatic – melodramatic! – and I always had that sense of humour and loved the energy Hindi cinema brought. I think anyone can, if you cultivate it in yourself. Either it’s a natural gift, and that’s great if you veer towards it, but there are also people who can cultivate the kind of academia associated with films, editing, cinematography, choreography – so many departments! We have to remember it’s not just directing and acting! The only prerequisite is your passion – you have to really want to do it.
Do you remember the first book that shaped your identity?
Karan: I used to do a lot of reading when I was really young. In the time I grew up, Enid Blyton was it! There was one book, I have to say, Zuni, that I read every week. It’s a lesser known and undervalued Enid Blyton book. It’s called The Land of Far-Beyond. It’s about a group of people who are going from a land of torture into a land of happiness and they carry a burden with them, the result of being bad people. This burden was symbolic of the emotional burden we carry with us, but because it was a kids’ book, they showed it in the form of a physical burden. It was a journey of people who had faltered, fumbled and failed. It’s a value book that I was drawn to, and it talked about karma at a very young stage. I was impressionable and it stayed with me. I read it every week for a whole two years!
If your house was on fire and you had to save three books, which three would you choose?
Karan: Well…in this day and age, I’d save films and not books! The films I’d save would be The Shawshank Redemption (1994), then the very first film I ever saw, which was Roman Holiday (1953), and then Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). These are my go-to films. Roman Holiday mostly because of the emotional attachment – my mum took me to see that, my first film, when I was all of six years old, and I was mesmerised! Maybe the fact that I’m a filmmaker today goes back to Roman Holiday in some way.
Which fictional character do you most identify with?
Karan: Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (by Ayn Rand) – I want to be him! Oh my god. I wanna be Howard Roark! I wanna be him, I wanna talk to him, I wanna know him, I’m obsessed with him but I’m not him! I’ve read books after The Fountainhead of course, but nothing as powerful as that. It’s about individualism over collectivism, and I believe that stayed with me; I believe in not conforming and making your own path.
What’s a classic you haven’t read?
Karan: Kane and Abel (by Jeffrey Archer). I started reading it but I couldn’t get through it, even though I know a lot of Hindi and English cinema is embedded in that book! The other book that I really tried to read was A Suitable Boy (by Vikram Seth). Couldn’t get through it. I think it was the size that got to me. I see the virtue in the writing, but I need my books to be shorter now.
Name your favourite authors.
Karan: Ayn Rand, definitely. Enid Blyton – I know it sounds idiotic for a 46-year-old man to be saying Enid Blyton, but I just feel like I’m going back to my childhood and all the memories that I have with The Land of Far-Beyond! I’m going to stick with those two; one is a classic and one is my childhood.
Who’s your favourite hero of fiction? Though [laughs] I guess you’ve already answered this!
Karan: Yeah, sticking with my answer – Howard Roark!
What non-fiction book would you recommend?
Karan: I absolutely loved the Andre Agassi autobiography, Open. I know nothing about sport or tennis, but his life journey was just beautiful! The feeling of going through his ups and downs with him, I just felt it. Not all biographies resonate with me the way that one did.
What book that hasn’t been made into a film would you want to see a film adaptation of?
Karan: The Fountainhead! Really bad film made in 1949 by the way; it was a disaster. But now it needs to be a modern day adaptation into a Netflix original. I want to see that happen.
Could it be a Bollywood film?
Karan: No. Because it’s got too much to say, and we don’t like to say too much! [laughs]
Do you judge people on the basis of their book choices?
Karan: No, because I don’t read enough either. I’d judge them on their film choice though!
Okay! What choice of film would make you fall in love with someone?
Karan: I think if someone told me they loved vintage Yash Chopra, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, all the classic filmmakers. Especially from the young generation. If anyone knows the lyrics of Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam (Kaagaz Ke Phool) I would be like, I’m all yours, I’m in love with you!
What’s the most underrated book or book series?
Karan: The Land of Far-Beyond; that particular book of Enid Blyton.
What’s your favourite reading spot?
Karan: A long-haul flight.
Kindle or hard copy?
Karan: Hard copy, still. I even still write with paper and pen. There’s a beauty in it that I can’t seem to erase!
Which fictional character would you like to cosplay as, if you could?
Karan: Jay Gatsby (from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald).
What’s your favourite book-to-screen adaptation?
Karan: The Bridges of Madison County (by Robert James Waller) with Meryl Streep. Beautiful!
Which movie of yours would make the best book?
Karan: None! Who’d want to read any of those? Ugh! [laughs] I don’t think they’d warrant a book. They just about made it to screenplays!
(The author is a 17-year-old girl from Mumbai who has written the novels The House That Spoke and The Island Of The Day Before. She is a regular contributor to HT Brunch)
From HT Brunch, November 4, 2018
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