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Katrina Kaif-Karan Johar: The West Wing

If much of Bollywood looks like Angreziwood these days, it’s because of the urban, international soul of people like Karan Johar and Katrina Kaif. We got up and close with both in an exclusive story in the Brunch Quarterly. Read on for more.

entertainment Updated: Apr 16, 2011 15:15 IST
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi

Katrina Kaif cannot deny that she has been lucky in her timing. Had the UK-born, half British actress with a strong British accent and very little Hindi entered the film industry much before 2000, chances are she wouldn’t be the top-rated star she is today. "I have to say I’ve worked hard, but if I’d come in 10 years ago, maybe things would have been tougher for me," she muses. Katrina is lucky because, as filmmaker Karan Johar says, the Hindi film industry today is in the strange position where large numbers of its filmmakers think and speak in English, yet make movies in Hindi. "Ours is probably the only film industry in the world where dialogues get a separate credit," says Karan. "Because they’re usually creatively translated into Hindi from English."

As Karan says, it is strange. Bollywood is the Hindi film industry after all, meant to cater to the whole country, the national language of Hindi cutting across all linguistic barriers. But as anyone who watches movies knows, in the last 10 years or so, Bollywood could well have been renamed Angreziwood. Because the earthy, desh-ki-dharti, full masala, hum Hindustani flavour of its movies has been largely replaced by the urban, international essence of the globalised Indian who could either be an NRI or just a cool, citified, English-speaking dudette or dude.

KatrinaThink about it. In the last decade, only a few Hindi movies have truly been rooted in an India that is Bharat, filled with masala, big on emotion and entertainment, and universally Indian. In 2001, Aamir Khan’s village cricket epic, Lagaan, set the box office on fire. Two years later, in 2003, Prakash Jha made Gangaajal, set in Bhagalpur, the badlands of Bihar (now Jharkand). In 2006, Vishal Bhardwaj made Omkara, set in rural UP, which was a huge hit. And that was followed only now, in 2010, with quintessentially Bharat-Bollywood films like Raajneeti and Dabangg.

But other than these, most films have either been set in big Indian cities with urban sensibilities, or, more usually, abroad. Think Race, Fashion, Namastey London, Ajab Prem Ki Gajab Kahani, Wake Up Sid, Anjaana Anjaani...

"It’s a trend that began 15 years ago with the Yash Chopra film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ)," observes film critic Anupama Chopra. "Of course, Yash Chopra was known for setting the songs in his films against foreign backdrops – think of Silsila, way back in 1981. But those were songs. Ten years after that, he made Lamhe. Half that film was set in London, because it was about NRIs. But it didn’t work."

On the other hand, DDLJ, made in 1995, did work – like a charm. With Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan playing the NRI protagonists, the film was instrumental in changing the mindset of not only the Indian audience, but also the NRI audience, that began to demand more films like this.

"By not looking down on NRIs, and being set in Switzerland which was used not just as a pretty location but as a pivotal part of the story, DDLJ was a contemporary look at NRIs that was much appreciated," explains Anupama.

Then Karan Johar, who had worked on DDLJ, arrived with his NRI films, and a pattern began to be set. One that mostly took over the film industry, with the result that Bollywood doesn’t look much like Bollywood very much, but more like a spiced up Hollywood in Hindi.

But the NRI association is not the only thing that led to this state of affairs. The background of most filmmakers today, thanks to liberalisation and globalisation, is also different. As filmmaker Prakash Jha, maker of Gangaajal and Raajneeti, says, "The industry today is dominated by kids born and brought up in the metros. They have seen only a certain kind of lifestyle and that is what they know best." Naturally, that means their sensibilities are far from pan Indian.

"Everyone in the industry, actors, directors, scriptwriters and even the audience is now urban – well, mostly," says Puneet Malhotra, director of I Hate Luv Storys. "So being that way on screen comes naturally to us. Western influences on the present generation of filmmakers are very strong. We all know Hindi, but for most of us, it’s a second language. No wonder that though we make films in Hindi, the look and feel are very Western."

Adds director Rajshree Ojha, who recently made a feature film debut with Aisha – a very urban movie based on Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, "I have grown up reading English novels, going to English medium schools, conversing in English and thinking in English. So it wouldn’t be possible for me to make a film based in Barabanki and not in New Delhi or South Mumbai."

Karan Johar agrees. "I’m not comfortable going into a zone I don’t know that much about," he says. "For instance, I would not know how to make a film like Peepli [Live]. If I were to make a film about, say, rural politics, I would do a very stereotypical job. I am limited in that respect. It’s the same with a lot of other younger filmmakers too, like, say, Farhan Akhtar. There is a certain urban quality and sensibility that we bring to our cinema."

There is another side to this comfort zone, as the recent smash hit Dabangg, and the highly political Raajneeti have shown us. When filmmakers come from non-metro parts of India, they come with their own ideas and concepts of what Hindi films can be.

Abhinav Kashyap, director of Dabangg, a film set in small town UP that took us back to the masala flicks of the ’70s, is from the same generation as Karan Johar, Puneet Malhotra and Rajshree Ojha, but is not from the same milieu.

"The place where you grew up makes a big difference," says Abhinav. "This isn’t limited to destinations and the language spoken on screen. It is also about mindsets. I went to a boarding school, but the whole notion was to come out and become an IAS officer. That’s because of the place I come from. A small town, where a hairstylist will always be seen as a barber, and parents will frown upon any profession other than government service."

Oddly, it’s because of the generalised ‘Indian’ mindset that many Hindi movies are set abroad, says Anupama Chopra. “I once asked Karan Johar why he set Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna in New York, can’t people have affairs in India? And he said, ‘Where’s the coffee shop where two people could meet and fall in love?’ Plus, take a film like Salaam Namaste, about a couple who live together. It had to be set in Australia, a place which is no known reality to us, because it makes a story like that more palatable. We would otherwise not accept it.”

Filmmakers stick to what they know best for two reasons. The first, of course, is that they know what they’re doing and that makes life so much simpler when it comes to putting together a project as complicated as a movie.

“Even directors like me stick to what we know best,” shrugs Prakash Jha. “I can’t make a candy floss film. I can’t relate to it at all. So even when a character in my film is ‘foreign returned’ like Ranbir’s character in Rajneeti, he turns rustic. It’s all about sticking to your comfort zone.”

And the second (and most vital) reason is, naturally, money. “There is so much to lose when you are unsure of views, ideas, concepts,” says Puneet. “It could lead to losses in terms of creativity, time, potential and most important, the biggest governing factor, money.”

This doesn’t mean that filmmakers always stick to their formulae. As Abhinav points out, many filmmakers are comfortable taking chances – Dibakar Banerjee, who made Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye and Love Sex Aur Dhokha, for instance, and Abhinav’s own brother, Anurag Kashyap, maker of Dev.D and Black Friday.

But by and large, it’s safer for a filmmaker to stick to what she or he knows best, especially since multiplex cinemas have changed the way the box office functions.

“Very few people make films that are pan Indian in approach,” says scriptwriter Niranjan Iyenger. “The multiplex cinema phenomenon is about just that. You pick and choose what you want to see, and we pick and choose who we want to make a film for.”

So while Dabangg can be a country-wide hit, Singh is Kinng and Wake Up Sid can sweep the metros. While Peepli [Live], set in rural India, can delight an urban audience, Raajneeti, set in small-town India, can work across the nation.

And there’s an international box office to cater to as well, as Puneet Malhotra points out. “The films we are making now have an international look and feel. There are thousands of Indians and non-Indians who want to see the changing picture of India. It isn’t just the cash registers at home that are important. Box office success internationally is just as essential.”

The simple truth is, for many filmmakers, setting stories abroad makes sense, because shooting abroad is logistically easier. It’s no secret that tourist authorities worldwide are wooing Indian filmmakers, and providing them with everything they need. India, in contrast, is far more bureaucratic about permits and permissions.

In spite of all this variation and differentiation, however, Bollywood is still Bollywood. No one has lost the plot, says Prakash Jha. “It is just the context that has changed as well as the locations, but the emotions and essence remain more or less the same. The drama varies accordingly.”

It’s difficult to counter Prakash’s argument when you remember that for all their internationalism and use of English, Hindi films are still made in Hindi.

“It’s cool to make Hindi films,” says Karan Johar. “Speaking for myself, I don’t want to make an English film. I’m uncomfortable directing people for English dialogues. When I was making My Name Is Khan and I had to deal with a lot of actors who were speaking in English, I found myself giving them very synthetic instructions.”

There’s no doubt that the urban Hindi-English mix that’s used a lot in Bollywood these days has made life easier for citified actors and actresses. “With more and more English being incorporated in our dialogues and acting becoming far more natural, it’s always a better deal,” says actress Soha Ali Khan.

But easy is not always the only way to work, Soha adds. “Having done Khoya Khoya Chand which was completely in Urdu and for which I had to work on my diction and nuances, I have to say that it is imperative for every actor to learn,” she asserts.

Which brings us back to Katrina Kaif, whose British accent tends to get in the way of her dialogue delivery. For all that she’s become a top-flight Bollywood star in a globalised world, Katrina is trying to Indianise. “You have to constantly work at it, especially to get the nuances of the emotions correct,” she says.

After all, Bollywood is Bollywood. Wherever in the world it may be located.

Karan on Karan
what’s your new film all about? It’s a youthful fun campus film with songs, dances, the works. In My Name Is Khan, I had to hold back that side of myself. But this is my holiday film and it’s an unabashedly Karan Johar film. I will also be working with newcomers for the first time – Siddharth Malhotra, Varun Dhawan and Aliya Bhatt. I’m looking forward to that. And I thought I’d better make the film while I’m still relatively young!

Won’t you miss shah rukh khan? How can I miss him? He’s producing the film! I’m accountable to him. Every shot I take, I’ll see his name on the clapboard. And he’s told me he’ll personally assault me if I overshoot the budget!

Why is this season of Koffee With Karan so controversial? You know, my show hasn’t changed. But the media base has. Today there’s so much focus on the entertainment industry that even the slightest tongue-in-cheek statement explodes on the national network, on the Net, in magazines and newspapers. Entertainment reporting is going through the roof. The younger generation of stars is born irreverent, they’re not so ‘protocol friendly.’ So they say these cool, irreverent things. But look at the flip side, all this has made the show even more rocking than it is! I don’t regret a single episode of Koffee With Karan.

Katrina on Katrina
What are you like as a person? I’m still very shy. I am still not very comfortable with meeting strangers. Though I’m in a very public industry, it is difficult for me to talk. I get unnerved if I have to meet strangers. I keep looking at the floor and fidgeting. It’s very silly.
Has stardom changed you? I won’t say it’s changed me, but I have become more conscious of myself. Especially in terms of work. Now that there is more of it, touch wood, I do make conscious decisions. Earlier, that was a luxury. But I still remain the same Katrina.

How would you characterise your acting style? I am a pure commercial actress. That is my forte. Whether it’s New York or Singh Is Kinng, I do films that have mass appeal. I am always game to experiment and I do love variety, but any film I do should be commercially viable.

What do you think you will bring to Dostana 2? I do not believe that I will have to step into Priyanka Chopra’s shoes in Dostana 2. The characters we play are completely different from each other. If comparisons happen, let them happen. They will happen all the time anyway. Priyanka did a great job in Dostana and I’ll do my own bit in Dostana 2. As for the rest, you watch the film and tell me.

Katrina KaranKaran on Katrina

What’s your take on Katrina? She’s a girl who came from a different country and has become one of this country’s leading actresses. She’s India’s sweetheart. These days when we are testing girls for film roles, there are scores of girls who are half Indian-half English, or half Indian-half Brazilian or whatever! But Katrina’s success story has to do with destiny and with her. When she smiles, she connects with the audience. She’s sexy yet vulnerable.

Why did you sign her for Dostana 2? Dostana 2 requires a beautiful and sexy girl and she’s both.

But there are lots of beautiful, sexy girls in Bollywood… In the history of cinema, you’ll notice that most of the top actresses haven’t been conventional beauties. There’s something called screen presence. You either have it or you don’t. Kajol and Rani are not beauties but they light up the screen.

Do you think Katrina and Shah Rukh would make a good pair? I think they’d make a great pair. It would be a fresh combination.

Katrina’s best performances? I loved her in Ajab Prem Ki Gajab Kahani. I thought she was sweet and saucy. She has nice comic timing. I also liked her in Namastey London.

Do you think she worked in Raajneeti? I haven’t seen Raajneeti so I don’t know. But I think she’s played the mainstream heroine in many films. Unfortunately she hasn’t worked with too many very evolved filmmakers. But I think she has the potential to emerge as a fine actress.

What do you think of her dancing? Dancing is not about footwork. It’s about the face. It’s about energy. Sridevi was not technically perfect but she was a great dancer. Kajol is not like some Bharat Natyam dancer. But she looks like she’s having a blast when she’s dancing. The best combination of grace and face was of course Madhuri Dixit. Katrina is a clutter-breaker dancer. She moves in her own way. She has a certain Western grace even in her Indian movements.

So what is the secret of Katrina’s success? It’s her hard work.

That sounds like such a cliché! No, really. She is very hard working. You know, she’s still taking coaching in Hindi? Now she’s dubbing her own lines. It’s quite an achievement. When she was shooting Sheila ki jawani for Farah Khan I was told that she would shoot the whole day and at the end of the day, still do her workout and rehearsals.

Katrina on Karan

When did you first meet Karan? About five or six years ago, at his birthday party. It was right here at Taj Lands End. Nearly the entire industry was there and so was I. We aren’t bumchums. In fact, we generally meet only at social dos. A polite hello and bit of a conversation is the maximum between us. This photo shoot for Brunch Quarterly, I would say, is the maximum time we have spent together.

What’s he like as a person? As I said, we aren’t back-slapping buddies. Nor have we had much interaction. But from the little I know of him, Karan is a very genuine person. His likes and dislikes are there for all to see. And he has a kind and sensitive soul. This is obvious even in his films.

What do you think of him as a filmmaker? Karan has a brilliant mind. Though I have never worked with him, I have followed his work, of course. As a producer, he is very experimental. From Kal Ho Naa Ho to Wake Up Sid, he always tries to do something new and give his directors creative space. But he is marvellous as a director. He is flamboyant, but every film has a personal ‘Karan’ touch to it. Whether it’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna or My Name Is Khan, every film reflects the larger-than-life but sensitive side of Karan Johar.

How come you’ve never worked with him? I guess it just never happened. One really can’t plan these things. Now, after nearly a decade in the film industry, I’ve signed Dostana 2 with him. I hope the combination works. But before that we’ll be together on the cover of your magazine and this is certainly the first time that we’ll be together.

Incidentally, this photo shoot for Brunch Quarterly is the first time that Katrina Kaif and Karan Johar have spent longer than a few minutes together.

Photos: Prasad Naik

Styling: Jayati Bose

Makeup and hair: Clint Fernandes

Location courtesy: Taj Lands End, Mumbai

This story first appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the brand new lifestyle magazine from the Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.