A new film. A new season of his guilty-pleasure TV show. And a new sense of liberation. Karan Johar talks. Baradwaj Rangan listens.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we’ve never seen a filmmaker like Karan Johar. It isn’t just the films, those unabashed celebrations of very pretty people in very pretty locations shedding very pretty tears as they get their very pretty hearts broken. It’s the way he has positioned himself outside his films, like you can ask him anything, like he’ll tell you everything. Interviewing him feels like catching up with a friend over a beer – a friend who’s flown you first-class to a biergarten in Amsterdam. It’s a bit surreal. But it doesn’t feel like an act. It feels real. Of course, the problem with talking to someone whose life is such an open book is that everyone’s read the story. Many of the anecdotes are familiar. You know he’s been through therapy. You know he was the only kid in his South Bombay neighbourhood who watched Hindi films. You know his new film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, is based on his experiences with unrequited love. But maybe you don’t know that he hates being called KJo. Or Uncle. Or Sir.
So what does your mother call you?
Karan. My college friends call me Karu, which is the worst. Only in our country can we make a short form for a short name. But otherwise, I’ve never had a pet name all my life. My parents never gave me one. But now, in official meetings where you’re supposed to be taking things very seriously, someone will call me KJo. And I’ll judge that person in my head. I can’t help it. Just call me Karan. You have some kids who will come through family friends and work in the company [Dharma Productions], and we are an Uncle-Aunty kind of nation. We are not a Mr Johar, Mrs Johar kind of nation. You cross a certain age and you are Uncle. And – pardon my French – but I’ll f*** you if you’re going to call me Uncle.
Is it vanity?
I think so. It’s not like I think I’m a beauty queen. But I feel that if I am called Uncle, my thoughts have to constantly be relevant. It’s not the reminder about my age. It’s the formality. I can’t function with it. Maybe if my nephew or niece called me Uncle I would be okay with it. Because I am their Uncle.
Ae Dil… is a wall-to-wall homage to older films and music. Did it bother you that these references might go over the heads of this younger generation you talk about?
I knew some of it would. But I was hoping the emotional core of the film would tide it through. I hoped that they would like the friend-zoning bit of this girl saying, “I am not attracted to you and I am happy.” I didn’t write Ae Dil… trying to balance everyone’s tastes and sensibilities. It’s a film that just came to me. I felt it. And I wrote it. These were characters who, like me, have grown up on Hindi cinema. They may be younger than people from the era I am addressing, but when you are a film buff, you go back in time. And it did not cross my mind that I am alienating an audience. I knew the Farida Khanum and Noorjehan references would go over people my age. So I did what I wanted to do. And if there is honesty in the emotion, it will resonate. If the core honesty fails to connect, then the peripheral elements won’t matter.
The core of the film is something you’ve handled earlier. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kajol’s love for Shah Rukh Khan is unrequited (at least for a while). This comes up again through the Rishi Kapoor character in Student of the Year. But this is the first time you deal with this flavour of love from start to finish.
The first time I fell in love, I was in my 20s, and I loved someone right till I was 31. And then I felt that emotion died within me. I wasn’t feeling alive at all. But the second time I fell in love – this was another 7-8 year phase –I realised that while it is heartbreaking and the worst feeling in the world, it made me feel alive. I felt something had woken me up. You can take the power of that feeling and translate it to every other aspect of your life, including your work. You don’t have to get it back. The moment I felt it come to a close – I knew I wouldn’t even be able to handle the friendship at the time; it was that difficult – it got a little messy in my head, which is why I needed to talk to a stranger, like a therapist. That was the zone I was in when I wrote this film. I felt that I needed to hold on to that feeling about the positivity of love.
Is that what your relationships have taught you? Positivity?
They taught me the power of that feeling. I think they made a lot more open to myself. I think when you open your heart out, especially in an unrequited love situation, your open heart opens up to so much else. It opens up to other elements around you. You may not get that love, but that love completes you in other ways. There’s a line that [lyricist] Amitabh Bhattacharya has written: Adhoora hoke bhi hai ishq mera kaamil. [Even if it’s incomplete, my love is complete.] Now this could sound philosophical, but I feel like that love I didn’t get completed me because it was still within me, and that’s why there is this thought of ek tarfa pyaar –one-sided love – that no one has really spoken about. It taught me the ability to give and not just receive.
Have you ever been in a relationship that was a two-way thing?
But both times the other person knew about your feelings towards them.
Yeah, yeah. There was total honesty.
And all of this spilled over into Ae Dil…, where the hero and heroine don’t end up together. Is Karan Johar no longer a fan of happy endings?
I don’t know about happy endings, because I don’t think, eventually, anything is happy happy. What is happiness? There’s a line in my film which I cut out. He asks her if she is happy. She says, “Khushi ka kya hai? Gham ke aas paas hi to bhatakti hai.” [What’s happiness? It’s just something that hovers around sadness.”] You feel a bout of happiness with good news. Five minutes later, there could be a traffic jam, or a phone call from an irritating relative, or a weird thought, or it could be a tweet that annoys you, and your emotion will flip immediately. I believe happiness is the most overrated feeling in the world. It’s like that Dosti song Rahi manwa dukh ki chinta kyon satati hai, dukh to apna saathi hai. It’s not actually a sad song. It’s the most positive take on sadness.
Your characters, too, have turned darker. Shah Rukh in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is whiny and self-pitying. Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil… is a self-absorbed man-child.
Maybe. But there are more men like Ranbir and Shah Rukh in the real world than there are people who always say and do the right things. These are people that I know. They are people around us. If they don’t say it, they are feeling it. Many of them want to do what Ranbir does, which is show her the middle finger. He says, “I wish your husband falls off the horse and dies and I hope you die too.” Because that is what I have felt. But our heroes don’t talk like this. So the film is speaking a new language literally and emotionally. I suppose there are people who are going to misconstrue this, judge this…
Has this texture played a part in the decreasing box office of your films? Ae Dil… looks like it will end up making a little over Rs. 100 crore, but that isn’t much of a target these days for a big movie.
Ae Dil… is an overseas blockbuster and a domestic hit. Could I have done things to make it a bigger hit? Yes. The difference between Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Ae Dil… is that this is a darker film. But I can’t write those films anymore. I don’t how to write Kuch Kuch Hota Hai anymore. I don’t know how to cater to that person I was, and even then, I wasn’t being myself in many parts of the movie. Kuch Kuch… has so many contradictions. It had a certain honesty that rang through, but actually it doesn’t add up. I was 25 when I made that film and it was really everything that I thought Hindi cinema was. I was being a producer’s son who wanted to give my father and the company a big blockbuster. So there were “designed” moments. There was religion. There was a Muslim character. These were things you were told to work in so that the film would reach a large audience. It was a Diwali film, so I put something Diwali-esque, like that Raghupati Raghav song.
So how would you have “designed” Ae Dil… had you been that older Karan Johar?
I could have pushed the cancer angle. I could have been as emotionally manipulative as I was in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. That film was just me showing off. I wanted the helicopter shot. I wanted the big mansion. Kuch Kuch… gave me money and now I wanted every movie star in the business in my poster. It’s the only poster I have in my office. I love that portrait. I remember people exiting the previews of that film and they had mascara running all over. Those days it was considered an achievement to make an audience cry. I chose to make Ae Dil… lighter. That was me being updated. That was me being 2.0. I didn’t want you to walk out with tears. The emotion I was chasing was “bittersweet.” Maybe I could have done without the cancer angle altogether. But I didn’t see a different ending. Does this impact the box office? Yes. Can I do something about it? If something comes naturally to me and I can cater to a vast audience with me still being honest to my thoughts, then maybe. I hope that can happen, but right now, I don’t know. Even Kabhi Alvida… is a flawed film. It had many stars. It had three item songs. None of this was required. The intensity and integrity of that film was completely compromised by my holding on to the identity of a commercial filmmaker. With Ae Dil… I think I have let go.
You still have stars, songs…
I loved The Break-up Song. I felt I needed to have one dance-wala number. That was the only deviation of the film from its core emotion. So when this film crosses Rs. 100 crore, I am relieved. Because it could have gone completely wrong. It has a track of a young man with an older woman, which has never worked in mainstream cinema. It has the love which does not fructify, which has been seen only in a few films like Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. It ends very sadly, with both of them bald, which you don’t want to see. And it has self-referencing right through, which could have missed the point. If you are a romantic, you’ll love the film. If you are pragmatic about love, if you’ve been hurt and have put a guard around you, you’re going to judge this film very differently. But even the people who haven’t liked the film, if you speak to them, I think you’ll find it sticks to them. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to express what it is. Because it came from someone’s very honest place. I have lived these moments. That part about heartache being a real ache – I swear, it’s worse than a wisdom tooth extraction. You don’t know how to get rid of that pain. The anxiety that comes with it, the lack of sleep. I doused myself with sleeping tablets and got out of that phase. Like the Anushka Sharma character, I know what it means to be the brand ambassador of heartache in your own head.
For someone so invested in love and romance, even if in an increasingly philosophical and cynical way, does it bother you that you don’t have someone to share your life with?
I look forward to that. But I think I’ve gone way past that time. I haven’t found it and I don’t know where to go from here. I am so in control of my life that I don’t know if I can share it anymore. When you’ve been single for 44 years of your life, you wake up when you feel like it, you go to sleep when you want to. I have no responsibilities other than my mum. We have no other family. We have close friends that are like family and they don’t expect very much. My life is all about my work, which I love. My biggest relationship is with my work. So I don’t feel the need and I don’t know if I have the bandwidth to handle a relationship now.
Do you have friends in the industry? Is it at all possible?
I have some great friends. But I also give a lot to my relationships. It’s not a one-way street. Most movie stars are surrounded by very few people. A lonely movie star is a very common reality. I get it from my parents. They were people’s people. I am in touch with people all the time. I wish them on birthdays. I call them when good things happen. I make that effort. I have a reminder about everyone’s birthdays anniversaries, big days in their lives, and I will make sure I do what I can to contribute to their special moment. If someone’s parent or relative is in the hospital I’ll be there. If they die I’ll be there. It’s who I am.
When you are so open about your personal life, do you wonder if some day an interviewer is going to ask you the names of the two people who broke your heart?
Of course they want to ask me, but they won’t ask me because I won’t tell them. There is this constant conjecture about my sexuality but I don’t want to ever talk about details that I don’t want to divulge. Even I have my boundaries. And for various reasons. They could be deeply personal. Or they could be familial. Other boundaries you can cross. I say a lot of things in interviews or on stage or in my own thoughts on a blog or a column, and they are not meant to be sensational. I just feel like sharing them. My sense of liberation has definitely happened in the last decade. I am that much more open and liberated about large parts of my personal life, but there are some things that I will not share.
Apparently, the fact that you got botoxed isn’t one of them.
That was a joke. I have not been botoxed. Who botoxes a nose? I said it as a joke and it became a headline. But when I do, I swear I will talk about it.
Have you thought about the fact that your films can be read through a lens of sexuality? In Kuch Kuch…, the “tomboy” is rejected and she has to transform into the hetero-normative idea of female beauty in order to be loved back. In Kabhi Khushi…, the “sensitive” son is cast out by the father, while the macho, cricket-playing stud of a son is cherished…
But those are stereotypes too. We grew up with those. Shabana Azmi called me and fired me about this aspect of Kuch Kuch… It’s not because we feel those things. It’s because that’s our first impulse. Today, it’s not cool to say these things, but your mother has been a housewife, your father has been the one working, Some stereotypes are a the result of your upbringing, so you will have that tomboy that the boys don’t go for. You’ve seen her in your own school, while growing up. Similarly, the girl with long hair is always more beautiful. Because that’s what you saw. Then you grow a brain and because your brain listens to other people, you say, “Now I should not say these things because they are politically incorrect.” But I am Gemini. I can adapt to any situation. I can sit with a festival audience and sound very cerebral, and I can be completely ditsy with a 21-year-old. It’s who I am.
Your films are clubbed into this genre called “NRI cinema”. This may have been a valid categorisation a decade ago, given the gap between the standards of living in urban India and abroad. But today, given the malls and everything else, do you think audiences here still care for “NRI cinema”? Is this why you are losing out on the domestic box-office front?
You know, I don’t know why my films do well there. If you go to the UK, you’ll find the Asian community is far more rooted in tradition and culture than some of us in urban India. Let me get mildly technical here. There is a certain mapping that can be done. The UAE and Dubai behave like Bombay. The UK behaves like Gurgaon, Delhi and Punjab. They go for colour, glamour, music, song, dance. The USA behaves like Mysore. So the films that perform exceedingly well there are the ones that are more intelligent, like Piku, Pink, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons. The template for “evolved” Hindi cinema will work very well in North America. So you lump everyone under “NRI,” but there are differences. Ae Dil… is doing exceedingly well in the UK because it’s also doing very well in Delhi/Gurgaon. It’s doing very well in the USA because it’s also doing very well in Mysore. It’s doing well in the Bombay/Maharashtra belt, but nothing path-breaking. So that’s what it’s like in the UAE. Action, on the other hand, will do very well in the UAE but nobody in the UK will go to watch it. So I cannot design a movie for all this. I can only make the movie I want, and hope that the audiences – cumulatively – give us love.
There’s no bench scene in Ae Dil…
I never planned those bench scenes by the way. But how else do two people talk? And where would I have had a bench scene here? I don’t hold on to anything, and I have never understood this question: “Why?” Why is there no bench scene? Why doesn’t Rani Mukerji love Abhishek Bachchan in Kabhi Alvida…? What is the answer? Because she doesn’t. That’s all. Why is Ranbir Kapoor relentless in his pursuit of Anushka? Why can’t he move on? He doesn’t. That’s all. There’s no answer to why. Now you can ask why he is flying a private jet and sharing a hotel room. There was a line that I edited out, from when they were discussing their Paris plans. She says, “Plane ka kharcha tumhara. Hotel ka mera. Aur khaana fifty-fifty.” [Essentially, she says she will pay for the hotel.] There were jokes making the rounds, that only in a Hindi film will you find a man who owns a private jet doing all this.
That didn’t bother me, as they’re friends and friends do share rooms. But some other criticisms seem valid. Your characters don’t really seem to need to work. Even in Kabhi Khushi…, Shah Rukh wears a tie and sets out, but we don’t know what he does.
I don’t know either. Those days we never gave professions to our actors. Here, Ranbir was an industrialist’s son and he was doing an MBA so he could join his father’s business. But I didn’t want to get into the parent track at all. It was a complete track on paper, which I removed. I didn’t want anyone else to come into the picture and compromise what is essentially their journey. So he gets into music. Maybe he was helped by his father’s money while he was setting up his own digital way of projecting his music.
Would these criticisms go away if you set your films in a Lunchbox kind of milieu? Because some people do find it hard to care about “First World problems.”
Yes, they probably will think I am doing something new. But what about me? I won’t be happy. I don’t know that world. I wanted to get out of this country and make this film. I have always faced this. Zoya Akhtar faces this. And it’s true. Someone said, “Why don’t you set the whole film in India? He could bump into her in a bar in urban India.” Yes, that may have been possible. But would that have made me happy? No. I am constantly accused of being First World. So what should I do? I can’t apologise for my environment, upbringing, aesthetic. I am very clear about the movies I make. When I started making Student of the Year, I knew it was going to be criticised till kingdom come. But it was meant to be fluff. I wanted to have fun after My Name is Khan, and I wanted to make a high-school musical. I didn’t want to work with movie stars. I wanted to take three kids and launch them. It was a film that had gone a little off in the writing and I made it more musical in order to salvage it. It is possibly my least liked film, but it was me doing something in my head at the time.
Yash Chopra made films about First World problems too. His characters lived in houses with glass roofs and wore coats with fur collars. But people did not seem to mind then.
Because those days people were not writing columns and blogs. There was no social media. We are in a regressive zone of cinema viewing. Yash Chopra’s films were applauded for showing a new facet of human relationships. He was never shown the thumbs down because there was no Facebook and nobody felt the need to fill up a page. They liked the film or disliked it in their own personal capacity. I’ve had feminists attacking me on this film. This film is a tribute to Mohammad Rafi – he is referenced three times. My protagonist wants to be Rafi. And yet, I’ve had Rafi fans attacking me. Nobody is a bigger Rafi fan than I am. What is Twitter? You can write about any topic you like and there are people who read and comment. You must have an opinion – every bum on the seat is a critic. I have learnt to live with it.
What do you make of the criticism that you have borrowed the bit about a man needing to feel pain in order to make great music from Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar?
I am influenced by Imtiaz’s banter, and I knew I was going to be compared to his film with this plot point. But I needed music in the film because I love music, and there was no way Ranbir was going to break out into song if he was not a singer. So I did it my way. Ranbir and I were both very conscious about Rockstar, so we played down the rock star bit . Because I don’t believe there are rock stars in this country. We don’t have Jay Z and Kanye West and Beyoncé. Who’s bigger than a movie star here? I didn’t want to be like older Hindi films and show that Ranbir is a huge star now. He is just an Internet sensation, like the Coke Studio stars or the guys who do YouTube videos.
The poetess Saba, played by Aishwarya Rai, isn’t a very big name in the world of letters either.
Because how are you going to believe she is a world-famous poet? I showed her husband as a world-famous artist. But I didn’t think you’d take Aishwarya Rai seriously as a really good poet. It’s very clear that she’s living on her husband’s alimony.
So this was a decision that came from the casting.
Yes. Had I cast, say, Konkana, maybe Saba would have been more respected. It’s like me. Who’s going to take me seriously if you cast me as a prolific filmmaker who’s made path-breaking cinema? Some of us may do major films in our lifetime but we’ll never enjoy the glory because we’re always going to be glamorous celebrities who judge reality shows, host talk shows. A film-festival audience will not care about us. And it’s fine. Even if Aishwarya gave a great shot, you’d say, “She’s doing the same thing.” You’ll never let go of our image as opposed to the reality that we project.
But surely you see that a show like Koffee With Karan will contribute to this perception of you. The new season just got going, and you asked Shah Rukh to read out a recipe for butter chicken “like somebody who orgasms with loud moaning noises.”
Yes, of course it does. I was told not to do a talk show because it would take away my mystery as a filmmaker. I said, “Why am I being mysterious?” It is not my personality. I am very happy doing these shows. It gives me happiness.
Where is this Bodhi-tree wisdom coming from, this Zen-ness?
I think it’s because you realise you have just another 30 years on this planet. Are you really going to waste your time on emotions and feelings that are not going to add up to anything? I know that eventually, in retrospect, I will be respected. I have done enough work to gain that. I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t. I mean, should I now chase those 100 people who don’t give me love and respect, or should I be concerned with the millions who do. How can I dilute that love? I’ve been in this business for 20 years. When a film by me comes out and I get that opening day, no matter what the circumstance in the country is, it’s obviously because people want to see my work. That only comes from love and respect.
We see you more on TV than on the big screen, despite that scene-stealing performance in Bombay Velvet.
I enjoyed my time on that set. I enjoyed being an actor. I know I can act. But I don’t know if I can stop being me. There will always be a lot of me because that’s baggage that you carry. I would really like to do it once more, but for some reason I have not even been offered a film I could refuse. Perhaps because of the failure of that film. Perhaps because I have a slightly effeminate quality that creeps up. I have body language that is unusual. I have a demeanour that is larger than life sometimes. So you can’t push me into every zone. You have to cast me very specifically. I’m the devil who wears Prada. You can’t take that away from me. Unfortunately, there are very few parts that could be enacted by me, so I feel like I’ve not been offered anything.
What keeps Karan Johar relevant?
Awareness. Observation. Youth connect – because everyone in my company is young. Updating skills with the people you employ. Just listening to people. And not being deluded about where I am. If you isolate yourself from the world, it’s very easy to get carried away and then you’ll fumble and fall as a creator. I’ve seen many filmmakers and actors do that. They go so inward that they block themselves from reality. I’ll tell you my film is a blockbuster overseas and a hit in India. I’m not going to tell you it’s a superhit. I know it has received polarised reactions. I am not saying, “What do you mean? Look at these congratulatory messages on my phone!” Or should I believe these messages on my phone and the praise and the flowers that came on the weekend? Or the love that came through the previews. Then I would be mad.
Do you know when someone is really being nice and when someone is saying they loved your film to get into your good books?
You can cut through the crap. But when you isolate yourself, you also start disrespecting opinion. And that is very important. I’m amused when I read every review that praises me or criticises me. Amused because I am thinking, “Shit, maybe he or she is right.” When I read criticism, I am like, “Yeah, this is probably wrong. But what can I do, it was my organic thought at that time.” You have to be aware and you have to read what’s written about your work. I tell every filmmaker, “Read your reviews. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist and believe they have something against you.”
But this could prove hurtful.
Of course it is. It’s very upsetting. This particular time, I read the bad reviews only four days later. I was too stressed on Day 1 to start bringing my morale down. But everyone had a perspective. Everyone came from a place that was not a conspiracy theory. They had nothing against me. They had opinions. And you must read what they write.
What about people who write things like the controversy around Ae Dil… was a publicity gimmick?
Who would want to go through this stress? If you want to take the month prior to my release away and make it peaceful, I would have done anything to achieve that. Who are these people to say we manufacture controversies?
Was there any point you felt you have to stand up to this?
At the end of the day, I just felt the lead-up to it was tumultuous and I don’t want to speak any more because there’s just so much else involved. But nothing was manufactured. It was genuinely a stress that I and my company and the studio we are attached to went through. Even now I’ve been told you’ve lost an audience because of this, because they’d feel handing over their ticket money to see your film would be anti-national. I walked into conversations saying this and it was bizarre. I just want to believe that my film was well-intended and hopefully everyone feels the same.
Are we in a hyper-national zone where people won’t come out and watch, say, the new Aamir Khan movie because of the controversy around his remarks some time ago?
I don’t think so. I believe that the audience that gives love to films is above anything that is political. Anything creative has never been political for me. Whether it’s Salman, Aamir or Shah Rukh, I think their films will all fly if they are good films. I don’t think anything can stop it. I don’t think anything stopped my film either.
Do you consider yourself a filmmaker or a storyteller?
I’ve always been a film person and my referencing for film is film itself. All my learning has come from cinema. It’s never been the books I’ve read. Books train you to tell stories. Films train you to tell them on celluloid. I don’t think Kabhi Alvida… has any story. It’s just the characters. When your characters supersede your story, you know it’s also about the moments you are creating. Now Raju Hirani is a storyteller. More than a filmmaker, he is a storyteller. He will never lose his story. My films are more about the characters and their journey, which is zindagi. Life. Perhaps only Kuch Kuch… among my films was heavy on story.
You come across as a completely different filmmaker in Ae Dil… The way the film is cut, shot, the way the performances are directed – it’s nothing like your earlier films where every frame was a carefully lit painting. There’s raw energy here.
[Cinematographer] Anil Mehta, [production designer] Amrita Mahal Nakai and I decided that we would not do anything that’s been-there-done-that. “Now you are going back to your old self” used to be our in-house joke – say, when I wanted to move my trolley towards a character. Ravi Chandran once told me that your trolley should move only when your character is moving or his or her thoughts are moving. And it made complete sense to me. We wanted a slightly grungy first half – we shot in Shoreditch in East London. The world I was chasing is contemporary. So is everything about the shooting style, our production design, the live locations (there are no sets in the film).
Only the Aishwarya scenes seem to be “cinematic” – in the sense of her being bathed in amber light, or the way she is “revealed.”
Her zone was the only part where we changed our tone. We went a little more old-school. Because that was what the character was. The amber light was because I wanted her to look glorious.
But even with this new syntax, Ae Dil… goes on for two-and-a-half hours. Doesn’t the younger audience prefer shorter films?
But I need that time because I need the songs. They’re my oxygen.
Do you think you have become a bolder filmmaker? There’s a casual carnality in Ae Dil… that wasn’t in Kabhi Alvida…
Thoughts of me being bolder keep coming up. Then there’s the fear of our times and where we are. What’s the point in being bold if they’re going to cut the film? In Ae Dil…, there is an underlying desire and sexuality right through, especially in the relationship between Aishwarya and Ranbir, which is very physical from the onset. But I couldn’t have gone bolder than that because I didn’t choose to. It was not about what they did or did not do.
So why doesn’t the film industry, which is so strong and so well-connected, stand up for at least creative liberty?
I don’t know. I think there are just so many factors. I have to say the Producers’ Guild has been immensely supportive. But what happens is this. If you show explicit sex, you don’t get satellite money, which contributes to 30 per cent of your recovery. So it becomes a commercial decision for you to not make a sexual film. Then there is the adult certificate. You are told by data that 40 to 50 per cent of inflow is families and they won’t come to your film if it is A-rated.
What if you controlled your budget?
Then you have to be that filmmaker who’d want to make that film. With all those restrictions, I may not be interested in making that film. So I am restricted by commerce. My art is restricted by commerce. Unless it’s something like Bombay Talkies, an omnibus film where each filmmaker had a crore to make the film. I’ll push the envelope there. I won’t tear it. But I’ll push it. I will have two men kiss each other because I am allowed to. I was also trying to be as prolific as Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. I felt I had to make something that falls into the same slot as them. It was me trying to gain brownie points from a zone that does not acknowledge me as a filmmaker.
Does that influence you at all? Do you want more respect from the new-age filmmakers?
Yeah I do. But I think it’s too late for that. I don’t think it’s going to come in my lifetime. And that’s not a goal anymore. I still would like Anurag Kashyap. I still respect a lot of his work. But I am not chasing adulation anymore. I am not chasing love.
Do you think you’ll ever make a festival film?
If that’s a film that won’t get a mainstream release, then I don’t want to make it.
Do you think you can make a “serious” film?
Yes, I think I’m perfectly capable of making a serious film. But again it might be the commercial limitations that stop me.
What do you have to say to people who say you keep making romantic dramas all the time?
Usko wohi aata hai. [That’s all he knows.] When have I said I was versatile? The other day, my mother and I got into an argument. Someone asked me, “Karan, why don’t you make a thriller?” My mother answered for me. “He can’t make a thriller. He doesn’t like them.” I got defensive. I said, “How do you know? If someone gives me a really great script, I could make it.” She said, “I don’t think you’ll be good at it.” My mother is somebody who grounds me on a daily basis. She doesn’t think I am capable of anything.
So you don’t care that you’re going to be perceived as this filmmaker who keeps making ‘formula’ films.
I’m a cine-goer first. I’ve said this before. I grew up in Malabar Hill. Nobody watched Hindi movies there. Everyone was into comic books. My dad made movies and he was one of the few film people who lived in South Bombay. My connection to Hindi cinema, my passion for it, is more from the fact that my mother used to listen to old Hindi film songs – Rafi, Kishore, Lata, Asha, Farida Khanum, Noorjehan. And Elvis Presley. She married my father because he convinced her that, on their honeymoon, he would get her tickets to an Elvis Presley concert. Which he did live up to. They went to Las Vegas and saw Elvis Presley. Halfway through, my mother fainted from excitement. They ended up in the ER. I grew up with a combination of all this music. So when the VHS phase came out, when I was about nine or ten, which would be about ‘82 or ‘83, I wanted to see the movies that those songs were in. I took all in – Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt and Yash Chopra and the cinema of the time, films like Himmatwala and Tohfa and Justice Chowdhury and Maqsad.
My mother was never interested in Hindi cinema. My father was never at home. He was always too busy. My maid at that time, Vimal, was equally cracked, like me. After school, I didn’t want to play football or cricket. We’d go to the movies. And sometimes we’d see the film five times. I loved Sridevi. I was crazily, madly in love with her to the point where I used to be jealous if Jaya Prada did a big film, because Sridevi was my territory, my property, and Jaya Prada was competing with her. So I was also competing with Jayaprada for some strange reason. So when I saw Tohfa, it was like a coup, because it was both of them and it was a chance to see my Sridevi outperform Jayaprada. All these were stories in my head.
Yes, they were not considered great cinema. But for me, it was my life – Hai hai garmi hai, which is in Ae Dil…, or Ice cream khaogi from Justice Choudhury, or the flying sari song in Mawali, or the naag dance in the temple performed by Sridevi and Jayaprada in Maqsad, with sweaty armpits. That was my thing. It was considered my quirk. I never talked about it in my neighbourhood and I never spoke about it to kids at school because I didn’t think anyone would understand. I knew I would be judged, and I didn’t want to be judged. So with them I was like, “Yeah, I listen to Madonna and George Michael and read Archie comics.” But secretly, I used to be dancing to these songs.
So it’s not formula. It’s my love for Hindi cinema. It’s my love for cinema.
You’ve spoken a lot about your desi influences. What are your favourite international films?
Dead Poets Society moved me. When Harry met Sally. Amélie, The Shawshank Redemption. Everything Almodóvar made. Everything. Also, Woody Allen. Deep love. Intense love. I was at an airport lounge and I saw him there. I went up and said I was a filmmaker from India and a huge fan and can I have an autograph. He looked at me, and after a beat he said no. I love that I was snubbed by Woody Allen. I will always hold that against him, but I will continue to love him. It’s another instance of one-sided love. I love Iñárritu’s work even though I didn’t like The Revenant. I love Cuarón.
What about the Fellini-Bergman art-film era?
No, no. I didn’t get into that.
Do you think an Oscar is a necessary goal for Indian cinema?
I’d love to win one, but I’m not going to chase it. I don’t know how to. But I want to make that speech. I’m so dying to say, “This one is for you, India.” I want to be in my tuxedo and have that big tear coming out of my eye, because it will come. I don’t know if I will live to have this dream come true, but I know that speech. I have practiced it many times in my head.
Do you worry that people might get bored with your work?
I hope not. But I also think I am shaking it up a lot. When I made My Name is Khan, I chased a certain global audience. Then I confused them with Student of the Year. I went the other extreme because I got the 12-and the 13-year-olds in. These kids have now come to see Ae Dil…, because they know of me through that film. Then I make a film that’s a slightly different take on love. I might do something completely different next. In my head the only thing strategic is paradigm shifts.
So your next film…
Could be anything. Not a thriller. Because my mother doesn’t believe I can make it. But just to prove her wrong, I might.
RAPID FIRE ROUND
When was the last time you flew Economy?
When I was 21. I was an assistant on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. I was very uncomfortable.
Was that the only time?
No. Before that it was only Economy. I became famous after Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and rich after Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. And then I’ve never flown Economy. Except once, in between, because there wasn’t a seat available. And it was very uncomfortable.
Which would you choose? A hit, or a non-performing film that makes people call you a great filmmaker?
If you could date an international film star, who would it be?
I pass. That would be giving away too much.
Complete this sentence. If I woke up and found myself poor, I would…
Shah Rukh Khan is in a career crisis. True or false?
False. He is in a career metamorphosis.
If you were to be a blue-collar worker, what kind of job would you do?
That is not blue-collar.
What is blue-collar?
Are you serious? You’re really living up to your stereotype now.
No, no. It’s something I’ve read but never knew what it meant. I guess that was my Paris Hilton moment today.
If not a filmmaker, what would you be?
A fashion designer.
The last film you saw that was in a regional language.
Premam. I loved it. I love that director. Loved his Neram too.
If you could make a film in a South Indian language, which language would it be and who’d be the star?
I like Vikram very much. I think he’s got something about him. So the film would probably be in Tamil.
If you could be reborn with a superpower, that would be…
The ability to tell the future.
What was your biggest dream growing up?
To be famous.
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