“What I am afraid of in the coming years is that digital will be our parent, television will be the annoying mother-in-law and cinema will be the troubled child,” said Karan Johar, on the threat posed to cinema by digital content at the Express Adda here on Friday evening. “If we don’t take care of the troubled child, things will go all over the place. We need to pay attention to the troubled child right now,” he said.
Johar, who was in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Express Group, and Shubhra Gupta, The Indian Express film critic, said: “Digital is the future. Just give it 10 years… But I am a filmmaker first. My heart lies in films, and we have to give all our attention to films right now.”
The filmmaker’s upcoming productions include the Nitya Mehra-directed Baar Baar Dekho, releasing on September 9. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which has been directed by Johar, is releasing on Diwali, at the same time as Ajay Devgan’s Shivaay. When asked about the controversy over Kamaal R Khan’s alleged claim that Johar had paid him to undermine Shivaay, Johar replied, “My self-respect, reputation, company’s reputation and my upbringing don’t allow me to dignify this question with a response.”
On all other questions, Johar opened up, being especially vocal about the need to restructure the way the studio system currently functions in the country — an important observation in the light of reports that Disney India was pulling out of Indian film production, thanks to the weak performance of its recent releases like Mohenjo Daro.
“We are one cinema who have never depended on Hollywood money to be who we are. We’ve always been powerful because of our audience base,” said Johar. According to Johar, in the context of India, the entry of studios — whether Warner, Disney, Fox — has never mattered because, as he said, “No international studio brands can fill the seats. Only movie stars can do that.”
To the filmmaker, the problem with the studio system as it operates in India, is one of “human resources”. “People who don’t understand the ethos of indian cinema are employed in high positions. You really have to love the movies to make the movies. You can’t just take someone from a business background and put them in charge of making movies,” he observed.
Even in the West, he pointed out, the studio heads are people who have been film students or have been associated with films in other ways. “Filmmaking is a business, but this is also a creative industry. You have to strike the balance between commerce and art, but the tilt will always be towards art.”
Connecting the dots between Bollywood’s star system and what he described as a “crisis of losing footfalls and increasing budgets”, Johar said, “Our budgets have to be controlled, and content has to be empowered. Writers have to be empowered. Our problem is that we want to pay the actor a lot of money and we want to pay the director a lot of money, but no one wants to pay the writer, whereas the writer is the most important resource in a film. No director can go beyond a poor screenplay. You can correct it, you can probably make it a little better, but no one can make it a great film.”
During the one-and-a-half-hour-long Adda, the conversation with Johar veered from professional concerns such as the relevance of film critics and Bollywood cliques to personal revelations about his social media “obsession” and the common affinity to Elvis Presley that he shares with his mother. Throughout, the filmmaker regaled the audience with jokes about his childhood fixation with Hindi cinema and honest declaration about wanting a Padma Shri.
Johar, who started his career in the Hindi film industry by assisting Aditya Chopra on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), also drew links between the industry’s poor understanding of good writing and what he called “too much noise” in the digital space. When asked if he plans to enter the digital space via existing platforms like Amazon and Netflix, Johar speculated on the possibility of Dharma Productions launching its own platform.
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“The problem is no one knows what they are doing. Every time there’s a script they don’t like, they think it can be a web series. But that’s not how it works. It (digital content) has to be treated specifically. Everything you don’t like for cinema, can’t be turned into a web series,” he said.
Given his belief in digital being the future of entertainment, Johar also commented on the need to empower the medium. “We don’t have a large market right now, so we need to spend more to create this market,” said Johar.
The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express with people at the centre of change. Previous editions have featured actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kangana Ranaut, economist Amartya Sen, sports stars Saina Nehwal and Rohit Sharma and writer Amitav Ghosh.