Eminent filmmaker Karan Johar, who was a guest at the latest edition of the Express Adda held at Tote on the Turf in Mumbai, spoke with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Express Group, and Shubhra Gupta, film critic, The Indian Express, on how Indian cinema has changed over the decades, growing cynical of the old-fashioned idea of love, the business model of filmmaking and all the noise that the digital world is making.
On adapting to change
We recently moved our office from Bandra to Andheri. When I moved to Bandra, the first film we released was Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. We all know the syntax of that film. The last film that came out of the Bandra office was Kapoor & Sons. And we know the syntax of that. That explains the evolution of our 16 years in our Bandra office. We evolved because I allowed myself to evolve with the people who surround me. It’s important not to be deluded, to always be relevant, to always connect with your audience or know what’s right or wrong with your movies. It’s important to read critics and see what they have to say. Their opinions matter, all opinions do, even if sometimes they’re ludicrous. Sometimes you run the risk of going through the filth in social media. You have to filter through that.
Love: Then and Now
Cinema in the ’90s was always slightly melodramatic, theatrical and aspirational. Rahul was created in the ’90s. He is the aspirational lover boy to the generation who grew up watching those movies. Today, he’s a lot more scarred, lot more grey. He makes more mistakes, he falters, he fumbles. He apologises for his mistakes. He’s not as heroic as Shah Rukh Khan’s arm-wide-open moments of romance. He’s flawed. In Kapoor & Sons, they’re all flawed, they all walk the grey path.
My view on love has gone to being cynical, for some reason. When you’re single for too long, you surround yourself with too many married people and their problems. In fact, infidelity is no longer something that is brushed under the carpet and spoken about behind closed doors. Now if you go to a party, you can stare at the husband while his wife is saying things about her personal life to me, and vice versa.
On infidelity on screen
When I attempted Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna in 2006, I didn’t realise I was opening a Pandora’s box. People were thinking, is this the person who made Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… It’s all about loving your parents? And then Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna was about leaving your wife. A day before that film’s release, I went to watch it at a preview. I walked in and there was a lady and her daughter. And her daughter was weeping copiously. The woman came up to me and said, ‘My daughter’s husband left her, and it’s been very traumatic. And I took her out to see a Hindi film to change her mood, and this is what you have made!’ At the same screening, there was a very traditional couple in their 60s watching the film. The moment Shah Rukh Khan checks into the hotel room with Rani Mukerji, the wife turned to the husband and the husband looked at her and said, ‘dream sequence hai’. When they realised after two minutes that it was not a dream sequence, that they were actually going to have sex in the hotel room, they walked out. I knew it was alvida to Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.
On being a workaholic
My professional life is what dominates my life. I’m not in a relationship and haven’t been in one in several years. The extra hours of your day, which you would give to your lover or spouse or child, I give to my company. I just haven’t found my concept of love yet. I would imagine that I would be in an amazing love relationship and it should be stormy and romantic and full of drama but I have to live vicariously through my cinema.
I haven’t found love for some reason. This does take me to a dark, gloomy place. There are many lonely evenings and nights and moments, when you go through a crisis or a problem. Somehow, no matter how much we crib about our spouse and our relationships, our friendships, they tide us through some really stormy nights. When you don’t have that, you know your parents are always there, but sometimes you don’t want your parents, you want that love to comfort you and someone to go on a movie date with.
On living in a bubble
You find film people in any setting drawn towards each other. Everyone’s deluded, obsessed with themselves and the work they do. We do live in a bit of a bubble. It’s unfortunate because we generally tend to meet only each other. I want to do everything, meet new kind of people, and go to places where I can meet people other than just film people.
On social media addiction
It’s a bit of a disease. I’m more Twitter-friendly, I’m not on Facebook. Sometimes we don’t realise but we turn to our phones for almost everything. So I see myself mid-conversation (checking my phone), I can multitask but it’s not polite. Social media has become my newspaper, my one-stop shop for information, but you are cluttering your head all the time. I went through this process where I wanted to disconnect from it, but it drew me back. I make multiple movies, I do things that always require me to connect with social media.
The business model of films
We’re going through a bit of a crisis. We’re losing footfalls and have increasing budgets. We’re in an unstable situation in the sense that, there are six-seven movies that make money in a year and there are many more that release. You either have breakthrough films like Neerja, Kapoor & Sons, or big-event films like Sultan. Look through the year and you have six-seven of those experiences — Rustom, Airlift, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons, the more evolved cinema experiences. Then of course there is a movie like Sultan, which is both entertaining and emotional and yet an event, because Salman Khan is such a mega movie star. The skew is going to shift and it’s going to cause its own storm at studio level or production level, so it’s time for us to re-evaluate what we do, how we make it, how much we make it in, and how we plan to position it in mainstream.
All of us — Yashraj Films, Dharma Productions — who are family-run businesses, have been in the thick and know of the economic structure of Hindi cinema and Indian cinema in general. Show me a film and on a piece of paper I will show you the basic recoveries. Then you realise whether you should make the film or not, and in what budget. What shocks me is that some people don’t do that basic mathematics, before putting the film out.
On the entry of the studios
All studios came with very good intent. What I say very proudly about our industry is that we are one cinema that has never depended on Hollywood money to be what we are. We have always been powerful because of our audience base. So the entry of Disney, Fox, Warner has never mattered. No international studio brand can fill the seats. Neither can we as filmmakers. Only films and movie stars can do that.
So when they came, they definitely came with the idea to change things. A lot of the problems were with human resources. People who didn’t understand the ethos of Hindi cinema were employed in high positions. You can’t take somebody who has a business background, put them into the movie industry and say, now greenlight movies. In the West, the heads of all the studios have been film students. It’s a creative industry, eventually it’s a balance you strike between commerce and arts. In the movies, the tilt will always be towards the arts.
On the rise of digital media
What I’m afraid of is that, in the years to come, digital will be the parent, television will be the annoying mother-in-law and cinema will be the troubled child. Till we don’t nurture the troubled child, and give them the platform of being a proud parent, things will go all over the place. We need to nurture this troubled child. Right now, cinema is a troubled child. Budgets have to be controlled, content and writers have to be empowered. We write really poorly. Our problem is that we want to pay actors and directors a lot of money, and not pay the writer. Writing is the soul of the film. No director can go beyond a poor screenplay. You can correct it but you will never make it into a great film if the writing is not strong and that’s where we first need to go — change and empower our writers.
Sonali Kulkarni (actor)
You watch a variety of films, you also watch plays and are in touch with the industry and emerging talent. Do you depend on a casting director? My second question is we have too many awards coming up in the industry, should they be regulated?
Having a casting director is a phenomenon I have grown to accept and actually be completely influenced by. Earlier, our assistants used to sit and cast supporting characters. Main leads were always easy, because that was what dictated the commerce of a film. But today, I go to only casting directors to cast, you want new emerging talents, people you don’t know of. To answer your second question, I love award shows because I get paid to host them, and I think that’s pretty much what I should say about them. These award shows are television shows, they’re entertainment shows. I would love to win them, and you must take them seriously the year you get them, but the year you don’t get them, you must say they’re nothing but money-making shows.
What I’ve done successfully is create writer-directors, because whenever I sanction a director, invariably he/she has also been a writer. I’ve stopped reading books, I read scripts, because I want to create a pool of working writers that actually changes the tide of Indian cinema. That’s my biggest endeavour. And then go on to create digital content.
Swara Bhaskar (Actor)
For new actors, entry into Bollywood is difficult. It’s feudal as the kids of actors and directors get a chance first. Is that a conscious thing or does it happen on its own?
I have launched two kids from the industry, Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt, and none of those are results of nepotism. But I do agree with you that sometimes what is in front of you is easier than looking beyond it. Things are changing with talented actors like you rising from the ranks. There’s a lot of great talent that’s from the outside of the industry and they are being credited finally in the movies.
Nachiket Barve (Fashion Designer)
Where do you get your creative influences from, in terms of visual simulations?
Travel is my biggest reason for any kind of aesthetic information I have in terms of costumes, hair, make-up, sets, production design and others. My observational power is always at its best when I am travelling. It takes very little to observe, relish and then emulate.
Chhaya Momaya (image consultant)
You have had such beautiful relationships with people. And even when they were warring with each other, you’ve maintained a fabulous relationship. So what’s the secret behind that?
Sometimes sitting on the fence can hurt, pun intended. But, I think it is integral for you not to take any kind of sides in any dynamics. Maintain your own individual equations with people and don’t get involved. The people who ask you to takes sides, those are the people I don’t agree with at all. Taking sides, I think, that’s something we did in high school.
Photos by: Amit Chakravarty, Dilip Kagda, Pradip Das, Nirmal Harindran, Prashant Nadkar, Kevin D’ Souza