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Book Review: An Unsuitable Boy

In his autobiography, Karan Johar tackles everything from loneliness to legacy with sensitivity and a lightness of touch

Mahithi Pillay Mahithi Pillay

January 31, 2017 | 05:01 PM

An Unsuitable Boy, Book Review, Karan Johar, Poonam Saxena, Mahithi Pillay, Penguin, Beneath The Surface, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Bollywood, ADHM,

My first thought on realising that I had to review Karan Johar’s autobiography (written by veteran journalist Poonam Saxena) was: what filmography is he going to discuss? For starters, Johar’s cinematic career is just a decade removed from the years I’ve spent on this planet. Besides, given the level of exposure the articulate, irreverent and self-referential (remember that ‘Tum paas aaye’ tune that heralds the Dharma banner?) filmmaker enjoys in the public eye, could there possibly be anything about his life that was not common knowledge?

Turns out, there is. It’s not just the awkward, chubby years and the friendships, feuds and fallouts that Johar discusses. He recounts his life’s experiences with a lightness of touch (full credit to Saxena) that belies the emotional heft they carry. 

After Rishi Kapoor in Khullam Khulla, here – again – is a remarkably self-aware member of the industry, one that draws from his well-developed inner life to paint an intimate picture of what it means to grow up in the production environment. From both, we get moving descriptions of the trials and travails of Bollywood producers of a certain era.

While connected to the film world through his father’s production business, Johar says his family was much removed from its goings-on. He takes you through the intense loneliness and social isolation that was a part of his childhood to the comparatively easy-going college years, right up to when the college subject topper and inter-school debate and elocution champ developed an intense friendship with current Dharma CEO Apoorva Mehta, filmmaker Aditya Chopra and distributor Anil Thadani.

After Rishi Kapoor in Khullam Khulla, here – again – is a remarkably self-aware member of the industry, one that draws from his well-developed inner life to paint an intimate picture of what it means to grow up in the production environment.

Chopra shares credit for Johar’s entry into films with actor Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps also why the latter has an entire chapter dedicated to him, with their thaw in recent years being discussed threadbare. Johar reciprocates the affection he receives from friends by displaying a remarkable sensitivity to others’ feelings, whether on set or off it. 

The downright brutal description of Johar senior’s cremation following a brief but debilitating illness reminds you of why his son has very rarely taken a step wrong while portraying family dynamics on-screen.

Johar takes readers through the process by which he evolved as a businessman following his father’s death, and comes across as a street-smart, canny marketer, although there is still a lingering fear of irrelevance.

The book is almost written as a confessional, which is why the whole ‘those three words’ controversy is surprising. The book – and Johar’s story – has enough heft on its own to not require that cheapening, especially since he got so much backlash from that move, and his ‘admission’ went on to be misconstrued by people on both sides of the rainbow. Johar certainly does not hide any part of his life here, sexual or otherwise, perhaps also why it makes sense for people to read the book before raging against it on the basis of a poorly-selected excerpt. 

On the cinematic front, Johar explains that he has been able to channelise his personal heartbreaks into the professional sphere, explaining that the story of unrequited love in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was based loosely on his own. He also describes how such failures in love and the grief from his father’s sudden passing led to a bout with anxiety and depression, which took both therapy and medication to overcome. I, for one, am glad that more creative persons from this heavily cloistered industry are speaking up so candidly about battling mental illness. 

Johar certainly does not hide any part of his life here, sexual or otherwise, perhaps also why it makes sense for people to read the book before raging against it on the basis of a poorly-selected excerpt. 

Despite the doozy of an error on the back cover of my copy (an Aditya Chopra quote attributed to Shah Rukh) and a few minor niggles, An Unsuitable Boy is an immensely readable book, even if you don’t particularly care for Johar’s oeuvre. Given that he has tracked college years, family life, love and infidelity so well in his movies so far, it will be interesting to watch Johar’s take on old age, especially given his fears about his future and the Dharma legacy. After all, he ends the book saying death doesn’t scare him, but life sometimes does. 

Publisher: Penguin Random House India