5 Times Karan Johar Surprised Us
Like it or not, Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahaani is upon us. Two decades after being hailed as the face of a glossy, new Hindi cinema, Johar has gone from being the cool kid of Bollywood to something of an uncle and the discourse around him has lost all nuance. Rewatching his films in 2023 may leave your brain feeling bedazzled by the fripperies of Johar’s filmmaking style — why does he insist on including sports sequences when he’s patently incapable of filming them? — and there’s an unabashed love for Hindi film music, which he employs in unforgettable ways, like making Ranbir Kapoor groove to “Tohfa Tohfa” in his boxers in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016). Or the moment when stern patriarch Yash Raichand (Amitabh Bachchan) disrupts a posh party by singing to his wife Nandini (Jaya Bachchan), “Aati Kya Khandala”, in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). The covers of iconic songs like “Papa Kehte Hai” or “Gulabi Aankhein” were a fantastic device to introduce Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt in Student of The Year (2012).
But step away from the spectacle and over-the-top shenanigans, and what comes through is Johar’s ability as a writer-director to bring out raw truths (albeit packaged in colourful costumes and glamorous set pieces). Here are five moments, where Johar, against all expectations, nailed something genuine on the big screen like few have managed in big-budget, mainstream Hindi cinema.
“Rahul, mujhse dosti karoge?”
Many forget that Karan Johar, the CEO of candyfloss cinema, began his directorial career with a funeral scene. The first scene of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) seems to be somewhere in rural Scotland, with Shah Rukh Khan standing in front of a pyre and hearing the line, “Rahul, mujhse dosti karoge? (Rahul, will you be my friend?).” It’s arguably the crux of the film. Rani Mukerji’s Tina dies in the very first scene of the film, paving the way for the apparently “star-crossed” lovers (Khan as Rahul and Kajol as Anjali) to meet later in the film. However, before immersing us in not one but two love stories, the 26-year-old debutant filmmaker made the bold choice of impressing upon his audience the tragedy of heartbreak. Johar began with images of an ailing Tina, with dark circles and a friendship band on her wrist, which became an entire generation’s way to kickstart a romantic relationship. Kids, remember: Pyaar dosti hai (Love is friendship.)
I remember watching this scene in a single screen in Kolkata when it was released, and the collective gasp in the theatre — Khan in white, his welled-up eyes; the burning pyre, preceding the flashback with Tina.
“Mera naam Yash hai”
In a film as overproduced as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) — who can forget the helicopter shot for the hero’s entry? — the scene that ends up packing an emotional punch is a quiet one in which two long-estranged brothers reunite. Johar’s ability to mine that moment for melodrama speaks highly of the director-producer’s gift for utilising melodrama as a force for good. Cinematographer Kiran Deohans frames this scene around a silver mirror, adding a stylish edge to how we see Rahul Raichand’s (Shah Rukh Khan) London home.
A fresh-faced Hrithik Roshan comes around the corner (along with a draught of air that artfully ruffles both his and Khan’s coiffed hair) as Sonu Nigam’s (sad) version of the title track plays in the background. This is still the eager-to-please Roshan era, where a vein is popping out of his forehead to indicate serious emotion, as Johar tries to sell the hell out of the brothers’ reunion. Johar doesn’t rush the moment, allowing the audience to feel the (ahem) mythological implications of the scene, attacking with unerring accuracy the audience’s tear-ducts. As the two brothers shake hands, the camera blurs their hands and brings the background into focus — a framed portrait of their mother and father (Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan). This is Johar at his most skilled. Even though nothing about this ‘home’ feels realistic, there’s still something relatable about the emotions at play. You just can’t resist Johar’s mastery. Your eyes will well up and that tear will fall.
Understandably, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) remains Karan Johar’s most polarising film till date. Rewatching it offers a hint at how disillusioned Johar was about the institution of marriage. That he tried to tell a story about infidelity using the grammar of Hindi cinema’s “eternal love story” template is one of the more ambitious experiments in the mainstream space. At 192 mins, the film overstays its welcome and is overwhelmed by melodrama, but the scenes where Johar attempts restraint are genuinely impactful. For example, the scene in which Amitabh Bachchan and Kirron Kher’s characters see Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji having a lovers’ quarrel outside a train station – and not a word is said.
In a previous scene, Dev (Khan) had ‘joked’ about having an affair with Maya (Mukerji) in the presence of their spouses (Preity Zinta and Abhishek Bachchan respectively). It’s a heavy and uncomfortable scene ending with a mid close-up of Sam (Bachchan Senior playing Maya’s father in-law Sam) looking intently at Dev. Ultimately, Sam says, “Good joke!”, knowing clearly that it wasn’t one. To later catch them red-handed, Bachchan Senior – whose performance borrows heavily from Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (1997) – summons the gravitas of nearly four decades in cinema. As he accompanies Maya back to her apartment, the look he directs at her has accusation, pity and kindness all at once. It’s the most damning silence, and Maya scurries to the kitchen counter, breaking utensils in the process, adding to the symbolism of a broken marriage. It’s a testimony to Johar’s sensitivity that he goes with no dialogues, trusting instead his actors to communicate the emotional turmoil with an entirely wordless scene.
“Light theek nahi hai!”
Student of the Year (2012) may be Johar’s biggest heist till date, a film in which he made a film about (almost) nothing and yet delivered a ‘hit’. It’s tempting to see Rishi Kapoor’s Yogendra Vashisht, dean of Saint Teresa, as a stand-in for Johar himself. Like the director, the dean makes students (or newcomers) jump through hoops, undergo intense dance routines, and flaunt their perfect six-pack, while dangling before them the promise of becoming successful. (If you want to go especially meta, please note that the in-camera competition favours the likes of Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt and Siddharth Malhotra, leaving the less privileged Kayoze Irani (son of Boman Irani) and Manjot Singh to be relegated to comic relief.) Whether or not Johar was aware of the commentary on the hot-potato topic of nepotism in SOTY, he chose to focus on a bland love triangle which is far from memorable. However, the film is surprisingly rewatchable if you’re just looking out for Kapoor’s wonderfully hammy performance as the dean, who is a middle-aged, somewhat closeted gay man. Coochie-cooing with his bonsai every morning, wearing obviously loud accessories, shamelessly hitting on his football coach (Ronit Roy), Kapoor’s performance takes stereotypes and has fun with them, without feeling reductive.
Holding the film and the dean’s character together is Yogendra’s own loneliness, which ultimately brings all the characters in one place (a function Kapoor also served in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (2016), also produced by Johar). There are two stand-out moments, both of which take place in Thailand – where the Dean turns down the Coach’s wife (Prachi Shah) for a “couple’s photo” on a bright sunny day, saying “light theek nahi hai” and walking away sassily. The other takes place during the song “Radha”, when Yogendra effectively attacks the coach’s wife with… a tambourine. In a film obsessed with showcasing everyone at their best and presenting a version of reality in which people don't have a hair out of place, Yogendra’s pettiness feels refreshingly real.
“Aaj meri awaaz mein mohabbat aur dard tha? Kiske liye tha?”
Before it descends into a regrettable morass, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) starts off as a promising exploration of unreciprocated love, with all its grace and narcissism. Whether or not you can forgive Johar for killing Anushka Sharma’s Alizeh in the end and making Ranbir Kapoor play a hero who combines creepiness with overbearing selfishness, you’ve got to hand it to Johar for one truly great scene.
Right after Ayan sings “Channa Mereya”, Alizeh realises he’s seriously in love with her. She drags him into a room, partly to stop him from creating a scene, but also to talk some sense into him. Kapoor delivers a scene that will feature in a career highlights reel – not taking any half measures about making Ayan seem as pathetic as possible, letting go of all his star vanity. There’s absolutely nothing likeable about this man-child who makes this scene all about himself. Johar seals the scene by making Ayan wish death upon Alizeh and her to-be husband. Oh and before leaving, he raises both his middle fingers (hashtag: Heartbreak. Hashtag: Betrayal). Johar is careful to make sure the film doesn’t outright endorse such behaviour, but he and Kapoor manage all the same to convey Ayan’s vulnerabilities at their rawest. It’s a devastating scene about a man utterly unprepared to deal with the heartbreak that will imprint itself upon him and which he will later turn into a song.