The Progressive Swings Of Karan Johar’s Cinema

With Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani coming out this week, let us look back at the cinema of Karan Johar, a modernist who is against modernism’
The Progressive Swings Of Karan Johar’s Cinema

There are few anecdotes that swarm around the cinema of Karan Johar — seminal anecdotes which have become frameworks through which we see his movies. 

Take this, for example. After watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Johar’s debut film as a director, the actress Shabana Azmi, known for her socially conscious cinema diffusing into and out of her personality, “blasted” Johar over the phone, for how the film’s hero, Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), chooses Anjali (Kajol) only after her transformation from a bob-cut tom-boy to a graceful woman adorning chiffon sarees, Manish Malhotra lehengas, and long hair; that women are desirable only when they lean with fragile grace into the socialised feminine ideal — “Chhote baal the toh pyar nahin hua, lambe baal ho gaye, sexy lagne lagi toh mohabbat ho gayi. Iska kya jawab denge aap?” (When she had short hair, there was no love. With longer hair, he found her sexy, and fell in love with her. What do you say to that?)

Johar did not have an answer. He knew she was right. As someone who was large, and grappling with his own weight during the shoot, he was also sensitive to the pressure of these ideals. But that fantasy of easy (and incontestable) beauty, burnished in celluloid, lurched ahead. Beauty has a way of blinding ethics; the visceral dismissal of cerebral demands.  

Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), Anjali (Kajol), and Tina (Rani Mukerji) in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), Anjali (Kajol), and Tina (Rani Mukerji) in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

The critique here is of Johar’s unequivocal bow to traditional ideas of beauty. What is forgotten is what that is used in service of — a second marriage where Rahul’s mother and daughter play matchmaker for him and the idea that love can recur in one’s life, of a story swarming with women (show hosts, professors, students, old, young, and Queen Elizabeth), a family that is cobbled together not just by blood, but circumstances and choices, too. One of the fulcral moments of the film involves a Hindu child performing namaz to swerve Sikh fate in her direction — she prays, palms skywards, kneeling, that the marriage of Anjali to another man is throttled, or at least delayed so her father, Rahul, could swagger into Anjali’s life; cut-to the Sikh horoscope reader of the to-be-weds suggesting they delay the marriage.

Do the conservative means forgive the modern ends? Or given that the family — that unit of cinematic patriarchy — is where the film meanders towards, the question can be flipped. Do modern means forgive the conservative ends? 

This is a question that keeps cropping up in Johar’s filmography which spans 27 years, over which the country ripped open, liberalised, privatised, the Hindi cinema collective got the “industry” status that made film financing less dubious, regime changes brought in malice and mayhem, Hindi cinema itself pivoted towards storytelling in tier-2 cities  and the genre of romance slowly leaked out of fashion and got replaced by Southern muscle. In this flux, which often postured Hindi cinema at existential pivots, Johar’s cinema retained his essence — a modernist who was against modernism, with love at the heart of it all.  

There is inter-class love — however unbelievable — between orphans in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001); the lure of adultery in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); inter-religious love — giving a single mother the space to play protagonist in her story, refusing to collapse her into her motherhood in My Name Is Khan (2010); the yearning gay principal — however facetious — who becomes the pivot of the story in Student Of The Year (2012), mobilising all the film’s characters to his hospital bed; the fact of an older woman loving a younger man with no shame or explanation needed in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), and the recklessness of modern love in it — the hookup culture with its momentarily insatiable itch of the groin, which sometimes blooms into more, and sometimes recedes. In two of the three short films he has made — for Bombay Talkies (2013)and Lust Stories (2018)— he foregrounded gay desire and female self-pleasure. When was the last time a dildo helped a film climax? 

Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani in Lust Stories
Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani in Lust Stories

It is terrible to reduce a film to its themes, but we tend to forget to what ends, in what context these films are being made, and Johar’s easy hand refuses to moralise, or even state its progressive posture.

With Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, he inflected his love for films like Arth (1982) and Silsila (1981), both essaying adultery, into marriage, with a frankness that is, still, rare. The character of Maya (Rani Mukerji), despite having a husband, played by Abhishek Bachchan, who is perfect on paper, is unable to find pleasure with him. When he kisses her body, she falls asleep. She looks elsewhere, and finds that pleasure, instead, in the arms of an abrasive man-child, played by Shah Rukh Khan. During the shoot of the film Mukerji would insist, “Arre, give me one scene to justify my behaviour. Itna achha husband hai. Main kyun affair karoon?” (Arre, I have such a nice husband, why should I pursue an affair?)

Johar was armed with a gin-clear reply, “Can’t sexual chemistry be a reason for people to leave? Maybe she wasn’t aroused by him. He may have been a great guy but she was not turned on by him. She found a crabby, crotchety, angry man attractive.” And that is that. Of what use is defending desire?

It is also true that this was the first film Johar made after the passing of his father, the producer Yash Johar, a more traditional film producer, “He may never have allowed me to make a film about infidelity.” This was, in more ways than one, Johar coming into his own. 

Aditya Chopra, Johar’s friend and mentor from the Yash Raj Films stables, called him when he was shooting for the film in New Haven, “Karan, are you sure you want them to sleep with each other in the film? Please trust me, this country is not going to like it.” Johar, who was still figuring out the path forward for Dharma Productions without his father, persisted. 

Rani Mukerji and Shah Rukh Khan in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna
Rani Mukerji and Shah Rukh Khan in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

Though, take a pause, don’t be fooled by what you read above. There is a loud, progressive grunt in these films, but in the shape they finally take, they are far from modern. Barring his last film, every other story of his has collapsed into the idea of a family cobbled together; they can’t imagine destiny as anything but familial and familiar. Johar is, afterall, the man who walked up to director Sooraj Barjatya after the screening of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) — which Johar’s snooty South Bombay friends called “a wedding video” or “a mithai ka dabba” — held his hand, and said, “Sir, you’ve made the best film ever.” Barjatya’s movies are not just about congealing the film’s drama into the family, but the extended family, too. 

This is because Johar’s idea of modernity is inextricably tied to the past; his idea of coolness has to be expressed in the grammar of Yash Chopra. He always has one foot in the legacy he inherited, one foot in the legacy he wants to create. In his autobiography, An Unsuitable Boy, he speaks of the anxiety he felt before the release of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham — what he conceived as “Ramayana but in a modern milieu” — “I saw Dil Chahta Hai, and realised that this is what the new cool was. Up till that point I was the cool guy, because I had got Polo Sport and DKNY into my films. But my film was wannabe cool. What was really, intrinsically, authentically cool was Farhan Akhtar’s depiction of urban youth, the way they dressed, spoke, the mannerisms. My sensibilities were mixed up with those of the filmmakers of yore—Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai, Raj Kapoor.” 

The schooling here is that being cool is not an aesthetic you can impose on things, it must emanate from the very core of the thing. The core of Johar’s cinema is family. How can you, then, make the family cool? 

The tension this produces, between the modern and the conservative, creates a fascinating ambivalence — a productive tension between ideas that seem contradictory. Johar’s cinema can be read as both parody and sincerity. If he can make fun of the Yash Chopra chiffon song shot in snow-tanned landscapes in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he can embody it, celebrate it in a song in his upcoming film Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani. He can turn the wailing Lata Mangeshkar musical anthem of familial bonding in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to the climactic — pun intended — punch line of a joke in his Lust Stories short film. His cinema is the living embodiment of the idea that to make fun of something, you must first, love it. But for how long can you sustain this tension? After a point, if the cinema loses its compelling gloss, what remains collapses into a contradiction. To be and not to be — that is the anxiety. 

Related Stories

No stories found.