The safer musings of What Women Want, where Kareena Kapoor Khan plays a warm host who gently prods her guest to spill the prosaic workings of their career and personal lives, represents a perceivable contrast to her candid divulgings on Koffee with Karan (KwK). On her show, Kapoor never interrogates, but only nudges guests to share what-feels-comfortable details about their career graphs, marriage, kids, as well as some platitudinous but progressive notions on gender politics. Over multiple seasons on the couch of Karan Johar’s talk show, she’s reluctantly admitted hurt over not being able to do Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), frank admissions of not wanting her partner to kiss other co-stars, and a slight disdain for fellow colleagues, especially female contemporaries. Kapoor’s own show’s tug at the guest is tender, constrained; Johar’s is more shameless, cheeky, and now, arguably waning its pull.
Since Kapoor made her debut in J.P. Dutta’s Refugee in 2000 alongside Abhishek Bachchan, flops have pimpled her filmography. She revealed she was following the strategy of Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, and her sister, Karisma Kapoor. They signed several films and believed that the beam of the hits would obscure the shadow of the ones that failed and crashed. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, K3G), a year into Kapoor’s debut, catapulted her into quick superstardom, the status of which, under the weight of several flops that followed after, floated, even as the substance slowly withered till the next hit. In 2004, during the first season of Koffee with Karan, she told Johar about the regret of not having the gall to make a phone call and admitting she wanted to the role in Kal Ho Naa Ho, one of the biggest successes of Bollywood in that decade, and couched this within the confession that the most enduring hit of her career, K3G, and her most iconic character in it, Poo (short for Pooja), came from him. The frankness of the lingering hurt, the regret over missing a brighter dot amongst a series of less memorable projects, barring braver swoops like Chameli (2003), was worn easily.
Johar’s talk show often scored controversial moments — it still does — and Kapoor remains consistent in the number of times she’s offered them up. These were easy remarks: She called John Abraham “expressionless” in her second rapid fire on the show; she pointedly asked Priyanka Chopra Jonas in the third season “where she got that accent from”; she mercilessly teased her cousin, Ranbir Kapoor, about his rumoured relationship with Katrina Kaif in the fourth season and said she would dance to ‘Chikni Chameli’ at their wedding. It is hard to locate any negativity in these facile slippages about accents and expressions. Contrast her breezy digs at her colleagues with other displays that have given Koffee with Karan its aura of notoriety — like Emraan Hashmi’s vitriolic bashing of Mallika Sherawat (he said she needs to read a dummy’s guide to acting as she forays into Hollywood), or KL Rahul and Hardik Pandya’s misogynistic comments about “scoring chicks”. Kapoor’s cheeky divulgings scandalised audiences but carried a playful undercurrent that deliciously poked fun for the sake of playing along with a show format, rather than any malicious intent of stoking egos or needling serious hurt (though, it is hard to imagine Abraham unbothered by such a negative remark).
Kapoor has since progressed in the industry, shifting to a contemporary strategy of making choiceful, safer roles, rather than grabbing onto many scripts. Despite the casual privilege of belonging to Raj Kapoor’s clan, she like many other guests, became far less interested in leaning into the mean-spirited tilt of KwK as the ripples of the controversies and the ensuing scrutiny became greater. Not that she never made any statements that didn’t irk afterwards elsewhere. When asked if she was a feminist during Veere Di Wedding (2018) promotions at the press conference, she said: “Well, I believe in equality. I won't say I am a feminist, I would say I am a woman. And, above all, I am a human being.” Four years later, when What Women Want premiered, a question hung over it about its socio-political inclinations: With accumulated generational privilege, and by 2022, married to a Nawab, how would she approach women-centric issues after dismissing a movement around it? Kapoor, to her credit, generously squeezes in liberal thoughts about women’s mobility, and how we need to look at their potential more expansively. But, she rarely mentions organised movements around their liberation as a way to bolster her point. Instead, she relies on an interpersonal approach where she affably asks/tells her guests about how women should not be stereotyped in incapacitating ways, and opens up a space for them to offer their experience on this.
In the show, Kapoor offers a distinct contrast to her bratty image crafted by KwK, or the perception of her being self-obsessed a la Poo of K3G. Instead, she is enormously empathetic to her guests as they, prodded by her warmth, judiciously share mundane details about their craft and family life. With friends like Rani Mukjerji, she would talk about her daughter Adira at length, casually peppering the conversation with trivia about their own friendship. With Kapil Sharma, she probed into his journey as a superstar comedian and an upcoming actor despite being a senior in other fields, but never in the vein where it is supposed to reach deeper than necessary or meant to yank out uncomfortable or gossipy subtexts. With her cousin, Ranbir Kapoor, who, with his particular sense of humour that often comes at the expense of the other person, she gently pushed against his teasing accusations that she loves her son Jeh more than Taimur, but never enough for the other person to feel destabilised, or lose ground. With Masaba Gupta, as she vulnerably shared the racism she faced in India as a mixed race child, Kapoor supplied the affirmation of the experience with a mix of ample nods, exclamations of horror, as well as rightful rebukes.
What Women Want, available on Youtube, clocks in comparatively less viewers than KwK. The numbers of the former range from a million to five million, and for the latter, Disney+ Hotstar has revealed the range to be double. Neither of these claim journalistic rigour as its purpose. They claim insight through proximity. (Even if What Women Wants’ numbers are lesser, they are still substantial for a show that started out a year ago.)
In Season 8 of KwK, Kapoor was coupled with Alia Bhatt on the couch, and the high point of trolling of the episode is when Johar and Bhatt are laughing at her guitar acting in Sooraj Barjatya’s Main Prem ki Diwani Hoon (2003). She claps back by asking if someone else could display the same conviction for the role. But, all in all, this teasing by Bhatt and Johar is a grating reminder of how sanitised the recent seasons of Johar’s talk show have become. Without being able to bring insinuations to the power dynamics with other industry members, like when Preity Zinta did in season 1 when she mentioned Kapoor only greeted her when Johar was present, its strategy of making the guests pull the leg of who they are coupled with in the safest possible way, feels inane. (In the longer term, it is also possibly not sustainable due to how boring this is.)
Though KwK at this point has become infamous for luring its guests into giving juicy gossip that could have negative repercussions, it still drew out moments of an honest portrait of what it's like to come from incontestable, and illustrious privilege, as Kapoor does in recent times. What Women Want, with its more relaxed, and gentle quality, has a tinge of kindness to it, and its softness doesn’t always pierce into the interviewee’s answers to interrogate the subtexts. Between the waning quality of KwK and steadiness of What Women Want, the state of celebrity interviews is one where what is comfortable, and digestible, takes precedence. And for better or worse, these interviews that claim insight through closeness, end up reinforcing these public relations constructed walls, rather than making a more compelling case against them.