How Karan Johar Handles “Sadoo” Patriarchs
Half an hour into Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1997), Karan Johar’s debut directorial venture, we have Principal Malhotra (Anupam Kher) scrutinising the attire of female students at his college — they are lined up, sitting next to each other, crossed legs, skirts riding up to scandalous heights. This could easily have become a scene in which the young women get schooled and Kher as the college principal looks visibly upset by how much these girls are exposing with their chosen outfits. However, in the world of Johar’s storytelling, the patriarchal hand-wringing is a source of comic relief. The fuming Principal Malhotra, with his exaggerated gestures, is a walking parody. His ultimate weapon turns out to be not his own authority but, “Mai tumhari mummy se complain karunga (I will tell on you to your mothers).”
Principal Malhotra is cut further down to size when his colleague Ms. Braganza (Archana Puran Singh) sashays in, wearing a light green (short) skirt, distracting him enough to make him lose track of what he was saying to the students. He mistakes Miss Braganza for a student and is about to reprimand her when she reveals herself and berates the principal for trying to make the girls feel conscious about how they’ve dressed. “Yeh toh kuch bhi nahi (this is nothing),” she tells Principal Malhotra breezily, “aaj kal to kuch ladkiyan skirts pehenti bhi nahi hai (these days, some girls have given up on wearing skirts altogether).” A flustered and blushing Principal Malhotra says, “Don’t tell me that Ms. Braganza,” only to be reduced to a giggling wreck when Ms. Braganza responds with flirty flair. Short skirts: 1. Moral policing by patriarch: Zero.
Johar’s oeuvre is replete with figures of masculine authority who, like Principal Malhotra, are whittled down to seem ridiculous. There is an undeniable stench here, an allergy towards the male patriarch that has run through the course of his films. These characters dramatically tread the line of being either forced to repent or are dismissed using humour, as Principal Malhotra is, when his moral policing is exposed as borderline creepy. Or when Dean Yogendra Vashisht’s (Rishi Kapoor) jealous rage in Student of the Year (SOTY, 2012) is reduced to a joke when he aggressively flings a dafli at a woman he sees as his rival.
But the act of laughing at these male patriarchs contains something deeply unsettling when you scratch past the surface. Is laughter a form of resistance? Or does Johar’s over-the-top humour ease, trick and manipulate us into trivialising these behaviours while keeping intact the influence of these patriarchs?
Among Johar’s most memorable father figures is Yash Vardhan Raichand (Amitabh Bachchan) in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G, 2001. A large part of this film is an inter-class love story between Rahul Raichand (Shah Rukh Khan) and Anjali Sharma (Kajol), in which we’re supposed to laugh at classist jokes made at the expense of those who live in Johar’s unintentionally nonsensical interpretation of a lower middle class stretch of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. (If you’re wondering how Anjali’s neighbourhood qualifies as humble, keep in mind that when critic Baradwaj Rangan asked Johar to pick for himself a blue collar job for himself, Johar answered “Lawyer”.) When Anjali comes to the Raichand household, Johar uses comedy to establish her as an outsider. While dropping off sweets that have been ordered for Yash Vardhan’s birthday, she accidentally breaks a gamla. She returns the next day to apologise for the aforementioned gamla and Yash Vardhan corrects her. It’s not a gamla, but a vase. She delivers an earnest speech about being large-hearted and then, while attempting to exit left, she manages to break yet another objet d’art. “Gamlaaaaaa,” Anjali wails, and then quickly corrects herself: “Gamla nahi, vase”. You laugh because Anjali is inconsolable, and because the film is very amused by how unamused Yash Vardhan is by Anjali’s clumsiness and lack of sophistication. The audience enjoys this scene all the more because it knows something Yash Vardhan doesn’t — his beloved son is in love with the klutz who has managed to come across as charming, despite being a literal embodiment of that phrase about a bull in a china shop.
Later in the film, Rahul reveals himself to be a chip off Yash Vardhan’s block when he becomes the patriarch of his own unitary family in London, comprising Anjali, her sister Pooja (Kareena Kapoor Khan), and Daijaan (Farida Jalal). He doesn’t like that Pooja wears “chote-chote kapde” (miniscule clothes) in the household, especially after they get a houseguest in the form of the mysterious Indian stranger Rohan (Hrithik Roshan). Unaware that Rohan, who pretends his name is Yash, is the baby brother he left behind when he walked out of the Raichand family to do right by Anjali, Rahul finds fault in everything Rohan/ Yash does. He disapproves of Rohan using the landline for long-distance calls to his family in India. At one point, Rahul takes a half-eaten apple from Rohan’s hands and chomps on it out of spite. Rahul comes across as stingy on the surface (despite being generous at heart) because Johar depicts this posturing of un-generosity as an endearing Indian quality.
One could argue that neither Rahul nor Yash Vardhan are particularly likeable as people, especially to the women they judge or the men whose apples they snatch. These are expressions of patriarchal ego and Johar yanks these undesirable qualities out and puts them on display, encouraging the audience to scrutinise their behaviour. Isn’t it silly for Yash to be so wound up over a gamla, for Rahul to grumble about letting a man have an apple for breakfast? At the same time, the humour softens the blow and encourages the viewer to forgive these egoistical men their old-fashioned ways.
In Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) — which Johar did not direct but wrote, and was heavily involved in the making of —half way through the movie, Kursann Bhai Patel (Satish Shah) meets his son Rohit Patel (Saif Ali Khan) at a strip club. Kursann is delightfully observing a stripper in a red dress. He inquires about his son’s sexuality because Kanta Ben (Sulabha Roy) is worried that there is something going on with him, and wonders if his son is in a “cupboard” (he meant closet). He also enthusiastically pushes his son towards heterosexual marriage because apparently, Rohit is “GCGC” (i.e. Good Catch of Gujju Community).
The scene weaves together Kursann’s unapologetic infidelity, homophobia, and the notion of tradition to create a character that leans on clichés and feels joyfully offensive. We find this amusing because we are privy to the fact that Rohit is only construed as gay due to a misunderstanding — Aman (Shah Rukh Khan) had a sleepover at Rohit’s place after a drunken night in a club, and Kanta Ben walked in to find the two men on the same bed. There is also a clear discomfort in Rohit who seems to see the undercurrent of hypocrisy in his father determinedly pushing Rohit towards marriage. From Kursann’s own behaviour, we can see that the institution is not wholly accommodative of unconventional romantic desire. Yet as much as Kursann’s hypocrisy is the butt of the joke here, how are we supposed to interpret his loyalty towards heterosexual marriage and his homophobia? Are those by extension supposed to be laughed at too? Is Kursann’s acceptance of heterosexual marriage (and the denials that come as addendum) a fact of life that make his transgressions forgivable because they also make him funny? And how are we to perceive the panic that erupts in the heteronormative status quo when the possibility of queerness raises its cheeky head?
Queer desire as fact is pulled out more clearly in the representation of SOTY’s closeted Dean Yogendra Vashisht, who has a crush on coach Karan Shah (Ronit Roy). Who can forget the scene in which, at the sight of Karan and his wife happily vibing at a party that the dean is also attending, out comes the dafli which the dean sends flying in the direction of Karan’s wife. Anger accumulates when desire has to be unfairly repressed, so this makes sense, and the exaggerated tone of SOTY ensures these moments are seen as caricaturish rather than toxic. However, this dafli flinging isn’t inherently amusing due to the act itself, but due to the context of Yogendra otherwise representing an authority figure in school. His pettiness punctures the facade of an authority figure having to be put together, and not come undone so publicly.
Johar often flits between acknowledging the wounds retained due to the neglect and the stubborn obliviousness of these older men towards the changes demanded of them by the world Johar imagines. There is an evident inclination in these films towards not only keeping the family unit intact, but to restore it to how it was, originally, with all its heteropatriarchal caveats. Take, for instance, the last scene of K3G, when Yash and Rahul are sobbing and embracing each other after a long and emotional separation — they were apart all this time because Yash did not approve of Rahul’s choice to marry Anjali. Yash sentimentally adominishes Rahul for not making the first move, and this is accepted as the only kind of apology or acknowledgement Rahul will get. At least in SOTY, Yogendra, on his deathbed, asks for forgiveness from his students. Almost as a reward, he passes away peacefully in his sleep soon after. Madhavi Menon, author of ‘Infinite Desire: The History of Desire in India’, says you cannot read Bollywood films for their ending; you have to locate the disruptions, the queer fissures, the deviations, even if a story subsumes in the most familial, heterosexual sense possible. Then, how do we think about these jokes in Johar’s films in the context of how his movies end?