Karan Johar’s Delhi: The City Where Dreams Come True
What do you think about when you think about Delhi? For most of us, the answer would include gruff people, Ghalib, the lack of safety for women; a city of politics and protests, the site of sexist ‘posh south delhi girl memes’. For director Karan Johar, Delhi evokes a different set of associations. The gentrified Delhi of his films has the sprawling Waddesdon Manor — located in Buckingham, England — at a stone’s throw from Chandni Chowk — a neighbourhood whose crowdedness is iconic — which filtered through Johar’s imagination has just enough people to look inhabited, but also lets lovers walk leisurely and flirt. It’s an audacious inversion of aesthetic, brazen in its intent of fantasy, of escapism.
In Joharverse, two films have used the national capital as backdrop to establish the stakes of their romances: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G, 2001) and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani (2023). The latter has a deeply introspective quality and attempts a conversation with the former. In K3G, through Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Anjali (Kajol), Johar uses class differences to frame a romance between the rich boy and the middle-class girl. He’s a charmer, glinting with the sheen of a foreign education and an opulent lifestyle; she’s irrepressible, radiating an unalloyed honesty that is shown as rooted in Chandni Chowk (neighbourhood unspecified, and unimportant).
In Johar’s most recent film, Rani (Alia Bhatt) is a Bengali ‘girl’ from South Delhi, and Rocky (Ranveer Singh) is from Karol Bagh, a West Delhi, Punjabi boy. Once again, the boy is richer than the girl, but this time, the girl is more sophisticated than the boy (his home is called Randhawa Paradise; she lives in a two-storey bungalow that has a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the living room). The class differences in the first film are reversed to make way for stereotypes of regional eccentricities in the second.
That Rocky (and his family) do not look odd in their home — a “first copy of the White House in the US”, as Rocky claims in his introductory monologue — can be neatly chalked up to the Nineties’ economic policy, after which images from American pop culture began to seep into our cinema halls and televisions. There is a heterogeneity that we are accustomed to, an ease with which we can reconcile a fantasy that contains a heavy influence of architecture that has its origins in the ‘West’, and the people who are not. The colonial architecture of the Raichand household or the neoclassical style of the Randhawa Paradise are not supposed to create dissonance for audiences, or tussle with the culturally distinctive characters. Rather, they are stitched to create a fantasy for an audience that laps up the grandeur and scale of Titanic (1997) as well as the intimacy of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) in equal measure.
Another thing that can be attributed to the policy and how it impacted Bollywood filmmaking, is the shift towards urban storytelling, helmed by Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films (though, the tide may since have shifted). Delhi, with its location in North India — a Hindi speaking state that exists both as the other to Mumbai and in opposition to Mumbai — becomes a canvas for Johar to reject the homogeneity of his other films, based in India and otherwise. Cultural quirks are assigned to his characters and they end up being the very reasons a couple cannot be together. It is perhaps harder to create this tension of a Bengali and Punjabi not getting the other’s quirks in London or New York, where being part of a diaspora serves to blur differences instead of highlighting them. Maybe it’s easier to fantasise about Delhi (and so flatten its complexities) because Johar’s own lived experience, privileged as it may be, makes him too aware of the realities of Mumbai to dismiss them entirely?
The Delhi of Joharverse is not represented with any of the caveats associated with the city in real life. One could complain that the actual aesthetic of the city is removed in Johar’s version and what remains is the stereotype. True as that may be, there is something to be said about using that representation to offer a fantasy in which two people, earnestly negotiating how to be in love, are able to do so without making the other smaller. Johar takes the phrase ‘Everything is fair in love…’ and takes Delhi, audaciously folding and stuffing it into his story. What emerges is a city that’s meme fodder, yes, but also relentlessly hopeful in the way it rejects reality and reimagines itself as a fantastical other.
To expect Johar to conform to groundedness or realism in his films is also to misunderstand his preoccupation. Rani in Rocky Aur Rani… is a news anchor, works late into the night in Delhi, but the film doesn’t show her calculating her movements, as most women do in the city. Anjali dances in the middle of the street in Chandni Chowk without an ounce of self-consciousness regarding her body. In the same neighbourhood, Anjali, and her future husband, Rahul, meet because a mela has been set up, and Rahul takes her hand and slowly slides one green bangle after the other, punctuating everyone with a question: “Chubha? (Did it sting?)” It's an erotic scene, where he explains to her, in public, with hundreds of people swarming around them, but none who are lecherously scrutinising, that there are undertones that she is not detecting here, obvious ones regarding the matters of the heart, and lust. Audaciously, a fantasy is thrust upon the city, because Johar releases his films from the burden of handling crude male heterosexual gaze, imagined in the same breath as muttering Delhi’s name.
To think that two lovers would engage in sexual metaphors so freely in the same space the woman lives without being gawked at, and that too in Delhi. There is an obvious tilt in these films to eradicate systemic ‘stranger danger’ so that the drawing room drama can thrive instead.
There is, of course, the obvious question that lingers in the background: Why not weave a fantasy out of what already exists? What is this impulse to grab something that is geographically out of reach and squeeze the mansions into Karol Bagh or a place that is walking distance from Chandni Chowk? Simply contemplating the question pushes us towards both reckoning with irredeemable aspects regarding women’s safety in Delhi, towards Johar’s own biases and sensibilities as well as our own. But this is not a charge that Johar (or his characters) seem to be interested in addressing. The impulse, instead, is to hold up a mirror, and ask: Are you not complicit in lapping up the same grandeur, same freedoms and fantasies, that you critique behind a keyboard? Do you not want to retreat into this Delhi where instead of fear and the politics of prejudice, love stories thrive?