Alia Bhatt has now opened three of the seven seasons of Koffee With Karan. Unsurprising, given the show's host Karan Johar has cast her as his muh-boli beti in the life they perform for us; that she is a blazing, prolific talent with always something to promote or be seen for; that she speaks as though childhood hasn't left her voice or face — in sweet and questionable ways. The problem is that she is just not the best narrator of her life, whether it is of her own proposal at the Maasai Mara National Reserve or her wedding in Chembur, or even the first spark of her affair with Ranbir Kapoor on the flight to Tel Aviv, stories that should have been rehearsed through repetition by now. We keep forgetting that some actors, however sparkling and ambitious, are never able to make that quantum leap towards becoming an entertainer.
On the other end of the couch sat Ranveer Singh, dripping in Gucci, the first five (or six, or seven) buttons undone, his torso enthusiastically contoured. Singh arrived on the Koffee with Karan set mane first, kissing Johar from the back like a lover who wants to announce their love, but also like a performer. Johar and Singh not only share their love for the outrageous, but also as Singh noted, for being mistaken as only the outrageous. Bhatt informed us — though we have suspected this for long — that all that nakhre on acid that Singh plasters over any set or space he walks into, is all a performance. It's all for us. But to be performed for all the time produces its own kind of lethargy.
Like Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan opening the first ever season of Koffee With Karan, Bhatt and Singh made a sweet, predictable pair, rooted to Johar's own journey as a filmmaker — something Johar keeps slipping in as a footnote that's written in glitter, bold, and underlined. (The two actors will be seen together in Johar's upcoming directorial Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani.) "Children in a classroom without a monitor" was how Johar described Bhatt and Singh together, as he sometimes looked like the monitor who isn't in on the jokes.
Ranveer Singh remains fascinating, especially his reckless relationship with traditional masculinity — comfortable being Bhatt's "sakhi", not batting an eyelid at wearing clothes from the women's section, the self-proclaimed Sindhi aunty of this trio, rattling off the different sex playlists he has. Singh is so comfortable being himself, he can be anything. His mimicry in this episode is shocking and precise, not just because he can shape-shift so easily, but also because he clearly pays such immaculate attention to the things people do — their gestures, whether they mouth or pronounce their 'Thank you', for example. To pay attention is its own kind of love, and it seems Singh is in love with life itself.
To come on Koffee With Karan is to end all pretense of artistic mystery. Who wants to be untransparent anymore? Neither Bhatt nor Singh, for what even is the value of being unseen?
Yet, for all this dazzle and charm, could it be that the man is losing his sex appeal? Perhaps part of such an appeal rests on a sense of something remaining unveiled. When Anushka Sharma noted on the Koffee With Karan couch, two seasons ago, that sometimes the most sexy thing a man can do is keep his shirt on, she was onto something.
The show, of course, has changed since SRK and Kajol first lit the ceremonial lamp. The actors tended to sit closer, bunched towards the centre of the couch. I remember SRK being able to touch Kajol's shoulder by tenting his elbows when needed. For his coffee cup, on the other hand, he would have to stretch towards the edge of the couch. What happened to that kind of proximity and comfort?
Was it extinguished by the lighting, which was less garish and flat? (Thanks, Jaquar Lights, a sponsor this season.) That intimate, magenta-tinged mood has been ripped and replaced by a more open, yellow, celebratory space which would remind no one of home or comfort. The set design is also shamelessly symbolic, floating without context — here it is trying to evoke nostalgia with old cinema sign boards, but like, who cares for the past?
The new Kofee with Karan has endorsements shoved, like vegetables in an infant gullet, into the rapid fire round — a whole question wasted on diamonds — and in the games. For the first time, the show is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, as opposed to premiering on a television channel — their logo on the coffee cups, and their shows in the quiz to make sure branding is visible — and therefore carries the advisory for "sexual language" and "strong, coarse humour". At last, the freedom of expression that streaming promised.
There's a new Bingo game, which is essentially what the clunky, comedic "Koffee Shots" used to be. Drinking a shot for every time you did something naw-tea has now been replaced by a circle on the I-pad. The "gaming zone" of the previous season has now been rechristened, rather sexually, a "slam zone" made limp by the sponsorship demands — it's now "My Glamm Slam Zone". (Where else is the mind but in the gutter, watching a show when people say "Whip it out" "Enjoy the small things … Pun not intended".)
The listing of actors, actresses, directors has been unceremoniously dropped from the rapid fire, which itself has toned its edge down. Everything is designed to produce the least offense. Even questions of comparisons are only between Ranbir and Ranveer, Alia and Deepika, a criss-cross friendship or comfort that can surely withstand snark. The garlic-breath aftertaste of every episode was wondering how it would linger and metastasize in the catty corridors of Bollywood. But Johar collapsed the corridor itself. What remains to linger?
What is this desire to seem more fair, when nothing about this world, its creation, the stardom it is profiting off from and promoting, is fair?
Johar is no longer as prissy as he used to be — not allowing others to answer or butt in during rapid fire rounds, keeping the actors on their toes, crafting a tension that was palpable. A new addition is an audience vote, the judge-shaped audience being a bunch of giggly characters who may or may not have been plucked off a college campus and then locked into a padded room somewhere on the Koffee With Karan set — a terrible decision. No one was under any illusion that the winner of the hamper was decided through an objective, fair discernment. We wanted petty decisions accountable to no one but Johar's own inner logic. What is this desire to seem more fair, when nothing about this world, its creation, the stardom it is profiting off from and promoting, is fair?
To come on Koffee With Karan is to end all pretense of artistic mystery. Who wants to be untransparent anymore? Neither Bhatt nor Singh, for what even is the value of being unseen? Everyone wants the hamper, even if it merely is the cost of the salary they would pay their driver. I never understood the excitement for these actors who drip and drain money in crores, but there is admittedly something charming about the ho-hums, the sour puss losers, the gloating winners.
The thing about Koffee With Karan is that it tries to turn artists into entertainers, selling us the idea that stars are just like us — they aren't, to be sure — just with the luxury of costume, hair, and make-up. But fame fundamentally changes you. To see yourself as a product whose value is to be negotiated constantly does something to your self-image. How do you produce relatability then? The stories we hear being adjacent to the film industry — often gossip, but told with such conviction, it is easier to be shocked than to be doubtful — swirl in our heads as we watch these performances, fact checking their PR perfected responses with our alternative data, giving them the benefit of doubt, but always lurking cynically underneath the sweet nothings. (Did Kapoor really wear a baseball hat front side-back for his proposal?)
The pull of the show, the enduring tension between what is and isn't permissible, a pretense that this show is actually a "biobubble of political incorrectness" — who is he fooling? There's definitely a legal team vetting each episode — all boils down to chemistry. Cynical or indulgent, doubtful or leering, who doesn't love seeing beautiful people get along, even if it is at the expense of their ex, their house manager, or Ibrahim Ali Khan (poor thing)? And if this was enough for six seasons, why would we want more from the seventh?
Koffee With Karan is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.