For a while now, I have been struggling with the idea of being an “artist”, especially when art is so yoked to commerce that it becomes tethered to those demands — to be seen, to be voraciously consumed, to be discussed, to be trolled, where the trolling becomes the discourse around it. I have come to a rather controversial, but simple conclusion: That to be an artist, truly, is to exist in a structure that allows you time, that gives you the luxury of breath. In the absence of it, you are not making art, but merely content, a reactionary storm at best. Nothing, or negligibly few things of artistic value comes from efficiency. That, to see Koffee With Karan over twenty years, is to see it evolve — or devolve, though it is hard to know what is what today — from the art of conversation, into the commerce of it.
In that, it has succeeded marvelously. To be week-on-week, the most viewed artifact on streaming; to always trend; to see clips from it being shipped around like flotsam and jetsam across the reel-verse; to be amenable to and to encourage immediate judgment; to merely exist, and to exist more, to keep existing; to never die, because death is only for art. This is no small feat, by the way.
In that, it has also lost an intimacy that comes from taking a breath. There was one episode this season, with Sharmila Tagore and Saif Ali Khan, when the breath was taken. There were moments in the opening episode, with Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, when Johar says, in one of the most bare-faced moments of this show, “I felt so happy for you, and so alone, yet”, where the breath was taken. The rest felt like palpitations, like a dog’s lung, huffing through till its early demise.
Part of this is Johar recognising what he is good at, what the audience demands, and what the stars are capable of providing is a shaky, almost pin-point intersection. In the Koffee Awards episode, he makes clear that the shift away from sex in this season was in response to audience criticism of the previous season, of Johar’s voyeurism that pastel-palette people found creepy — honestly, this is such a heterosexual criticism of the previous season, built on the edifice of creepy older straight men on the prowl. That he is building his castle on the foundation of audience expectations.
I must also confess that this posture is also tinctured heavily by nostalgia. The earlier seasons of Koffee With Karan are sown into the fabric of that time, when celebrity felt more like dhoop-chaun, glowing this way and that, when our relationship to celebrity was imbricated in speculation that felt mysterious not by design but innately, naturally, so. Their reticence felt like armor not strategy; and so their rips of honesty felt that much more shocking. The confections became clearer much later. For example, when did you find out that the questions for Koffee With Karan were given to the actors in advance?
Watching these episodes week on week and trying to see more to it — the way the flat white lighting looks like sunscreen’s white cast on their skin; the way Deepika Padukone has a fear of details, preferring trite platitudes, reducing every story to its moral; the way Johar began calling Sunny Deol ‘Sir’ where curiosity has curdled into reverence, refusing to use the word “failure” while speaking about a patch in his career; the way the camera keeps cutting to see a new position of Kajol, the folds of her clumsy dress smoothed, the pillow on her lap, the hair changing directions; the way Rani Mukerji’s hair would be combed down over the course of a cut; the way the separate entrances this season flummoxed Johar, whom to hug first?; the way the separation of gossip and professional life feels more and more pointed, with newer games, as the seasons change; the way Johar’s line of firing had to change over the years as the actors who were once dating like embers across Mumbai are now married; the way Johar treats, in his questions, the present as cumbersome and dreary, preferring to wallow in the past, in nostalgia; the way Johar treats, in his questions, the actors as ‘types’ and ‘biographies’ trying to reduce them to a condensate of their personality, with exact biographical dates for major shifts in their life and career — is to yank, forcefully, something of meaning out of debris. It is to prefer reveling in nostalgia than to see what nostalgia has evolved — or devolved — into.
This debris, though, has sowed a lot of self-doubt. I would watch an episode, somewhat exhausted by its shape and texture, and when hours later, I would revisit moments from the show through the reels on Instagram and videos on X, I would be able to locate a joy, a witty, naughty wink, that I was not able to experience while watching the show in its entirety. That watching the episode wall-to-wall had a deadening effect. This was something that was clarified in the finale, with Orry and the comedians-influencers doling out awards and perspective.
The comedians — Kusha Kapila, Danish Sait, Sumukhi Suresh, Tanmay Bhatt — gave awards for best moment, best rapid fire, best episode, and best burn. A more discerning bunch than the excitable twenty-somethings that are usually the jury for the rapid-fire — hands down, the worst call they have taken — the conversations kept trailing between wanting to be sincere and stinging, this comedic facade of wit, but also a strange sense of gratitude that they were allowed to be on this set. Every punch felt padded by permission. We can’t pretend that the couch isn’t also a potential portal from their careers as stand-up comics to DCA talent. Such is strategy. So far, so known.
But dear lord in fog-fagged heaven, Orry is insufferable outside of Instagram. He was made for the reel, his presence only capable of being consumed in pockets of minute-long videos. More than that, his gregarious charm begins to feel like a weight, because he throws his fictions around so much — his minions, his doppelgangers, his plotting his own demise — you no longer have the patience to parse the fiction from the truth, to ask and probe, to doubt and poke. You just let it wash over you.
As you do with Koffee With Karan. The show’s rhythms have been turned from narrative to “moments”, which is why its consumption, too, is of more value as discrete moments. The use of games was part of this fractioning, as discrete segments that don’t build off the previous one. The rapid fire, which was the crowning jewel, became one among the many moments that allowed for performing wit, and this performance, this constant performance has a way of hollowing out the very thing it attempted — spark.