Karan Johar's films have a distinct form and aesthetic. When asked about his sensibility, he said, "I am constantly accused of being First World. So what should I do? I can't apologise for my environment, upbringing, aesthetic. I am very clear about the movies I make." Here, we look at some of the tropes and patterns that Johar revisits often in his films:
Johar's films have come to be known for the famous bench scene that brings characters together for crucial conversations. For example, the brothers reuniting in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a group of friends reminiscing about their school days in Student of the Year, Dev and Maya's first chance encounter in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, and the establishment of the love triangle in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Johar explains, "The bench equals isolation, which I used to enjoy as a child. I'd got used to being on my own and liked it. That was my comfort place." It is, however, conspicuously absent in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Johar had perhaps recognised his subconscious fascination with benches by then, and left them out. He said, "You gotta update yourself. I can't be plonking them [in]."
"I so want to have that amazing body and play football, and completely be messy and sweaty, and score that goal, and give that fist-bump to a teammate…You have to live vicariously through your cinema," says Johar. That explains why all his lead characters must play a sport. Johar's simplistic understanding of sports is apparent in the way he uses it in his films. It started with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai where Rahul and Anjali's friendship is established through basketball games, even when they are much older. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the first time Hrithik Roshan appears on screen, he is playing cricket. He hits a six immediately and that's how we're told he's a winner who will eventually reunite his estranged family. In Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Shah Rukh Khan plays Dev, an ex-soccer player whose inability to play his favourite sport makes him a bitter, unsatisfied man. In Student of the Year, Johar's characters go to a high school that makes its students compete in a long triathlon and play treasure hunt to pick the most competent student.
When Johar's characters fall in love, they often lip-sync to a love song that is, in Johar's own words, "beautifully mounted". This means taking his characters to a stunning locale in gorgeous Manish Malhotra outfits. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the three leads sing the title song against a backdrop of lakes, hills, fields and forts in Scotland. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham featured Rahul and Anjali singing 'Sooraj Hua Maddham' against the pyramids of Giza. In Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Dev and Maya confess their love for each other by singing 'Tumhi Dekho Na' in New York City. In Student of the Year, the three leads sing 'Ishq Wala Love' in snowy Kashmir. "We were showing off. That's what we do in songs like this: we show off," said Johar. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he parodies his own trope by showing Ranbir Kapoor falling prey to hypothermia while dancing on snow-capped mountains.
Johar's close celebrity friends often make appearances in his films. Sometimes they pop up unexpectedly in songs, like Kajol in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Student of the Year, or have extended cameos like Salman Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Rani Mukerji in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Both John Abraham and Alia Bhatt appeared as DJs in the party songs of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, respectively. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, one of the most anticipated moments was Shah Rukh Khan's cameo in a scene with Ranbir Kapoor.
Johar is often accused of only writing about NRIs, which explains why most of his films are shot abroad. However, even when his stories are set in India, he tends to shoot in fancy foreign locations and pass them off as Mumbai or Delhi. The college in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which looked straight out of an Archie comic book, was supposed to be St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Yet he went as far as Mauritius and Scotland to shoot. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the massive Raichand family mansion that Shah Rukh Khan had to take a chopper to reach was supposedly in Delhi. In reality, Johar used shots of Waddesdon Manor, a large country house in Buckinghamshire, England, to depict the Raichand home's façade.