Karan Johar returns to digital – this time, as a stand-up comic on Amazon Prime Video's One Mic Stand: Season 2, streaming from October 22. Alongside, he's also shooting for his next directorial venture – Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt starrer, Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani. The director talks about venturing into the comedy space, not giving up on his passion project, Takht, and the need to encourage and empower writers in the Hindi film industry.
Anupama Chopra: I want to start with something that Ted Sarandos told me. I asked him, "What is similar between storytellers all over the world?" He said that, "Apart from the cinema, the artform that he really respects is stand-up comedy. What is common between all storytellers and stand-up comics is the fact that they see something that other people don't see. The comics see something funny, the storytellers might see something funny, or sad or sinister." Would you agree with this? Have you felt an affinity with stand-up comedy before?
Karan Johar: I've never been a laugher. Sometimes, when I'm laughing on Koffee With Karan, I think I'm play-acting that laughter because I want to make the guests believe that they said something funny. I don't laugh like the audience you see at standups. I am not an avid viewer of comedy at all. Though, as a filmmaker, when you narrate a film, which has its comedy beats, you're actually doing your stand-up or sit-down. I have done that several times. And many of my films have had those humorous parts, which, when you narrate, you try to understand and gauge whether your joke is landing.
When I watch stand-up comedy, I believe that comedy comes a lot from your observations of life. I find humor in almost everything. I could even find humor at a funeral. Maybe it is to distract my emotional energy at that time, but sometimes, life presents you with really funny things. It's for you to observe it, notice it, make it into a story and narrate it. That's what comedy is. It's how you can look at every situation around you and put it into a comic perspective, which is I think what the best stand-up comedians do around the world. They draw either culturally, or from their family, or their life. A lot of them get really personal about their families. I can say hilarious things about my mother (which I'm going to do). She's a savage mom. I feel like if I keep talking about her all day, I have all my screenplays and set-pieces ready for comedy.
I do not have an affinity, but I do have a desire to explore this territory, because I believe it's a big moment in pop culture today.
AC: Your mentor, Sumukhi Suresh, is a fierce, no-holds-barred comic. What is the most important lesson she taught you?
KJ: She said, "Listen, be yourself. Just make sure that you are the best salesman." You have to sell a joke and relentlessly be at it. If it doesn't land the first time, it will land the second time, so don't let it go. She told me to not crumble under the pressure of no reaction from the audience, because that will happen, and it has happened to the best stand-up comedians. Sometimes, we are in an environment where we have to really self-censor ourselves because there's so much worry about the ramifications of what you say. So, while I have massive bubbles in my head about so many things, I can't articulate it. There are so many things I want to say in my set-piece, but I feel very restricted. I feel I would offend someone, somewhere, and I really don't want to, because I am done with offending people. I just want to focus on making my movie, without any drama around me. I really feel the need to curb and curtail a lot of what I want to say. That is the only thing which saddens me, more than anything else because I believe I can take a joke on myself, but I know many others can't. Atleast not in my fraternity. I don't think we have a sense of humor.
AC: I made a list of my favorites of 2021 so far. And there was just one Hindi film on that. Geeli Pucchi, from an anthology that you produced. As somebody who is a leader in the film industry, why do you think that the industry is in such a slump?
KJ: I think it's because the best writing is happening digitally right now. Firstly, the big mistake that we have done is that we did not empower writers. Post Salim-Javed, we never learnt how important it is to make writers into superstars. We've lost five decades, because we became obsessed with superstars and filmmakers, not realizing that the true soul of a narrative comes from the writing table. If you don't empower those people, they will wither away and go into various other jobs and verticals. We'll lose them, and that's what happened. It's only post 2010, that you saw writer-director collaborations like Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi or Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar. And today, I'm happy to report that we have some fabulous writers in the country. They are all the best writers in the rooms for television shows, but they are not writing feature films, because, I feel, they don't get that kind of acknowledgement that they should get. If the fraternity realizes that they have to empower writers, our content will change. If we do not change the way we perceive, structure, nurture and platform writers, we would never reach our goal in standard in terms of content creation.
AC: What can you tell us about Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani? Give us one little thing to go with.
KJ: At heart, it's a family dramedy, not a romcom. It's got comedy, there's love, but it's a family movie. It's about their grandparents, their parents, and themselves. There's a lot of interplay in terms of relationships in the film. I am really excited to work with cinema veterans. There's Dharmendra ji and Jaya (Bachchan) ji and Shabana (Azmi) ji, all together. I haven't worked with Dharam ji and Shabana ji ever, and I am vastly excited to direct them. I have done a lot of work with Jaya aunty before, and I am excited to be back with her on set. More than anything else, I am just excited about getting back on the set. I'm excited to direct a feature film. I haven't done that since 2016. I can't wait to actually picturize songs. I get visions and visuals of me being on a set and a song is being picturized. I haven't shot a song in about 6 and a half years now. And I really missed it, because to me, that's the best part of Indian cinema – its music. To me, it's such a big part. It's my go-to even now. I can't wait to shoot a song. I want to see Ranveer and Alia dance, I'm just dying to dance with them.
AC: You were a few weeks from starting with Takht when the world went into lockdown. It sounded like such a fascinating movie and that scale and that canvas was so epic. Is that going to be a film you might revisit or is that going to be the film that got away?
KJ: No, I am going to make that movie right after Rocky Aur Rani. That film is a piece of my heart, it will not get away. It's got 2 and a half years of my prep. We prepped for 2 and a half years, we were rearing to go. I still remember we were to start on 24th April, when the pandemic hit us in March, and because it was so vast, voluminous and on a large scale, that on a daily basis, it needed a thousand people on set. It was that kind of film. It was an epic, period film based on the Mughal era. That again is a family film. It's based in that era, but it focusses on the interrelationships of that era, those people and those people existed in the real world.
I will always say, Rocky Aur Rani is my excitement project, but Takht is my passion project. And you cannot run away from your passion. So right after I'm done with my excitement, I'll head towards my passion.