Knees. Katrina Kaif’s knees. I saw them glisten in the harsh lighting of the Koffee With Karan (KwK) set, beams bouncing off its smooth surface. Then, I looked at my own knees and was reminded of the labour of stardom, especially as a woman. It includes, among other things, scrubbing your knees till they look like polished marble. For the first time this season, after his monologue, Johar introduced her and just her — “The” Katrina Kaif, as Johar insisted on calling the actor — a throwback to vintage KwK where guests were invited, like meals in an elaborate course, one at a time, each knowing its place.
They spoke for five minutes, about her courtship and her wedding to Vicky Kaushal, about Johar not being invited to it — which Kaif was neither apologetic about nor indulging in — before Ishaan Khatter and Siddhant Chaturvedi, co-stars in the impending Phone Bhooth walked in, to DIVINE’s ‘Vibe Hai’.
Kaif did not get up, Johar mistook rock for rap, and the “boys”, who kept calling Johar “sir” — with their ironic, twink charm — played musical chairs on the Koffee couch. Khatter, intensely aware of the camera, performing for it (and us) as a cheerleading court jester, apologised to the cinematographers when the actors shuffled for the fourth time, throwing it back to Tiger Shroff in the previous episode, earnestly asking Johar, “Which camera do we perform for?”
This is perhaps the first time we’ve seen an actress refer to herself as a “senior” and it is a good look. Kaif refuses to de-age her decades of work, comfortably carrying the roster of films in which she has worked with almost all leading actors — except Ranveer Singh, as Chaturvedi pointed out. In an industry where the phrase “shelf life” is used for milk products and women, Kaif’s acceptance of her middle-age, is her pioneering the concept of a not-young heroine. And then there was the twink and twink-adjacent — Chaturvedi, with a collar-up leather jacket, lip-biting and rap gestures alongside his soft, sincere, uncomfortable poise; and Khatter, who sat cross legged in white pants, blaring endearments as though he has only affection to give and attention to get, with an evening shadow on his gym-hewn chest. One of the two may be single, but even Johar wasn’t curious enough to pry and pick apart their lies. He’s more excited by women desiring men than the other way round.
Sifting through this episode, we can grasp two seminal moments — one speaking to the state of herohood, and the other to that of KwK. The latter came after Kaif’s rapid fire, when she said she had forgotten that what she was participating in was, in fact, a rapid fire. In theory at least, there is something tense and tricky about this segment, a tenseness and trickiness that it tries to plump with a pulsing background score. There is a reason why Idea uploaded clips of all the rapid fires from the fourth season, which they sponsored. Some of these videos have upto 22 million views. On dull days I still scroll through that playlist. In the past, the questions asked included “Kill Marry Hookup”, “Besharam or no sex for seven years”, “Rank in order of sex appeal”, “One reason you hate XXX”, “Two girls you’d like to see get naughty with each other” — all of which have been chucked out in favour of a tamer set.
The thing is KwK wants to retain its catty appeal even as it excises everything that made it catty. Instead we get a monologue at the start of each episode, as though Johar is imagining himself as a late-night talk-show host on American television. These monologues are neither funny, nor witty, nor provocative. At best, like the show itself, they are both corny and self-aware of this corny thrust. Yet what use is being self-aware if that is all there is to it? A dash of delusion, I am beginning to believe, might be healthy; perhaps even necessary for a show like this.
The second moment speaks to the first point, about the state of herohood in the Hindi cinema. There was some confusion around the name of Hrithik Roshan’s character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). It was Arjun, but for a moment Johar, Khattar, and Chaturvedi were convinced it was Kabir. It took a fact checking team to whisper the correct name into Johar’s ear via his earpiece. That the names of onscreen urban men have been labelled with fungible charmlessness, they keep getting rinsed and repeated through films of brash men, a life cycle that ends with a fatigue of fuckboy names.
Writing for 10 weeks about this show, I have been wondering, who is KwK for? Because at this point it just feels like fodder for both fans and trolls. Two clips from last week’s episode with Kriti Sanon and Tiger Shroff were being circulated — one of Sanon calling Prabhas and the other of Johar asking Sanon where she sees herself as an actress compared to the threshold that Alia Bhatt has set. The former was lapped up by Prabhas fans and the latter by Johar trolls.
The only person who seems to have been trolled relentlessly and punctually throughout this season is Johar himself. His guests have either a shell of indifference (Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Aamir Khan) or a shield of reticence (Kriti Sanon, Kiara Advani, Sidharth Malhotra), the kind for which only a fandom can perform uncritical love. But where does that leave the rest of us whose love for cinema leaks into love for the cine-stars, armed with a complicated, catty curiosity that has traditionally fuelled celebrity culture?