In his book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity, historian and podcaster Greg Jenner makes a distinction between being famous and being a celebrity. According to Jenner, celebrity status doesn’t come from the work one does. In fact, professional expertise is irrelevant because to be a bona fide celebrity, one has to be famous just for the fact of being themselves. A key part of this curious flavour of fame is that a person’s private life must be as or more interesting than their professional success.
Which is possibly why episode three of Koffee with Karan barely mentions the careers and movies of guests Ananya Panday and Sara Ali Khan. Instead, Khan denies having dated cricketer Shubman Gill. There’s a back-and-forth between host Karan Johar and Panday in which titles from Aditya Roy Kapur’s filmography are dropped pointedly so that even someone whose brain is in a vegetative state can pick up that Panday and Roy Kapur are dating. Are you at the edge of your seat? Can you contain your curiosity? Are you clutching your pearls (or popcorn, whatever your budget allows) as you find out Khan was single at the time of filming this episode and Panday wants to be respected for her professional choices? Be still my beating heart. Or, as momager Bhavana Panday said about her daughter’s performance in Liger (2022), “Fun!”
In his opening monologue, Johar promises us a chat with the potential to go “bonkers” because Khan and Panday are “highly inflammable girls”. He raises expectations of a tell-all, filled with sizzling secrets and bold confessions. What we get is Panday being, in her own words, “Ananya Coy Kapur” and Khan going from vague to hysterical, possibly from the sheer boredom of being perched on the Koffee couch. In that at least, Khan’s sentiments are entirely relatable.
A conversation that begins with ex-boyfriends, goes on to the topic of living under the thumbs of formidable mothers, includes admissions of failure, pronouncements like “In this woke world, Sara is slept”, and confessions of having threatened a bestie with violence if she looks at a particular man — shouldn’t this be fun? In an ideal world, watching these two women banter and field Johar’s questions should leave us if not charmed, then at least curious about them and eager to see them again. Yet neither woman on Koffee with Karan makes an impression. While Johar dishes out specifics of how in the past he’d made up with Kareena Kapoor Khan and Kajol after declaring he was never going to speak to either actor again because of fights they’d had, the two younger women stick to being vague. Sitting in a set that looks like a lavish, seven-star hotel bathroom in which the toilet fittings have been replaced with couches, the two women are gleaming reminders of how vacuous a celebrity can be.
On the plus side, thanks to the sentence antakshari game, we now know that Panday and Khan know the English alphabet. Also, having heard their original dialogues and verses, let us all say a prayer that neither actor nurses any aspirations of becoming a writer.
This season, Koffee with Karan seems to be consciously pivoting towards highlighting the personal lives of its celebrity guests. The first episode focused on Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh as Bollywood’s hottest couple. In the second episode, brothers Sunny and Bobby Deol made an appearance and left us with a vivid image of Sunny Deol making heart-eyes at teddy bears. This time, Khan and Panday are couch companions not so much for their personal friendship, but because they share an “ex” factor (read: Kartik Aaryan) and because one is single while the other is in a committed relationship. If Johar’s guests really were ready to be candid and chatty, this focus on private lives would probably be a winner, but so far it’s Johar making the revelations and baring his soul, rather than his guests.
It’s difficult to understand who Koffee with Karan is looking to entertain. These episodes rely on the viewer knowing Bollywood gossip and being aware of celebrity antics. At a time when so many of his guests have dynamic social media presences, there’s little that a fan gets out of Koffee with Karan that they can’t find from online rumour mills and the celebrity’s Instagram profile. Appearing on Johar’s show is as much of a performance as any other PR campaign. Admittedly, there are flashes of candour that sneak past the dull façade, like when Panday points out that the scrutiny she and other public figures face is something they’ve largely brought upon themselves by putting so much of themselves on social media. Khan hints that she finds it difficult to know what she wants for herself because she’s so used to internalising her mother Amrita Singh’s expectations as her own.
However, for most part, Johar’s own familiarity with Khan and Panday isn’t enough to bring out facets of their personality. The giggles are polite, the answers even more so. We learn that Panday thinks Khan is a harmless flirt, Panday is Little Miss Earnest, and it turns out no one in that room knows what “Bollywood’s BFF” Orhan ‘Orry’ Awatramani actually does for a living. Considering the aura of mystique around him, he might just be a better candidate for the Koffee couch.
Once upon a time, Johar’s clever mix of the chat show and interview format delivered mic-drop answers and revelations that led to tittering controversies. Thanks to (justified) fears of being trolled, both the questions and the responses on Koffee with Karan are becoming increasingly anodyne. Forget spilling the tea, there’s no chai patti in the vicinity of the show now.