It took a beat to register why Karan Johar would call Sunny Deol ‘sir’. Johar is 51, Deol is 66; their respective debuts, too, have a similar age gap, so I suppose it feels natural for one to push the other into the preceding generation by sir-ing them.
Circle back to season 1 of Koffee With Karan, where Sunny Deol made his debut on the couch with his brother Bobby Deol, and you sense the two decades between the two episodes have actually widened that age gap — Johar has a more candid conversation then, asking Sunny about his racy youth, prodding him to deliver a Shakespeare line (Deol worked in Othello in London, where he studied acting), asking him when he cried last, refusing to ‘sir’ him, speaking to him as a contemporary, as someone of whom you would want to know more. Two decades later, that curiosity has curdled into courtesy and deference.
So settle in, for the new episode of Koffee With Karan has Johar being careful and respectful, utilising his charisma for kindness (instead of using it, as he usually does, for conversational kink). So respectful that he even refuses to use the word “failure” when it comes to a phase in Deol’s career. Instead, he pulls words, like pulling teeth, trying to conjure the meaning of failure without the word, “Things were … not as things were”. The effect of the dhai-kilo ka haath, clearly, has its reach beyond the cinema screen. It can pulp people, but reality shows, too, into flat bread. Of what point is a conversation that just keeps producing egg shells to walk around?
Both the Deol brothers’ careers have the arc of a boomerang — success goes and comes. After Gadar (2001), a dry spell struck Sunny Deol’s career. The reason he furnishes in the episode is the professionalisation of the film industry, the industrification of it: “After 2000, it started changing more rapidly. The corporates came in and suddenly those producers who worked with passion, they disappeared.” Deol is mourning the loss of turf to a more professional cinema. Later, he quips, “I am not so fond of bounded scripts; I have never read a script,” referring to the Eighties and Nineties as a period where films were shot on the fly, with shreds of conviction and a wisp of a narration. (The other reason for him not reading scripts is medical: Deol has said in other interviews that he is dyslexic.)
In 1998, Hindi cinema got “industry status” making the financing of films less dubious (less mafia), protecting films from copyright violations and piracy. It produced a sea change as the new millennium poured in and a new kind of cinema congealed on a new kind of audience — the diaspora lassoed in, of which Johar played a major, path-breaking role. Deol was lost in this sea change, and uses the vocabulary of “passion” to explain this change, an inability to distinguish professionalism from passion, an inability to see a change in taste as a change in love. Johar adds spice to this claim, building on the idea of passion, with that of family: “There was a feeling of fraternity, everybody called each other for everything.” (There was also much more of a struggle to secure finances and films were a much more dangerous profession, with death threats and actual violence woven into industry practices.) After a point, you can only hope the men see the light. A career fades for more reasons than just one, and the loss of passion, certainly, isn’t that.
Sunny Deol is back, however, scream-acting with such temerous strength and simplicity in Gadar 2 (2023), opening up single screens, and also, potentially, hopefully, Deol’s flagging career. We are in the age of action films, and Deol, with his body unadorned by abs, just a pindi rage, can possibly chart a new lifeline for the quickly tiring genre. Johar, refuses to speak of the success of the film as a phenomenon that charged a very different demographic, a different audience. It is easier, I suppose, to speak of success generically, universally. Like it just happened, and it happened everywhere.
Then, there is Bobby Deol, coming out strong with shows like Aashram (2020), Love Hostel (2022), and now the upcoming Animal. His story is more familiar, given the interviews where he wept with heart, of the failure he thought he was and the grit it took to be desperate, to pull one’s proverbial socks up. He treads this familiar story in this episode. Johar, and his knotty (naughty, too, rephrasing Sunny Deol’s love for teddy bears as a kink) questions try to yank more out of Bobby Deol. “Do you remember the exact moment when you got out of this?” asks Johar. The exact moment. While Deol is walking through his life as a series of conclusions, of claims, Johar wants something riper, reducible to dates, times, seasons, a specificity that only makes stories richer.
The Deols, alas, have no such inclinations and Johar isn’t interested in asking about the specifics they do drop into conversation. For instance, before Race 3 (2018), actor Salman Khan, a longtime family friend of the Deol brothers, called Bobby and said, “Mamu, shirt utaarey ga? (Ready to strip?)” How did Bobby, then in an emotional slump and now in a shirt that’s barely buttoned, feel about needing to woo audiences by needing to conform to a certain brand of sexy? Despite Bobby’s seeming openness to talk about himself, there’s no emotional stripping down.
Coddled by Johar, the Deols are happy to merely share the spotlight in a time where their grip over the popular imagination has faded. They refuse, however, to see the fragility of their position, where ‘Lord’ Bobby is both irony and sincerity — as opposed to pure fandom as the episode suggests — where Sunny Deol’s success for now is brittle, tied to an idea, a character, a franchise which looks increasingly dated. And Johar, in his bid to charm the ones on the couch opposite him, forgets that couches perhaps desire something more full bodied — more complicated, if not more salacious. After all, who today has the patience for cliches?