A boredom has descended like a shroud over Koffee With Karan, but you won't know it, because it is so flashy and colourful, full of sudden sparks of sharp moments in a lethargic sea of blunt edges, you'll probably mistake the shroud for a fashionable shrug. The numbers certainly reflect a descent, from 11 million views the first weekend, for the premiere episode with Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh, to 7 million for the second episode with Janhvi Kapoor and Sara Ali Khan.
The third episode with Samantha Prabhu and Akshay Kumar, whose viewership fate we will find out on Monday, was so uncomfortable, haphazard, and distended in its shape that when it finally gasped and ended, you would not even complain that they did not play the Bingo game in which the stars circle — on polished iPads — all the naughty things they have done under and above tables.
Karan Johar, the host, who also carries with him the air of a matchmaker, felt like he was presiding over a love story of his making, pointing out what the two have in common with suggestive bite. And that's fine — we really aren't prudes, but there is such a sharp discomfort watching this episode that I had to wonder. Is it the 20-year age difference — the paternal pats that Kumar kept bestowing, giving Prabhu the hamper he won, making the whole charade of competition feel redundant; Samantha proudly speaking of the all-snakes-no-stakes phase she is currently stewing pleasurably in; Johar's dumbfounded face every time they forgot he was in the room… or was it just the swirling noise of gossip that kept interrupting what we were seeing?
It is this cloud of noise we carry around, the burden of stardom, where a person is often a disproportionate compendium of their art, their PR, their perception, and (if anything is remaining) their personality.
I might sound a little disillusioned by Koffee with Karan (KwK) and the general direction it has been taking. It came into the cultural radar at a time when stardom felt so beyond our reach, the giggling talk-show slotted itself as a bridge. But now even Johar himself has said stardom is a largely extinct concept that has been replaced by popularity. And popularity, unlike stardom, isn't enigmatic. It isn't something you necessarily want to dig further into because it's all there, anyway — confected and colour-corrected. It is why Johar has moved his dollared gaze Southwards, where stardom is still a thing that keeps fans locked in silos of blind, blinding faith. (Can you imagine at an event with Naga Chaitanya, Samantha's ex-husband, the audience started trolling him by screaming Samantha's name?)
As the seasons progressed, the addition of the "games" spelt doom, indicating the show was unable to be buoyed by the natural charisma of the stars themselves, and so needed these moments of tension, slip-ups and bubbling energy to hook an audience, cut a teaser. Is that why the Bingo game was axed? To accommodate Prabhu's stardom and stories?
Samantha Ruth Prabhu, arguably, one of the most delectable and discussed stars of this country, is both ruthless and groveling, sharp and bland, and she moves so quickly between these two — between praising Akshay Kumar's movies and performances and persona like an ingenue and a serrated barb, "Your per-day is my entire salary", both of which Kumar buries under his voice — it is impossible to make anything of her personality or performance. What to make of her spontaneous "You already asked that off-screen" to Johar saying he won't ask her about her divorce, alongside her — clearly — rehearsed diatribe that marriage is not K3G but KGF. It is the same odd mix that was visible on her chat show Sam Jam, which though planned for ten episodes, was called off after eight. I sometimes hear her laugh with forceful staccatos, and think, "You really don't have to, it's okay."
"You mean if you put us both in a room, you'd have to hide sharp objects? Yes, as of now," Prabhu says to Johar about her divorce from Naga Chaitanya, a moment so cutting and honest, so unwilling to pretend to be okay and over things, in a world where indifference is valuable currency. On our round table, too, she noted that all the plans she made for her life crumbled, a rare confession of both despair and hope.
She throws you off, calling "Oo Anteva" a "satire of the male gaze", which it is if you zoom into the lyrics, but really, who is doing that, when Prabhu is sliding across the floor using Allu Arjun's thighs as a chair, thrusting into thirst-town? That song is clearly catering to desire — and if the desire is articulated primarily from a male perspective, then this is that. Why bother pretending it is a strike of feminism? A claim that is burnt to cinders by Akshay Kumar flinging her across the room to the same song playing in the background, with the mic flying around, I was surprised it didn't knock anyone unconscious. Except, maybe, my sense of chemistry.
"They're jealous," says Kumar of those complaining about the increasing age gap between him and his actresses. I really wish it was jealousy and not discomfort that I felt at that moment.
Kumar has warmed the KwK couch thrice before, each time with a different energy — the grouchy, early riser on his solo episode; the tongue-tied, gobsmacked, leashed husband with his wife Twinkle Khanna seated closer than usual; and the brash, boyish one with Ranveer Singh. It feels weird for Kumar to be called a "one man industry" with his "finger on the popular pulse" by Johar when the actor's last two films — Bachchan Pandey, Samrat Prithviraj (2022) — flopped with such fanfare, it almost spelt cinematic doom. Since these episodes are canned months before they are out, there is a staleness in the timing, where Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal (2022), mentioned as a film Prabhu was working on has already released, succeeded, and left the public imagination.
Perhaps it is apt, then, that my Twitter feed, usually a collection of KwK memes and running threads of commentary on the day the episode drops, was instead, last night, bulldozed by a naked Ranveer Singh posing for Paper magazine (that hair, that iliac) and Liger trailer discourse (those baked abs). Shock and awe. That's all there is to a world where there are few things of enduring charm. Once upon a time, Koffee With Karan was one such thing.
Koffee with Karan is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.