There were rumblings on the Koffee with Karan (KwK) internet last week, with people being extremely uncomfortable with Karan Johar, the 50-year-old host and “big daddy to the star kids of Bollywood” asking Ananya Panday, the 23-year old actress he has seen grow up, about whom she is dating, and what the path to her bed looks like. This discomfort is rooted in the image of a curious, voyeuristic older man being a creep, as much as it is in this conservative idea that with age, you are supposed to outgrow these voyeuristic tendencies and your appetite for gossip. That conversations across age brackets, across genders, must be of a certain kind only. That maturity is an inevitable phase as opposed to something you must make an active effort towards. Johar has queered many things — cinema, stardom, family, both off and on screen, love, desire. Now, he has struck the queer hammer on ageing. He will insist on being a sexual being. He will insist on his age. He will insist on you being a sexual being. He will insist on your age. This discomfort, then, is entirely telling of a generation which has not had the opportunity to see Karan Johar rip out of his closeted composure, or the kind of people who aren’t interested in it. Like grumbling while watching a sequel to a film you haven’t bothered seeing. A contextless rumble.
For the fifth episode of the seventh season of his talk show, he lassoed Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan, the latter being a KwK staple, appearing on every season. Watching all her episodes, across 17 years, is like watching a biography unfold — dating, singledom, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, agony aunt. Going back to the first season in 2004, you see a different KwK, a different Kareena Kapoor — not yet Khan-ed, and 23-years old, like Panday — and a different Karan Johar. The format of the show was different. He would call in guests one at a time. The women carried handbags. The claws were always out — Rani Mukherji calling Preity Zinta lovely but noting that she should talk less and not have an opinion on everything, Kareena Kapoor, cracking her knuckles, calling any actress marginally older than her a “senior”. The lighting was more intimate. Everyone spoke softer, one octave lower, a more respectable pitch even as the words lacerated more. They were trying to test the waters, wondering how different the vibe of this show is from that of Simi Garewal. The word “sex” was never used even as its implication always loomed.
But with the years, as the show itself has tilted its charm — ditching the lie-o-meter and recordings of actors saying sweet nothings, adding games — so has Karan Johar. This evolution is both a product of the times requiring something more glittering and snappy, and also, perhaps, a personal turning of the leaf — an unabashed embrace of the things that one most feared about oneself. It is the kind of transformation that is accompanied by self-deprecating humour. If he is the first person to crack a joke on himself, whack an egg against his head and laugh, then, perhaps, none of the subsequent slings anyone else would take should stick, sting?
Kareena Kapoor Khan and Aamir Khan’s pairing was a promotional episode for Laal Singh Chadha, which has been getting the heat of the troubled trolls. The controversies itself are not brought up in this episode, for these conversations would then veer into the territory of a promotional interview. These are clever limits that Johar lays out. Instead, they spoke of the film as a benign being. Aamir spilled that initially, he wanted to cast Manushi Chillar, 25-years old, for the part — that eventually Kareena, 41-years old, bagged — because the role required someone to play a gamut of ages, from 18 to 50. Aamir is 57-years old. Kareena swerves her eyes from Aamir to Karan. In our heads, we fill in the missing voiceover, “Can you believe this guy?”
Aging an actress seemed more plausible and easier in his mind than de-ageing one, and logic in commercial Bombay cinema is gendered, but anyway, eventually, Kareena’s easy craft won over. For the first time in her career she did a screen test, and we don’t know what to be shocked at more — the audacity of never being asked for one earlier in her career or the audacity of being asked for one so late in her career.
Despite rapid fire duds, what Johar called the worst in the history of the talk show, this season finally offered a whiff of what stardom looks like. Stardom needs to look easy. There is no discernible pressure to be, just an ease in not being. Aamir Khan coming in an ill-fitting kurta that is carelessly rumpled around his elbow — and carefully planned thick-soled shoes that can prop his height — is one kind of stardom. Kareena Kapoor Khan not saying anything worth quoting, not trying to be witty or sensational for an entire hour, and yet being the centerpiece of our attention is another kind of stardom. Between Aamir’s Urdu-inflected Hindi (“Himakat hogi”) — a staple presence across his KwK appearances, being one of the few actors who comfortably moves between these languages — and Kareena’s refrain, “What-rub-bish-yaa”, the show is a reminder that with some actors, some stars, just watching them sculpt time with their presence is enough. They don’t need to be more than what they already are.