Back in 2019, at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival's Young Critics Lab, there seemed to be only one thing people wanted to discuss — Kabir Singh (2019). It came up in the cracks of the day, during lunch, it came up during panels, it came up during lectures. I had already begun to find the discourse exhausting, because we were unable to make a distinction between expressing our opinion and proselytising. As though having an opinion was not enough, we also needed to rope in people into our side of the argument; for only then is an opinion worth having.
If three years later, Karan Johar is still raking its coals on his talk show Koffee With Karan, inviting its actors Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani, either he does not have enough to talk about — has there really been no exciting personality who has surfaced between 2019 and now? — or Johar is still stuck in 2019, hoping the film's frothing fanbase will flock to this episode.
Kapoor insisting that he has a right to play "complex and challenging" characters, bringing up Scarface (1983) and Taxi Driver (1976) as examples, goes to show he still does not understand that to be "messed up" and to make looking "messed up" seem heroic and aspirational, even romantic, are two very different things. When he says "The audience is mature enough to see a film in context", which audience is he talking about? It is the kind of patronising statement which refuses to accept that the audience may be just as misogynistic as it is mature, just as accepting as it is acerbic.
Sweet is not a personality. Nice is not a personality.
Quickly, though, Johar takes control of the conversation, showing us that Kabir Singh was merely a setup for the punchline, which was asking Kiara Advani if her relationship with Sidharth Malhotra is just as noxious as that of Kabir and Preeti in the film. This is a precipice. From here, the episode swiftly, elegantly nosedives from banal to boring, trying to get Advani to spill on her relationship, which she does and doesn't, like a bored Schrodinger's cat, indifferent to life or death. This whole clip of her hohumming was played in the previous episode with Malhotra and Vicky Kaushal, trying to get something resembling a steel-clad response out of Malhotra. Their coupledom feels so dusted with PR glitter, it is impossible to root for. Once in a while I see people on Twitter, gushing over Advani and Malhotra, remixing clips from their film Shershaah to other romantic songs, and think, at least someone is excited about these two. Such is the uncritical love of fandom.
Advani has emerged as one of the most prolific actresses in Hindi cinema today, with Dharma Productions and Dharmatic Entertainment shoving her front and centre in Lust Stories (2018), Kalank (2019), Good Newwz (2019), Guilty (2020), Shershaah (2021), JugJugg Jeeyo (2022), and the upcoming Govinda Mera Naam. When a production house also has an in-house talent agency, this is but inevitable, and in this wading pool of tall, beautiful actors who speak the same way — or are trained to speak the same way — it is hard for Advani to cast her unique imprint. Sweet is not a personality. Nice is not a personality. And if Koffee With Karan, which was sold to us as a show brimming with personality, is not able to muster a semblance of that, maybe this season being the last won't be as heartbreaking as it ought to be.
Johar tells us — in his inimitable style that is casual but entirely aware of how sensational it is — that he had initially wanted Kriti Sanon to play the role Advani took up in his Lust Stories segment, a role which Sanon rejected because her mother was horrified by the idea of her daughter orgasming on screen. It really isn't difficult for us to imagine someone else playing that specific part, as much as Johar and Advani want to sell it as singular and path-breaking. With JugJugg Jeeyo we saw that Advani was capable of infusing her soft screen presence with a sharp-edged scalding, and yet, it feels like this urban girl-next-door schtick, one she takes to the hilt in this episode dyeing herself a SoBo girl, is fading into a generic template that only has space for fungible beauty.
Is the only way to age as an actor to dig your heels into your sex appeal, becoming more muscular, sinuous, and hairy?
Kapoor is one of the few actors who has made a successful leap from being the Rohit Saraf of the 2000s to gruffing up, ageing into a sex symbol by gracefully weaning out of his boyishness — which still peeks out every time he smiles widely with that Shah Rukh-like twinkle, wrinkling at the edge of his eyes. It is a case study of ageing masculinity in Hindi cinema. Is the only way to age as an actor to dig your heels into your sex appeal, becoming more muscular, sinuous, and hairy?
Together, Advani and Kapoor perform an odd kind of friendship — it isn't intimate, it isn't erotic, it isn't charming, it isn't nauseating. They keep bringing up each other's partners. It is the kind of chemistry that is so confounding, no adjective comes to mind. For the first time on the show, it feels like Johar had to struggle to make himself heard — not because the two on the couch are having a shrieking time whispering in each other's ears, but because Kapoor loves talking and Advani loves listening. "You all are covering my camera," Johar laughs as Advani and Kapoor, standing in front of him, stare at each other as though waiting for someone to yell "cut!".
There is, however, one moment in this adjective-averse soup, a sudden burst that crumbles this episode. A camera angle from behind the couch shows how empty the set actually is, the immense space of which they only take a smidgen, seated diagonally for the camera to soak in their angles; as if to remind us that not one decision was made on this show to enhance intimacy as much as the performance of intimacy, that all the rapid fire questions were given to the actors beforehand, and that there is a whole, lurking crew that made this episode possible. I don't remember a season where actors were so willing to look directly at the camera, acknowledging this artifice. Like a bad performance in a film that pulls you out of its universe, this shot yanked us out by our collars. If we still believe in this world, in its charisma, in its intimacy, in us being a fly on a wall of this artificial set, then indeed, we are the fools.