You have definitely come across a Vijay Deverakonda in your life, the kind of man who makes you hate your hormones, hate that you have them in the first place. He licks his upper lip, bites the lower one — casually, infrequently, but completely aware of its effect. Something always seems stuck in his teeth. He refuses to initiate an attraction because that would be giving up power. He won't ask questions. He will, instead, say he is shy. That is a cover. He has the charisma of a star. He will say things, ridiculous things sometimes. He will put his foot in his mouth, and you will consider it an agile yoga pose. He dislocates logic and our steady moral compass.
How terrible it is that we desire without our control. The faultline of Arjun Reddy (2017) was just that. The politics of love that people are so protective of was mistaken for the politics of desire. But desire has no politics. It cares for no feminism, no respect, no reciprocity. What do you do, except hold your stomach and wait for the nausea to dilute over time?
Such is the recklessness and relentlessness of Vijay Deverakonda's beauty — if we can call it that. (And thank god that long, unkempt hair is chopped and combed.) Then, there is Ananya Panday, whose best performance so far, in Gehraiyaan (2022), was frankly a feat of intelligent casting with her playing a character whose rhythm and cadence felt so similar to hers that to perform and to be became one and the same. She has a harmless monotone breeze, one that is trying too hard to make a case for itself. So, in the fourth episode of Koffee With Karan, while Deverakonda sat, relaxed, making intense, forthright eye contact with Karan Johar, Panday was giving reaction shots to us — the audience — by looking directly at the camera, pouting, puffing up her lips, pursing them every time Deverakonda said something edgy or edge-like or even edge-less, really.
'Concealer' is the new 'conjecture'.
This difference between Panday performing at us and Deverkonda performing for us is clear from whatever we have seen of the song 'Akdi Pakdi', from their upcoming film Liger, produced by Johar's Dharma Productions, and promoted by Johar's Dharmatic Entertainment on this show. A viral tweet, reacting to the music video, read, "i love her lack of energy go girl give us nothing". This lack of energy, though, is slowly becoming an acceptable, even necessary, part of being an actress today. Panday's role in Pati, Patni Aur Woh (2019), for example, was one such concoction, where her robotic screen non-presence made the film's central conceit — a married man who is distracted by a new woman — make sense. For the distraction cannot be a full-bodied woman with a personality. She is only an idea, an ether-like impression, which makes the attraction possible in the first place.
"He didn't even ask me one question," Panday whimpers about their shooting schedule and between wondering if Deverakonda is just not interested or just too haughty, we are reminded of Sara Ali Khan and Janhvi Kapoor's collective drooling over the image of Deverakonda. The cheese platter is set, the cards are stacked. One just needs to be picked, Johar prods. Deverakonda, on the one hand, couldn't care less, wriggling his way out of this sticky place by coughing up adjectives for the different women he is hypothetically paired with — "funny" "fun" "sweet". He hasn't even posted about the Koffee With Karan episode on his Instagram. Panday has. Johar has. He turns up to his trailer launch and movie promotions in rubber chappals. He cannot recognize the hookstep of 'Sheila Ki Jawani', caring next to nothing about Bollywood where his impress is impending. There is something so raw about him — his fans are called "rowdies" — but this rawness, this inscrutability, this indifferent air, is a performance, too, you have to remind yourself. There is no place for personality in cinema today. Only personas.
After Johar's contextless rant on political correctness, this episode begins with what I thought was him being too inquisitive about their dating lives. This is not a complaint as much as a description, for who doesn't love seeing people squirm? Johar confidently lists Panday's exes — Kartik Aaryan, Ishaan Khatter, both her co-stars — and prods Deverakonda to open up on his present and future — Rashmika Mandanna, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, also co-stars. Increasingly, it seems that acting and being intimate on screen often has an afterlife in Indian commercial cinema. That pretending to be in love in front of a cast and crew will slowly leak, when actors and characters become one and the same for a brief window.
It takes a moment to recognise that this "inquisition", what might feel invasive, is also a carefully calibrated dance. There are, strictly, lines that Johar won't cross, lines that were negotiated backstage, in advance. Johar brings up a man with whom Panday wants to get married, but he also retreats. "That we are not talking about," he says, noting that they decided to not speak of him (with an emphasis on "him", as though there were rumours floating around of Panday's lesbian proclivities. Are there?).
This is the charming illusion of Koffee With Karan. The show has become a string of anecdotes, which once brought out, cracks any facade of intimacy. The format of the early seasons — where comfort and cosiness were complemented by a rapid fire that required one-line whips — has now become a crowded space of quizzing, bingo, and calling friends from the industry to say "Hey Karan, it's me", in addition to the coveted rapid fire. (The lights don't dim on the stars anymore as the rapid fire begins, only the background dims now, with the Jaquar lights still lighting up every inch of their washed, prepped faces.)
What actors need to now bring to the show is not necessarily charm, but quick wit, surly stories, with industry friends close to their phones. They discuss the places they have had sex — Deverakonda on a yacht, in a car. They worry about Panday's face-hickeys. 'Concealer' is the new 'conjecture'. In between are surprising moments of maturity, like Deverakonda giving nepotism a spin of thoughtfulness — since life is, generally, unfair, so why should Bombay cinema, Telugu cinema be fair?
Koffee With Karan fluidly manoeuvres itself between memeing and being meme-ed. Every episode is fodder for the meme machinery, but it is also so incredibly aware of its facade, status, joy, and power. It allows itself to be thoughtless and glittering, often forcing grounding realities along the way — I am glad Johar did away with the initial line of questioning on what the stars were doing during the pandemic, a terrible time that many of them lived through comfortably, if anxiously. Even as the Arjun Reddy discourse died its noisy, painful death a few seasons ago, Johar raked the coals again, only to have Panday say the most obvious thing under the garb of being a perceptive Gen Z voice — refusing the allure of an Arjun Reddy character, maintaining the effect of cinema as an impressionable medium.
You wonder, when Ananya Panday says of Kartik Aaryan, "We're just good friends", is she not seeing the scene from Om Shanti Om (2007) play out in her head, where actresses and actors in a romp-like satire say that very line to indicate the exact opposite? Or is she saying it precisely to imply the opposite? Is she being a meme? Is she milking one? Who knows?