When the first interviews of Sara Ali Khan and Janhvi Kapoor aired in 2018, the year they were making their respective debuts, the sense was that Kapoor needed to be protected while Khan, who had studied history in Columbia University and returned, was certain of her place in the world. Even the anecdotes they dished out could be neatly filed as coming from two distinct personalities and backgrounds of dotage — of Khan's equanimity and eventual reconciliation in the face of her parents' divorce and of Kapoor's father making sure she is always closely chaperoned with a curfew while shooting in Rajasthan; of Khan's teenage years being fat, uninterested in glamour and of Kapoor being prepped and primed from the earliest years for this gilded life.
Somehow, four years, some hits, some misses, a pandemic, an allegedly controlling mutual ex (Kartik Aaryan), a few heartbreaks, and a thickening friendship later, on the amber Koffee With Karan couch (with bursts of ruby pillows), the feeling seems reversed. The elemental excessiveness and rock-chic armoury of Khan has, under the blinding and flattening Jaquar lights, shown its chinks — "all fart no shit" as host Karan Johar put it. That, even as Khan put it herself, she might seem cooler than she actually is.
"Do you like Vijay?" Khan asks Kapoor again and again, prodding in different ways, trying to make sure Vijay Deverakonda is single, untouched by the love of someone else, before the PR machinery kicks in — it already has, with Deverakonda replying that he loves how Khan pronounces his name — and they cross paths in love. There is something tender about this facade, about her insistence on including married men like Ranveer Singh on her lists; as though she's trying to be safe under the garb of an irreverent attitude.
Kapoor, on the other hand, feet folded up on the couch, hair suddenly tied into a bun, then unceremoniously ripped open, apologizing to her hair stylist Amit Thakur, feels so comfortably woven into the fame she has achieved so far. Like most people, including Kapoor herself, no one has a recollection of her first appearance on the couch with her brother Arjun Kapoor, where she sat coyly on the edge, pastel in both her outfit and personality.
Unlike Khan, whose posture and pep are unchanged from her first appearance, this time round, Kapoor played it like a performance. In a gesture I don't remember seeing before in Koffee With Karan, the camera slowly zoomed in on her as she melancholically spoke of her mother's death, as though an emotional scene was being canned: "It almost feels as if the person I was when mom was around was a fantasy… Of course there were issues, but it was idyllic…". The show wants you to feel for her and like watching a household where the parents treat one child with more sensitivity, your sympathies walk in the other direction.
Perhaps, then, this flipped reaction is itself a reaction to the show. The way its moony gaze lands on Kapoor, with the hug and a promise of films when she loses a game, and being told, as consolation to losing the rapid fire, that she looks sexier — which she certainly did in her glittering, ruched Alexandre Vauthier dress with a high thigh slit, given Sara's waitress-chic classic YSL little navy dress — but there are a lot of obvious things that go unsaid on the couch. Karan Johar has made no bones about the fact that he promotes talent he has seen grow over the years; call it nepotism, call it affection, call it bias, call it business. He makes his fondness clear, at a time when, for him, to show love and affection is to invite hate and a rabble-rousing hashtag. It is both brave and worrying.
Part of Koffee With Karan's long-standing tradition is bringing successful actresses of the time together, premising an episode of smashing the assumption that actresses can't be friends, only to repeat that assumption again, the following season — Rani Mukherji and Kareena Kapoor in Season 1; Lara Dutta and Katrina Kaif in Season 2; Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor in Season 3; Parineeti Chopra and Alia Bhatt in Season 4; Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma in Season 5.
But it is not just that Khan and Kapoor's careers and popularity have tracked parallelly (though at 40 million, Khan has double the followers of Kapoor on Instagram). Both have, for example, dated brothers — Veer and Shikhar Pahariya, if you haven't already gone down the bollyblindsngossip rabbithole on Reddit or browsed Diet Sabya — and the same man, too. Their friendship and trips to Kedarnath comes from this mutual anger. Kartik Aaryan's absence has never been more present, though the barbs were less obvious and pointed than they were when Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor came and eviscerated Ranbir Kapoor, lighting their cigarette over that very fire. Not much is spoken of their professional life and the little that is — the failure of Love Aaj Kal and Roohi, the sense of being locked in at the "peak" of their careers — is brushed aside as quickly as it is brought up. The thrust of the show is, afterall, gossip.
Part of Koffee With Karan's long-standing tradition is bringing successful actresses of the time together, premising an episode of smashing the assumption that actresses can't be friends, only to repeat that assumption again, the following season.
Dimmed as the show's spunk is by the furore around nepotism, Sushant Singh Rajput's death, the PR takeover of the lives of actors, mistaking stardom for popularity, and predictability for promise, there is little in this episode and the format of this season that allows for a cultural reset. There are no general knowledge questions, for instance; no ranking on the basis of sex appeal or acting chops. As the actors in Bollywood, like an organised dance, are paired up and whisked off to get wedded, the show's rapid fire round questions are now bending, like a tree about to snap in a tornado, towards marriage.
What I was struck by most, though, was Johar, who struggled to tread the line between a host trying to yank out anecdotes for an audience and a friend-mentor who has an encyclopedic archive of their lives running in his head. His questions preempted and prompted the direction of their answers, and sometimes were answers themselves. When you have to perform intimacy and friendship with people you are intimate and friendly with, how to bring up the same story, to tease the same unmentionable people, to tell a story by softening the rough edges? How to serve both the catty reality check of a friend and the protective guard of a mentor? This is mostly a Kapoor question, though. Khan, despite winning all the awards there were, got Karan Johar's hug second to Kapoor, as a balancing act. And we all know, between the hamper and the hug, which is more valuable.