“I’M APPROACHING A MID-LIFE CRISIS”
(A shorter version of this interview by Anna MM Vetticad appeared in the January 2015 issue of Maxim magazine.)
Karan Johar is convinced he will soon have a mid-life crisis. That’s an unusual admission, coming as it does from one of India’s most successful producer-writer-directors. In this exclusive conversation, Johar – who is also an occasional costume designer, emerging actor, fashion designer, talk show host and reality show judge – discusses what it means to be in his 40s and reminisces about his 20s, which “should have been wilder”.
Anna M.M. Vetticad
You’re a director, producer, costume designer, fashion designer, emerging actor, etc etc etc. How many hours do you have in your day?
Not enough. The thing is, I like to fill my day. When you don’t have a personal life, that saves you 6-8 hours, which you would not have if you had a spouse and kids. My family ends with my Mom. Fortunately she understands my hectic schedule. I don’t have other responsibilities on a personal front. I’m not one who likes down time, alone time. My work is my everything. And I love what I do. I enjoy all my avatars.
Are you saying that if you were married you would want your down time?
All relationships need time. And if I had kids, I would have liked to give my kids the kind of time my parents gave me. Parenting is the highest form of responsibility. In the case of my mother, by virtue of the fact that I live with her, there’s enough time spent together. So if I break down my day now, because I don’t have a wife and kids there are those additional six hours with which I can do anything.
A lot of single people say, “I don’t have a personal life”, as you just did. But you clearly invest time and love in your mother, you have friends. Why do you define yourself as someone who does not have a personal life?
With my mother, it’s just her and me. I have enough time for her. But spending time with someone is not the same as having a responsibility towards them. They’re your pleasure, your hobby, your fun time. It’s not like you owe them your time. But a marriage is a commitment. Having children is a commitment. Just the way I give my work that kind of committed time, I would have to give them my time. So when I say I don’t have a personal life, I mean I don’t have a committed personal life.
Do you never wonder whether you’re doing too much? Do you ever get the time to stop and smell the flowers? Or, as in the poem, just to stand and stare?
I do, I do stand and stare. That’s what I do for a living. Everywhere I go, at airports, lounges, restaurants, out of the country on streets, even when I’m here, I stare at people, I observe body language, attitudes, what people are wearing, what they’re saying, how they behave. My observations result in my cinema. At the heart of so many moments of my films have been real-life conversations, real-life observations, real-life people, to which I’ve added that coating of celluloid exaggeration. Like after making Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and My Name Is Khan that were very serious films, I felt disconnected from the youth because I felt those who grew up on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai were two generations ago but a lot of today’s kids didn’t know me as a film maker. So I decided that I’m going to make my youngest film when I turn 40. So that whole year all I did was observe young people wherever I went. I found myself having long conversations with Shah Rukh’s son Aryan for example. I didn’t want to make a wannabe film. I wanted to make a film that a 10-year-old would consider cool.
What I’m trying to tell you is that I do stand and stare. I may not smell the flowers literally, but I’m definitely aware of them in the room and I know exactly what they would smell like.
So did Shah Rukh Khan’s son like Student Of The Year?
Oh he’s too cool to watch the film, so I don’t think he has. I think he’s gonna be a huge movie star one day, but he’s not interested in watching many movies right now.
You say you observe real people in the real world for your films, but one of the criticisms you face is that your films are far removed from reality.
But I never said I make real films. I never ever apologise for that. When I project richness I exaggerate. I love beauty, perfection, glamour. To me Hindi cinema was always that. There was a strong parallel cinema movement when I grew up in the 1980s. I watched films by Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal and M.S. Sathyu as an academic exercise, but would I make those movies? No. I’m not capable of it. I grew up in Malabar Hill, the snootiest neighbourhood in the world. Yash Chopra was my bhagwan. He was the only man in that time with strong aesthetics. His women looked great, his frames were special, when tea came it was in this silver tea set, which I used to observe. There was always a vase with beautiful flowers in his frame, which no other filmmaker ever had. Nobody else’s films had a monochromatic house. From the rug on the floor to the Delhi winters and the shawls women wore, I was mesmerised by that sense of glamour, that aesthetic. Why am I apologising? I love it. Even in a death scene I made Rani Mukerji put base on her face. I said, “So what if you are dying? You can’t look ugly. What nonsense! We’ll tone down your makeup but you can’t look completely mari hui (dead) even if you are dying. You must look pretty.
Yet you said you observe real people for your work. Those who criticise your films say they don’t seem real.
The problem is nobody scratches the surface. I have felt heartbreak in school and college, and that’s what I showed in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I have met the Raichand family of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Delhi is full of these patriarchs with double standards. My Name Is Khan stems from a conversation I walked out of in New York with a group of educated Harvard and Wharton kids who were all talking about Islam in a derogatory manner. A friend had invited me there. We got into an argument and I finally looked at my friend and said, “I don’t want to be with this group of people because they’re completely misinformed and ridiculous, and their education means nothing if they can diss an entire religion on the basis of a political event without knowing the facts. You can’t talk about an entire religion or the minority like they’re all the same.” So at the end of the day, every person I’ve met has definitely found their way into a movie, but I’m not denying that the projection, the look, the surface of it is completely unreal and picture perfect. There is a section that would criticise that and a section that says, “When are we going to get a Karan Johar film?” They mean a film that is all about the glamour, beauty, great music. They mean don’t make anything that’s dark, depressing or of any social relevance.
Which of your films has provoked your regular fans to say: “Karan, that was not a Karan Johar film”?
I got that a lot with My Name Is Khan. I have to tell you the dichotomy of the reality that surrounds any film maker. I was walking through Central Park in New York when a lady tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Being an American Muslim I want to really thank you for My Name Is Khan.” That meant a lot, and for two minutes I thought, “You know, this is why we make movies, for a comment of that nature.” And exactly five minutes ahead I bumped into an Indian family who said, “Kyaaa, aap My Name Is Khan jaise serious picture banaate ho? Make a film like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham again.” And I was like, “Oh god, in the same stretch of Central Park I had two diverse opinions. And, like, that’s the way it is.” So it depends what your state of mind is. You have to do what you have to do because there will always be a 100 opinions and now that you’re on Twitter, Facebook and all kinds of platforms, you hear and read such polarised opinions about your work that eventually if you listen to everybody you’ll land up needing an MRI.
But you once told me you read every tiny word written about your films.
Yes, I do, I do. It helps that I have the gift of not being deluded. I know what is wrong with my cinema on my own. I know when I make a mistake in a film. And I know when it’s pointed out time and again by illustrious critics, that that’s the reality.
When you say “illustrious” do you mean it?
I do. I’m not that film maker that will diss every critic because it’s the cool thing to do. There are some very bright minds who have opinions that they put down because it’s their job to do so. I read because, you know Anna, when I read the same thing time and again I know I have made that mistake. For instance, I know I messed up the Wilhelmina part of My Name Is Khan, that a certain flamboyance in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna took away the core emotion of the couples that I started off with, that there is a frivolousness and a popcorn bubble gum flavour to Student of the Year. So when I read the criticism, it makes a place in my head stream. You can never go back and correct a film, but you can at least acknowledge what was right and wrong with it. And I like to read because I like to keep my feet on the ground. I go online and I check everyone’s reviews, and nowhere do I cringe and I say, “Oh, what does this person know?” No. It’s an opinion. We have conspiracy theories in this industry and I think that’s ridiculous. Why should you, sitting in your house, when you’re seeing my film, have any negative agenda towards me? I do believe there are certain sections within the trade that could come with an agenda, but I think more or less the media have been very justified in whatever they’ve said or written about me.
Okay, you mentioned that you decided the film you make when you turn 40 will be your youngest film. Is turning 40 something you were very conscious of?
Ya, it’s kind of the midpoint of your life, right? I felt the switch almost immediately. You kind of have to acknowledge that you are popping blood pressure medication, you pant a little heavier than you used to, the hair is dependent on L’Oreal now to make it worth it and you are now called Sir or Uncle wherever you go. Within my head I’m still 18 and I feel like I’m cool enough to hang with, like, an 18-year-old but that’s only in my head. Because when I sit with these kids I’m like, no, I haven’t heard this music and no, I haven’t seen this film and no, I don’t know who this is. So turning 40 was definitely daunting and intimidating.
Did you have to deal with a mid-life crisis?
No, but I’m approaching one. Right now I’m on the edge. I think three years down the line I will succumb to that mid-life crisis or male menopause. There will be something that will make me do something silly enough for me to call it a mid-life crisis. Like I bought a pair of fluorescent green shoes in a sports store in New York this time. I felt stupid when I wore them but I couldn’t help myself. I could tell then that I’m going through the beginnings of a mid-life crisis.
The only thing I regret is not doing crazy things. I’m too careful. I’m always worried about repercussions and ramifications. I haven’t done anything really wild. I’ve never been the drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll kind of guy. I was this well-brought-up, well-groomed, well-mannered child who felt like I must always live up to the reputation and goodwill of my parents. I touch senior people’s feet. I hug everyone warmly. I wish them kindly. I do all the right things. I need to start doing wrong things now. I should have been wilder in my 20s, but all I did in the 20s was dedicated to three films. I was an assistant on Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, I directed Kuch Kuch and Kabhi Khushi. I was 29 when Kabhi Khushi released, and when I turned 30 I hadn’t had a single wild night, or taken a sporadic trip with friends and succumbed to, like, vices. I feel shattered that I’ve had such a vegetarian thali type of life.
You dress like the characters in your films, you know. Would your idea of wildness be landing up at a public event not perfectly turned out?
(laughs) Anna, no matter how wild I want to be, I will never dress incorrectly. To me being casual is just not an option. I go everywhere over-dressed. Even to the beach.
So does the styling in your films reflect your personal style?
Oh totally. I’m as over the top as my movies are.
Would it constitute wildness for you to make a full-length film along the lines of the short film you made for the Bombay Talkies omnibus?
I don’t know if I can afford to right now. The stakes are too high.
You can’t afford to? C’mon, aren’t you one of the industry’s richest producers?
That’s why, na. Because I can’t afford to drop from that pedestal. When I say I can’t afford to, I mean I can’t afford the risk in the numbers game and the power game we’re all playing. I have the ability to be brave, but the circumstances and timing have to provide themselves as well. Right now is not the time.
Everyone has an opinion about you, but how do you see yourself?
I’m multi-faceted. I’m not the most talented mind in the business but I’m not the dumbest either. I’m a glorious mid-level man who’s trying to get to genius but falls short of it quite often. I aspire to make that one film by which I will be remembered for the rest of my life. I haven’t made my Lagaan, my Mughal-e-Azam or my Awara. One day I will. There is a lot I feel proud of also. I’ve emerged as an entity beyond just being a filmmaker and I’ve enjoyed that. I want to return to your question about regrets. I don’t regret anything but I aspire to make that one film that will be in those books they have about the 100 best films of India. I don’t think I’ve made a film yet that deserves to be in that book. My Sholay is yet to come.
That’s Karan the professional. But who is Karan the person?
Very alone, actually. I feel like no matter what you achieve, you are on your own. That’s not a pitfall. Sometimes it is a great advantage. You just have to know you are on your own. You can’t depend on any one thing to achieve what you need to do. Eventually you are building a memory and you’re doing it for yourself. Like most creative people I feel very alone. Not in a self-pitying martyrdom kind of way. I feel I must realise, acknowledge, accept that I am alone, take the strength of that loneliness and put it in my work.
Any fears on that front?
My fear is growing old alone. Right now the alone time, the loneliness is transferring itself very efficiently into my work space, which I’m leveraging and I’m enjoying that. But I’m low on family. I don’t have siblings, nor does Mum. There’s a cousin and her daughters that I’m really close to. From my father’s side I’m not close to anyone. And I don’t have kids right now. Friends are a huge support system, but that’s what they are – a support system. They’re not your family. It would be lovely to have, like, a life partner. I’ve thought about maybe adopting a child. I don’t know. There are so many thoughts that surround my head all the time right now. That’s one of the things that came with turning 40. It opens you up to the realities of life, and my grand reality is that I have nothing around me. Like when I was asked to make the will, besides my Mum, I didn’t know who else to will anything to in case of a tragedy. The kids in the company become like my family. But they’re a sense of family or they’re friends, but nobody is, like, your own really. So those are my fears. I don’t wanna be that old man being wheeled in by medical help to do tests in a hospital. That thought depresses and saddens me deeply. I don’t know what I wanna do about it, but my mind is ticking in that direction as well.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about this because you, more than anybody else, use the word “fraternity” so much for the film industry, and you’ve often spoken about certain stars like Shah Rukh being like family.
See I come from my father’s DNA of love and thought. He always felt the film industry was a fraternity and it was his family. I grew up believing that. And yes, Shah Rukh and his family are like family. They are like family, they are not family. His kids are like my godchildren, but they are not my children. They’ll be taking care of their parents at that time. Shah Rukh will have to take care of his wife and vice versa. And what I mean by fraternity is that I have a fraternity feeling. It really saddens me when I see people fighting and not feeling that sense of love for each other because I feel that we’re all doing a job. Yes there’s ambition and envy, but why should there be negativity? I envy great films, I don’t feel negative towards them. I want to see more brilliant work to get myself better. So that’s who I am as a person. And when I talk about family, I talk about people who are close enough to have gone past the zone of friendship. They do have that family feeling. But they are not my family at the end of the day. I want to be someone’s first choice. And that only comes when you’re immediately related to people. The way my mother is to me, no other human being will love me that unconditionally. I know that. And that’s what I’m confused about. I feel like, God, am I going to spend the rest of my life not having that feeling for anyone besides my mother? Is this it? Is my pool of unconditional love restricted to my mother and nobody else? That’s what gets me thinking.
So when you refer to the film industry as a fraternity, are those empty words?
No. I say it because I’ve felt it always. But I don’t think it’s reciprocated equally. A sense of negativity surrounds us. It’s actually a myth that people are drawn to success. In Kaagaz Ke Phool a superstar gets all the attention. It’s actually ulta in our industry. When you make a very big hit and you walk into a party, you can feel the anger and jealousy. You make a flop and suddenly everybody will be warm. The first thing I do when I walk out of a great film is, I text every member of the team or call them. Because I feel proud that I saw a great film. It comes from my father’s training. He was a positive man and wished everyone really well from his heart. Some of that has transferred itself to me. I get ambition, I don’t get negativity.
You are perceived as being very popular in Bollywood, yet you’ve had long-running feuds with RGV, Anurag Kashyap, Kareena, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Salman I believe was reluctant to come on your TV show. Is it possible that you are the most popular and yet the most unpopular person in Bollywood?
I can’t see myself as unpopular at all. There have been skirmishes with people, which is bound to happen when you have many relationships. There have been misunderstandings, some have even been sorted out, some just over-spoken about. I don’t think there’s a problem any more with Ram Gopal Varma, for instance. He used to speak a lot of rubbish, but he doesn’t any more. If we meet we will probably have a pleasant conversation. Anurag and I have sorted out our problems, I’ve even worked with him and I love him. Kareena and I were both young and stupid about a film and now we’re back to being the closest friends that we can be. Salman and I have always had a great equation. He was reluctant to come on my show because he was just not into the syntax of the show. Then finally he came and had fun. I don’t have any large issue with anyone because I don’t allow it to become one. I don’t allow anything to fester. I’m the first one to say sorry if I think I’m wrong, or the first one to say thank you if I feel the gratitude. I think I am popular. I think people like me because I’m naturally affable, amiable and accessible. I’m a people’s person. I’ve always been.
Even with Bhansali, I don’t know where equations changed. I think he’s brilliant and we’ve had some great laughs together. I think he mentioned to me that I never called him after some of the pieces of work he made that I had not liked. A lot of middle people caused a lot of confusion. Recently there’s been a distance and I think I went on record and spoke, which now I regret because one should never take your personal life into print. But I think we’re just a conversation away from sorting things out.
You mentioned that Bhansali said you didn’t call him after some of his films. Do people in the film industry actually sulk over such things?
But he’s never called me after any film of mine. (laughs) Why am I supposed to become a PRO of the film industry and call everybody and tell them how much I loved their film. Maine koi ttheka thhodi na le rakkha hai to wish, to appreciate. If I appreciate I’ll call you, if I haven’t liked your film why should I call you?
People in the industry actually sulk about these things?
Ya totally. Which is why I avoid going to previews. It is annoying that you have to lie, because if you say “Oh my god I didn’t like your film” you would be hated for the rest of your life. Then you have to start talking about the cinematography, editing and locations. It’s so exhausting that I’d rather go to PVR, pay my money for my opinion and just get out of there. And there are many times when you tweet about a film because it’s a friend’s film, you praise it because you feel the need to, but what to do now? Some of us are friendly with people and we may not love the films of everyone we are friendly with. But you wish them well. And you want people to see the film irrespective. So sometimes you stretch yourself for a friendship but it’s not something that you may believe in. What do you do? You get stuck you know sometimes.
Have you ever been for a premiere, then lied on Twitter that you liked the film?
Oh, many many times.
How can I trust you now that I know that?
Don’t trust. I’m telling you, don’t trust my tweets about films ever.
Ever. Or if you’re clever enough, if you really read between the lines you will know whether I really liked the film or not.
How do people react when you say something like, “I’m amiable, affable and accessible”? Do they think you are full of yourself or that you’re being real?
If people are looking for that chink in the armour, they will find it. If you are, like, looking for somebody who is honest and speaking his heart out, then you will see that. I’ve never ever said anything arrogantly about myself and my work. I’m honest. I feel I’ve always given an honest interview. I don’t make any bones about what’s right or wrong with me. You’re asking, are you brilliant? I’m saying, no I’m not. Have you made your best work? No I haven’t. Are you drop dead good looking? No I’m not. Are you famous? Yes, I am. So what is there to lie about these things?
Who tends to be drawn more to you? Men or women? Who relates to you? Who tends to confide in you? Who tends to dislike you more easily?
Dislike toh anyway I don’t get. I tend to get my way around people quite easily. But because I’m emotionally connected to my core self, I do find myself talking much more with men, because men are so much more vulnerable and inexpressive. I’ve had long conversations with men about their relationships, their lives, because I think I tap into a certain part of their personality that no one else does. Of course I get along famously with women, but I find the vulnerability and inexpressiveness of a man almost engaging. I feel like they’re saying so little and feeling a lot. I feel I can have that conversation that can get them talking.
Are there things that you have gone out of the way to do in the past because you wanted to remain popular with people, that you will no longer do?
Ya, I’ve been through the whole thing of being overtly out there for a movie star because I feel that’s the done thing to do, but I don’t think I have the time to do it any more. I’ve structured, planned and manipulated relationships at times just to be popular, thinking that there is a great pot of gold at the end of that relationship rainbow. But no, I don’t have the bandwidth any more, I don’t have the time and I certainly don’t have the patience. If I connect, I connect. If I don’t, I disconnect.
Note: These photographs were not published in Maxim