Karan Johar: “I am not here to be your favourite filmmaker”

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From films to fatherhood, seeking love to breaking boundaries, Karan Johar tells Divya Unny about the year that went by and his hopes for 2019

WE SAW A LITTLE MORE OF Karan Johar in 2018 than we are used to. He has always been a filmmaker who has been more out there than his films. You may love him or hate him, but you just cannot ignore him. He was ruling TV, radio and the internet, and among the handful of Indian celebrities to do so this last year. Be it fun time with his toddlers or work time with the now super famous ‘Toodles’ series on Instagram, or both work and fun with his talk show, it’s full marks to Johar for keeping his social media marquee right up there. There were some talk-worthy films from his end as a producer as well, including Raazi, Dhadak and Simmba. But he has also been the most honest and least immodest he’s ever been on public platforms this past year. For the first time on a live show, he spoke openly about his insecurities growing up and struggles with his sexuality. It’s almost as if Hindi cinema’s most popular filmmaker stopped caring about what the world would think. “I am not apologetic anymore about my quirks, my idiosyncrasies, my personality, or my core. When I turned 40, there was an epiphany I felt, and with every passing year, I feel that sense of abandon grow,” he says, “It gives me an immense sense of freedom.” It’s his new-found lease of life that he cannot wait to explore further in the new year.

Happy New Year, Karan. How important is this year for you?

2018 was the year I felt a whole lot of clarity come my way. Clarity about work, love, relationships, friends, social media, you name it. 2019, I believe, will be the year when I will really get a chance to implement this clarity, you know. I’m hoping to push boundaries, for myself more than anything else. I feel the need to keep myself happy, for me to be able to create work that will make others happy. There’s my talk show, my radio show, and some very interesting films that I’m co-producing and directing. There’s a period film called Takhth that I begin mid-2019, and that’s among my most ambitious projects to date. I’m also immensely enjoying the social media space, including all the trolls, who I find extremely entertaining. My kids Yash and Roohi have started school and that’s a whole new world for them and for me. So yes, clearly there’s a whole lot to look forward to in the new year.

A few days ago, I heard your radio show for the first time, and you were giving advice to a young 24-year-old who was heartbroken in love. The advice was practical, yet personal, almost like a parent who is also a friend. Do you feel like 2018 brought you closer to the people who are your real audience?

The show was quite an eye-opener for me, especially because I was speaking to people from different demographics and walks of life. Some of us within the film world are a little removed from the ground realities; we may even be insular, living on our own zone. We are delusional. I think the conversations I had with people on the radio, who are not in my immediate surroundings, and the problems that they go through in their marriage, in their relationships, in their family dynamics, really opened my head up. Like there was a man who called in and casually complained about his nagging wife and said how he hit her. It was so upsetting that he didn’t realise how wrong it was. But for me, it was also a reminder of the fact that so many families in India don’t see domestic violence as a problem. The advice I gave came organically, as it would if I was advising a family member or a friend, but I did feel like I was dropping the guard. It opened my head up to the possibilities of so many narratives for stories I’d like to tell in the future.

The year saw a substantial shift in your public personality as well. You have been more honest, unafraid of political incorrectness and not eager to please. Is there a new you this year?

Well, I care less and less about what people think today. There was a phase of restraint, then there was a phase of introspection, and as a result of that introspection, there is now a phase of abandon. Of course in my twenties I cared, in my thirties I lost my father, and that was a turning point in my life, where I got into an intense work mode to run the organisation he had left me. Then half way through it I just realised that constantly when we go out into the public [sphere], I was putting up a face that wasn’t me. It was exhausting. I feel like even today we have to watch our Ps and Qs and we can get into trouble easily. Today I am 46, and closer to my core than I ever was. Today when I am asked direct questions about, say, my sexuality or my orientation, I answer it in my own way. The repercussions of what I say don’t bother me as much as they did. I am fortunate to be doing a job that I love and fortunate to be in an environment that I love. I take my work seriously, but I don’t take my public persona seriously at all. What’s good about it, what’s bad about it, doesn’t bother me.

Most of your films have been crowd- pleasers, though. So how much of this shift in personality and attitude will reflect in your future work?

It has to. Your creativity is always a reflection of your inner self. If you’re creating something, it’ll always be an extension of your thought process and your state of mind at that point of time. My first film, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which was considered my most honest piece of work, is my most manipulative film. I was trying too hard to please at that point. Later, when I made Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, which was so much closer to my idea of changing relationships, I was assaulted for it. Today I make a Lust Stories about the desires of a young woman, a section of the audience celebrates it and calls it my best film. So my growth as a person has obviously always reflected in my graph as a filmmaker.

“Someone once said to me that ‘you are not man enough’ and I said ‘I am more man than you because I have a very strong woman in me’ and I truly believe it” says Karan Johar

Like you were criticised for stereotyping homosexuals in Dostana, but you now say you would never do that again.

Yes, I was criticised for stereotyping homosexuals, but my argument has always been: ‘Have you seen the film?’ The final scene is a traditional Punjabi lady who accepts it and this was in 2008. The only way I could have made that drawing room discussion about homosexuality then was through humour. Today if I made that film again, it would be different, but it’s been a decade. Today homosexuality is a phenomenon. When the Supreme Court judgment came, I literally wept. It made me so happy and it made me truly empowered after so many years. Having said that, I will never make anything to just fulfil expectations. I am not here to be your favourite filmmaker. I am here to be my favourite filmmaker. I really want to make myself happy, and that’s on top of the list today. If I leave a mark by my work, then that’s great. If I don’t, it’s just not meant to be. I don’t want to do things because there is an expectation of me. It has to come from me.

But do you agree that you are more liberal in life than you are with your cinema? Your films tend to play safe, glorify love and don’t really deal with dark subjects.

There’s an inherent mainstream filmmaker within me; my syntax is that because I grew up on that. I have made a Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya, but I have also made a Kapoor and Sons that’s not all gloss and is dealing with a real situation. As a producer, I am trying to push boundaries. I am bringing you Brahmastra as well as Kalank in 2019. This year, I am also producing a concept horror film. Maybe when I am fifty, I’ll get up and say, ‘Let’s make a small film in three months and have fun with it.’ I am a Gemini, and you must know that you’ll get two for the price of one. I have a hopeless aashiq in me and also a liberal leftist in me, and only I will decide when I want to use what part of my personality for my stories.

Would you endorse love the way you do in cinema for your kids as well as they grow older?

Well, they are part of Gen Z now, and we all know there’s nothing glossy about love in today’s day and age. I don’t want them to live life with rose-tinted glasses. I grew up on flowers and valleys, but for today’s youth, love is all about the darkness within. Everyone’s so angsty and messed up. I want my kids to know they are walking a totally different path of love from what I grew up on.

Fatherhood seems to have made you more practical, or is it just you being protective?

Fatherhood is what Hallmark Cards tell you about love and life. The feeling of kids is the truest cliché in the world. The fuzzy feeling, the love, the tear in the eye, the separation anxiety, the longing for them, the happiness in your heart when you meet them after a long day of work, little videos of them that make you happy that brings the sunshine in your otherwise drab day, it’s all that and more. I was a lonely child, and I was always seeking acceptance. Thankfully, Yash and Roohi have each other. Of course, I’m protective of them, but I am going to make sure they know the world they are growing up in.

You were very candid about your struggles as a teenager on a talk show recently. You spoke about being bullied and cornered because you were different. Do you think your story will influence and inspire kids dealing with similar issues?

I don’t know about that, but I know it’s important that I speak about it. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it. Somewhere I always felt I was different from the ordinary. Different from every other boy my age. It wasn’t just physically, it was also in terms of my body language and my basic demeanour. I combated acceptance issues through my teenage years. It’s only when I got through college that I basically realised that one’s personality sometimes finds its own audience. Someone once said to me that ‘You are not man enough’ and I said ‘I am more man than you because I have a very strong woman in me’ and I truly believe it.

With the kind of popularity you have, do you feel less lonely today?

I still feel lonely. I feel creative people are lonely people, even more than the rest, because you have to put so much energy into something, you have to get out of a lot of external zones. My loneliness quotient hasn’t reduced, my acceptance of it has increased. Today, I can take a long-haul flight and not wonder who I have beside me to talk to. I find great peace with myself today, which I didn’t earlier. Then there is always the hope that you might encounter some possibility of a relationship that might fill that void, which no child or parent can do. And if you don’t, there are other ways of distracting yourself.

Are you going to be seriously pursuing love this year?

My big problem in finding a partner is you land up intimidating people or you feel like there’s an agenda. But even that thought borders on self-importance, which I don’t like to believe. If you have a partner who hits the right notes with you, it’s great. But if you don’t hit the right notes, then silence, solitude, single- dom is sometimes a preferred option. And let me tell you the trauma, trials, tribulations, the pains of a relationship are great therapy. There’s drama, and it’s all very good. But in the larger scheme of things, when it starts burdening you, then you realise you’d rather be without it. I’m a firm believer of when it has to happen, it’ll happen.

Do you have friends in the industry who know the real you?

No. I don’t think anybody knows me. And I like it like that.

When you’re not working or indulging in social media or spending time with your kids, what’s it like?

In my silent moments, I like to walk the streets of New York. I love looking at strangers, observing their mannerisms, interactions; it opens my head up. I am a big people-watcher. New York is also a living dichotomy of a city. There is all this buzz and energy and yet everyone is lonely. Much like I am. I feel like it’s my soul city. So when I want time to myself, that’s where I go.