TBIP Tête-à-Tête is a series of in-depth and intimate interviews with film personalities who are critical to this era of filmmaking. It is an attempt to understand their body of work. And their minds. Because who they are intrigues us just as much as what they do. Because what they do is because of who they are. In certain cases, despite who they are. Because integral to the love of cinema is the love of cinema’s idols— the chosen few whose mystique remains intact despite the tabloids’ obsession with their lives.
Karan Johar epitomizes re-invention. The sheltered, snooty South Bombay kid who is now at home in the filmy suburbs. The overweight, awkward introvert who is now one of the most photographed people in the country. The shabbily dressed sidekick in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge who is now a fashion icon. The new kid on the block who now runs a production house that sets up young directors. The doe-eyed boy with a faraway look who now has a trademark hard, slit-eyed stare.
The first challenge Johar set himself after the runaway success of his bubblegum love story, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, was to make a magnum opus. The canvas of his next, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Ghum was gigantic in every way conceivable. For his third film, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, the advocate of traditional family values and true love as a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena threw self-righteousness out of the window and gave us the story of an adulterous love affair. When his detractors were wondering what to make of this sudden push of the envelope, he announced My Name Is Khan, a political film that spoke against religious profiling of Muslims with a central character who was autistic. It would have been real tough for any pundit to predict at the time that for his next, Johar would sign absolute newcomers and go back to school to tell a preppy and lighthearted tale, Student Of The Year.
The constantly shifting goal-post also features in Johar’s life outside of the director’s chair. Not content with his transformation into a fashion icon, he took up styling and then launched his own fashion label. Johar was the first director from his generation to become a celebrity in his own right. He hosted chat shows, conducted interviews and launched products. And he made friends. A lot of friends – all of them rich and famous and glamorous. His 40th birthday party in May this year was testimony to his stupendous clout. He called it his “biggest hit so far”. That might well be true. But his biggest success so far lies in the clinical clarity and precision with which he knows both his mind and his milieu; the dexterity with which he is master of both his image and his destiny; and the caution with which he draws a line between the two. It is perhaps this degree of control that sets him free. In this interview, that dissects his life and work since he became a filmmaker, he talks with enviable candor— criticizing his own work fiercely, defining his fears, brandishing his cynicism and letting his vulnerability show from time to time. But not once does he apologise for being who he is. It is this flair for a life larger than most that makes him a natural fit for the movies.
Dissecting his films
Pragya Tiwari: In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, you explored love as a self indulgent idea, love for the sake of love, there was lust versus a deeper bond thing. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, it was a love which is more a promise, a commitment weighed down by domesticity. A dharam sankat even. Kabhi Alvida (Naa Kehna), it was a shifting reality, outside of socio-familial structure. And in My Name Is Khan it was a mere catalyst. It was completely incidental. How has what interests you about love changed in these ten, twelve years you’ve been making films?
Karan Johar: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, is a result of the cinema I saw right before, and the concept of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai as love is really warped if you ask me, it’s ridiculously wrong. I think a lot of the conviction pulled off that film and I think there is a feeling of genuineness in the performances of the protagonists that really pull off that film, otherwise it’s ridiculously idiotic.
PT: And why do you say that?
KJ: That, oh, they are best friends and she’s kind of dumpy and frumpy and he doesn’t look at her, and then the hot girl comes and which he kind of thinks is love, he mistakes for love, and then the second half this girl comes looking all pretty and, you know, wearing beautiful clothes and has long hair and suddenly he’s back in love with her. So I don’t get what that is. I don’t think I would go through that character graph again the love I think was purely pulled off because Shah Rukh and Kajol are magical. But I think I made no sense, the film makes no sense. Now when I look back I feel like those eight letters is ridiculously idiotic.
PT: Yeah, that’s a device, fine, you know…
KJ: Okay, so there was conviction, there was first timeness, so that’s why Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is about… like the only thing I think I got right in that film is, because I think I had felt it myself, was the heartbreak part. When Shah Rukh and Kajol, when he literally breaks her heart and that unrequited-ness, that feeling of one-sided love and loving your best friend and not being able to have him which is such an identifiable emotion to the younger kids, or people who are in their twenties. I think that’s what really worked, that scene because that worked I think the rest of the film did. Cause it kind of was carried on the shoulders of that moment. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is reverence to your parents, we live in a traditional society. Parents mean, at least to me… I’m the only child. So it was my way of thanking them, of course in a very melodramatic, over the top way. But it was my ode to them. So it was about parental love, really.
PT: No, but even Shah Rukh and Kajol, in Kabhi Khushi… , there was that whole thing of you made a promise, you need to stand by it, it’s domesticity…
KJ: Yeah, yeah that’s more what I call filmi, I don’t think it’s really identifiable, it’s a filmi situation. You know, she’s lost without her father, she has nobody to look up to and he goes and becomes a protective lover. Very filmi, very Hindi film, that whole film is very Hindi film. The only thing emotional about it is what I wanted to do vis-a-vis my parents, like make a film, like to express my gratitude to them for being the man they raised. Cynicism definitely crept in. Post that I made Kal Ho Na Ho, I lost my father, there were events that changed my life, you become a lot more mature with the passing of time. And Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is my take on modern relationships, because I believe there isn’t a happy one. And I believe that there is no man who can be faithful and I believe there are women who want to be unfaithful, but because society, the norms, kind of hold them back and so it was a cynical approach to love, definitely, it’s a cryptic approach to love. Kabhi Alvida… is really a result of the initial bursts of my cynicism, if I had to say. And then of course cinema kind of absorbs you and you want to say it, so I wanted to tell a totally different story, so My Name is Khan is really a political commentary, a social commentary, love is incidental as you said. But it’s kind of, is about like the love story somewhere, but it’s also making a social and political comment. So if I had to answer your question and sum it up I would say it started from vulnerability and innocence, went into understanding where I stand vis-a-vis love and finally going into deep levels of cynicism about love and relationships. Where I’m at today, I don’t know, I don’t think I can write a love story, I don’t think I feel it anymore.
PT: The other contrast between Kabhi Alvida… and between Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, was Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, you were talking about, you were really promoting the whole family structure, family values and then you were standing up for individual freedom, even if it’s at the cost of a family. Do you feel both parallel-y or was there a distinct shift of personal philosophy between these two films?
KJ: No, no, totally, there definitely was a shift. I think Kabhi Alvida… is more who I am today. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is, was what I was trying to do as an ode to cinema with largeness and all, but I don’t think I’m that person anymore. I can’t write those scenes anymore. When I see that film on satellite sometimes, I’m like who made this film. It wasn’t me. I don’t feel like that man anymore at all. I feel totally different in my head and heart. So I think Kabhi Alvida is closer to who I am. If I had to make a film on modern relationships again or relationships in general, I would just make it very differently. I don’t think you can feel black and white about any emotion anymore. I think I’m living in the grey myself and that’s what I would project on celluloid. And I think the grey is tough to project to an Indian audience if you want to make it commercially viable. So don’t make it, then make something else till you know you can pull off grey in a smaller contained way, but the larger you go as a brand the more the expectation of scale, so you’re in a Catch 22 always.
PT: We’ll come to that, but staying with Kabhi Alvida for a minute, you really stuck your neck out in that one, you know, you spoke of Before Sunset being a point of inspiration, but in Silsila, and in Before Sunset, both the protagonists, there’s sort of excuses made for them, that they were in love, they were separated by circumstances and therefore they are falling in love again out of their marriage bonds, you didn’t do any of that. You said here are two characters, they’re married and they’re falling in love with each other and there’s no justification.
KJ: I don’t know, like so many millions of people came up to me and said why doesn’t Rani (Mukerji’s character) love Abhishek (Bachchan’s character)? There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a great guy, he’s good to her, he’s not cheating on her, he’s faithful, he’s loyal.
PT: But that’s probably people feeling really bad that Abhishek Bachchan was jilted.
KJ: No, it’s not that, I just think people don’t get, like, that you cannot. You may have the best husband at home, but you may not want to have sex with him.
PT: Of course.
KJ: You may not want to feel passionate, you don’t feel the passion, you don’t feel the mojos, not in the love anymore. And you feel attracted to this cynical, bitter, unhappy man, because he turns you on, probably. And how do you explain that to this society who are themselves victims of this situation, but don’t want to admit to it.
PT: But Karan wouldn’t it have been easier perhaps, if you didn’t have the stars. I’m saying that because these people have so much baggage…
PT: …of their own image…
KJ: No, also, I think the movie needed to be made in a far tinier scale, it didn’t need those item songs, it needed to be toned down, I think that’s the mistake I made with that film. I think my intention was to make a film about two relationships and that kind of broke each other up, because of what happened and I just went and became suddenly like this big filmmaker trying to do everything with it. I think that’s where I messed up and if I had to, I think that’s the film I would like to make again. Because what reads on paper is actually way superior to what’s on screen. I think that my intention was to really talk about two relationships, really, and the fact that you can be attracted to somebody else even if you have a great spouse at home, it can happen because you have no control over your heart. Sometimes you marry somebody for all the wrong reasons— that’s why I say, you know, marry for intense love and sometimes intense love can even break you up, you know, so there’s absolutely no conclusion to your emotions. But Kabhi Alvida was really about that, it was about a woman who just didn’t love her husband and found attraction with the other man and of course I think what happens, I directed Rani too guilty. And I think sometimes that extra guilt made it seem wrong even to an audience. I also saw, it was initially Kajol who was meant to be in the film, so it was meant to be an older woman to Abhishek. And you know when Kajol couldn’t do it for various reasons, and Rani came in, she was too much of a match for Abhishek. They were too much Bunty-Babli with each other. So you didn’t feel right, ’cause they seemed so right. So there were some things that, sometimes casting can go against the core of a film. Yeah, and if I took four completely rank, interesting, new faces you wouldn’t have any preconceived baggage about them. Also Shah Rukh Khan cheating on his wife, you know, it’s just that we live in a society which actually puts him up on a pedestal as a father, as a husband, you know.
PT: Being this married father, yeah.
KJ: And then him cheating on his wife, checking into a hotel room, having extra marital sex…
PT: Having his ring show when he’s making out with…
KJ: Yeah, yeah, so all that which I wanted, I wanted to go back to the fact that they were married, I needed that sense of drama, but I still remember watching that film in an audience the very first time and the first time Shah Rukh and Rani checked into the hotel room and there was a very traditional couple sitting ahead of me and I was observing them, ’cause they got a little awkward and she turned around and he looked at her and said it’s a dream sequence. And when he realized it wasn’t a dream sequence five minutes later, that it was what really happened, that they had sex in a hotel room, they walked out. They walked right out. And that to me…
PT: This is in Bombay?
KJ: Yes, in Bombay and in a urban multiplex. And I was like this is the truth of the matter, this is the dichotomy of our society. This is the double standard. Probably each one of them have children at home who are probably screwing around all over the place, but still when it comes to brass tacks, I remember I walked out of that screening and a lady came up to me with a weeping daughter and she came up with a really nasty tone and she said I brought my daughter to see a Karan Johar film, so that she could feel happy, she’s just broken up with her husband, and this is what you’ve made. And I was like look I’m really sorry, but I wasn’t making it for your daughter, I was making it for myself. But this is the preconceived notion people have, when they want everything rose tinted. Everything has to be glossed over. No, Shah Rukh Khan cannot cheat on his wife in film, no, he cannot. Rani Mukerji cannot cheat on Abhishek Bachchan, you know.
PT: Yeah, I’m sure that went against it. Karan Johar, Shah Rukh Khan…
KJ: And then you make a film… from loving your parents to leaving your wife was like a drastic turn around which just didn’t work. The film did really well overseas and I realized why later. Overseas it went on to becoming one of my biggest hits, because I felt that overseas there’s a culture of seeing films alone. So husbands and wives were watching this film alone. They weren’t going together. ‘Cause I remember a couple came up to me and said like how do you watch this film with your spouse, what do you say if you liked it, they’ll turn around and say what do you like about it? So you have a fight back at home, who wants to have that fight, so it’s easier to say I didn’t like it. Because everything is right, you’re morally right, and you didn’t like this film, you didn’t agree with the moral ground of the film. So I heard so many different kinds of opinions post that film, it was almost interesting as a filmmaker that I managed for myself to stir things up. Then in America I met people who said I didn’t go with my wife, you know, I went off one afternoon and saw it. Some other wife telling me, oh, I saw it like with my girls. You don’t need to go with your husband. But here, in India, it’s a family viewing. You go with your chacha-chachi, mama-mami, the whole family goes together, husband, wife, kids, everyone goes together. But Kabhi Alvida… is really a film that can embarrass you if you’re in that situation.
PT: What is the first impetus to make My Name is Khan? Was it to make a film which is different, which has a larger socio-political canvas than you’re used to, or was it to use the medium to talk about something that was bothering you personally?.
KJ: I actually am very affected and I get personally very bothered about the religious bias there is to an entire religion. I’ve grown up with my father who lived in Pakistan for ten years, has many friends, spoke about partition to me extensively, spoke about his Muslim friends that he had across the border, spoke about how sad he felt that he had lost touch with all of them.
PT: Ten years before partition or…?
KJ: During partition…
PT: During partition, okay.
KJ: And before, and how he was very actively a part of the struggle, so I heard so many stories. I’ve always felt very strongly that, you know, there is this bias. I’ve lived through the riots in Bombay, and it’s just always bothered me. And then once I was in New York, right after I made Kabhi Alvida… , I had gone on a three month trip away, and I was with friends who I connected with after a really long time, and we were at dinner and there was this whole conversation about like one of them hiring a Muslim gentleman and how the organization felt very strongly against it, and how he was actually supportive, because he made very drastic comments which I don’t even want to say, because I don’t even want to… even go down that path. And I remember eating a dinner with friends I hadn’t really met in a long time and being so angry, and I started voicing my anger and I said I think it’s ridiculous. I said are you trying to say you’ve had all honest Hindu employees all your life and that none of them have cheated you or made money off you and all that nonsense. So he just made very strong comments and it got so upsetting that dinner became so awkward that we ended it really like awkwardly, and I went back and I remember, I have a note pad that I scribble in and I started like the first line and I remember saying it in a burst of anger, just because he’s a Khan doesn’t make him a terrorist, you know. And I went back and I wrote, the first time, I wrote My Name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist, and those were the first lines I wrote and I went off to sleep. And the next morning I just kept thinking about this and that’s how somewhere the germ of that idea came. Then I went back and did some research in LA because the whole bias is so much more and strong in America as a result of what happened. And then I contacted my writer, and that dinner I don’t think I’ll ever forget, because I’m not in touch with those people, I don’t like them anymore. ‘Cause I just felt it was so ridiculous, living in America, investment bankers in really credible jobs and this is how they think then, you know, what’s the point of education, what’s the point of world information? I feel we’re regressing in time. I feel like the sixties and seventies, and fifties, were far more progressive, even cinematically. ‘Cause we’re talking cinema, some of the most bold subjects were made in the forties and the fifties and the sixties.
PT: Without much brouhaha.
KJ: Nothing, there’s a film called Sharada, which is Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari, and I have to tell you it’s the most progressive film. It’s about them being in love, but circumstances don’t bring them together, and Meena Kumari actually marries Raj Kapoor’s father instead, and he has to walk into the house and his father says touch your mother’s feet. So he has to touch the feet of his lover actually, whom he’s had an intense love relationship with. And that film went on to becoming a huge hit. Try doing that today. You know… many years later a Lamhe fails. And today— worse. We’re going ahead in time only when it comes to 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G and all those Gs will keep increasing, technology will be enhanced, emotionally we’re totally regressing in every which way.
PT: But, you know, you pulled My Name is Khan off. Two very sensitive things: autism and religious profiling. A single mother, no song and dance, unusual story, cultural references that may be alien to India, because of the whole Katrina (Hurricane Katrina) thing and, you know. Give me five reasons you pulled it off.
KJ: I don’t know, I think it was largely because I believed in it and I think conviction is paramount. You have to believe in the story you’re telling. Also I think the lead protagonists again have a certain strong connection with an audience base. Shah Rukh and Kajol. And I think their trauma is always felt. I think there’s something you can feel and touch about them as a pair. Something about them as a lead couple, I think no one can pinpoint why, but there’s some kind of an audience karma that goes with them, there’s a connection. I think thirdly the fact that it was made so strongly pro the religion and I know that that community reacted to it worldwide. And, nobody had made a film on that scale that was kind of, not elevating or escalating, but giving a perspective and point of view in its own way. And I think that’s what really did it. I think in the western world specially. I think the fact that it was true and honest to its theme and never digressed, like Shah Rukh didn’t suddenly break into a dance or sing a lip sync song, much as we all wanted him to sing Sajda, because I love that song, but we knew it worked against the character. And also the research that Shivani Bhatija, the writer, did. I think are the last two reasons I would say that it worked— because we really researched the autism aspect and gave it our own slant of course, but we went down to the Asperger’s root, which is the disorder he has. Shah Rukh met people for a whole year, I read every book on Asperger’s syndrome there is. We saw all the movies made on that, we met people. In fact Shah Rukh is based on a gentleman called Chris, who actually lives in London, and he spent like a week with him, mannerisms, gestures, eye contact etc. So I think research, conviction and I think the lead pairing, definitely, are the reasons why that film got pulled off.
PT: Karan, why post 9/11? Why not, say, post the Godhra riots, why not post Bombay (the Bombay Riots)?
KJ: What happens with 9/11 is it touches a cord with the generation we live in. And that’s where you really kind of suss out somebody’s immediate character. In this I wanted to definitely talk to the people my age or younger and I know so many feel it in contemporary India. And there’s such a big deal made about modern times and India being shining and the world reaching the pinnacle of evolution etc. but like I said to you earlier, the emotional evolution is zilch. So I didn’t want to address it with any other political atmosphere, I wanted to keep it modern and I know 9/11 was definitely a more modern trigger to tell the story.
PT: Yeah, and more international. I mean, that’s something all of us have lived through.
KJ: And I knew that I was not talking to the Muslim population just living in India I was addressing the community worldwide. Which is why it’s the only film in which I ever collaborated largely with an international studio, it’s 20th Century Fox… was only because I knew that they could make the film release in Jordan, in Syria, in Egypt have large releases like in the Middle East, in Riyadh, in parts of the world that don’t normally get access to Hindi cinema. I wanted that whole community everywhere, living anywhere in the world to at least know that there’s such a film that exists, called My Name is Khan, and it speaks about them.
PT: You know it’s very interesting you use autism as a brilliant device to counter what is going on in the world. With a world view which would have been thought of as simplistic, except because it’s coming from Rizwan, is pure and it’s believable.
KJ: But it’s not true otherwise, you cannot pull it off otherwise.
KJ: You and I can’t pull off that with conviction, say I want to go meet the President and take off. It’s ridiculous. Because no one would.
PT: But what struck me was that, you know, the necessity that prompted that invention, a larger necessity in Hindi cinema, we were touching on this a little earlier. Can we make films which deal with complicated situations in a more complex way. I mean what if a story didn’t have just two sides, it had nine sides instead. Do you feel that that’s something that we’re ready for, have we found the language for it, is that something you would be comfortable doing?
KJ: Yeah, I’m sure. I don’t know what to say, I really feel we have such a schizophrenic audience that you don’t know anymore what really works for them. They accept like an unusual film, you know, with layers and shades and, you know, almost like lead movie stars playing characters like this simultaneously, and then you suddenly see one brain dead entertainer making 200 crores, so I mean you don’t know what’s happening out there, you just have to kind of tell your story and make it, like My Name is Khan it’s easy for people to say oh my God, like it’s worked overseas, it worked in India, it worked overseas and look at the obstacles it had in its commercial path. It had a lead actor and actress who only made legendary love stories. Can we deconstruct that? And then if your lead protagonist has a form of autism then you’re talking so largely about the western world. The reason I didn’t connect it to India, now that we have to be very honest and say this, is that who wants any political party sitting on my head. I already went through that… and nothing to do with my film. Content didn’t create the confusion that happened at the release weekend. It’s so tough, you have to combat so many authorities to tell a really honest story here. If you make a film on that large scale, I want the film to have a release. I mean that’s why I made this film.
PT: And you’re saying the same thing so it doesn’t matter.
KJ: And I’m not a politician. I’m not here to wage a war with any political party. I’m sorry, I’m a filmmaker. Let me make my film and really let me exercise my democratic status as a citizen of this country. But no— democracy is the biggest hypocrisy there is in this country. It’s really just in the memorandum and in the articles of association, it’s nowhere else.
PT: Listen, in November 2009 you gave an interview saying that you don’t want to work with newcomers and until you’re 50 and nobody wants to work with you. Yet here you are, one decade too early, peak of your career, you’re working with new comers. That seemed really emphatic a statement. What gave?
KJ: It was and I can’t believe I made that statement. I can’t believe what eventually happened. That’s why I say never say never, that’s the one thing that I’ve learnt. But it just so happened that this film just happened, because I felt after My Name is Khan, it just seemed very easy for me to make a film with a movie star and make a, like a commercial enterprise and I would tell another story with two stars, three stars and, you know, I wasn’t challenged. I just felt like I needed to do something to challenge me individually. I did it content-wise in My Name is Khan, I needed to do it as a filmmaker. ‘Cause I feel what instruction can I give the best talent in this country, they’re so great. That we just meet, we discuss the character, and, you know, they’ll still be great, because they’re great. How do I become greater. You know, what do I do to make myself feel like I’m more challenged as a director and I’m not here to make the money, I’m not here to kind of build like empires, I’m here to satisfy the creative urge I have in me. And that was to suddenly play tutor and teacher. And the only way to do that was to actually launch new kids. And simultaneously I also thought it was a great idea for the company so we could leverage from them in the future if we set them up. So take rank newcomers, make a film that is really about positioning new talent… and giving them a platform that was large enough for the world to notice. And suddenly I felt that why am I waiting till I’m 50 and no one wants to work with me. I don’t want to work with half the people anyways, because it’s not challenging to me anymore. And after this now I feel I have done my bit, yes maybe I can make a star vehicle film now. Because I enjoyed this so much, it was just not being director, it was playing tutor, it was playing guide, it was being philosopher, it was being therapist, it was being everything, it was being mother, father everything. Like the three of them were so, and not only three of them, we’ve launched four other kids who are in the supporting cast. So I felt like I was the dean of this college and just completely enjoying the experience, and I became like as vulnerable and as first time as them, because I had never done this before. So while they had never faced the camera, I had never instructed, to this extent, for any actor…
PT: Rank newcomers. You know, you’ve cast three people who are the next generation of key players in the industry, people who have been a part of the industry.
PT: Is it going to irritate you if you’re asked to defend that choice?
KJ: No, because how can you?
PT: You know you’re going to be that you’re from a film family, you’re casting people from the film family, well, you know, the media…
KJ: No, there’s always somebody related, firstly it’s so sad to kind of club these kids and say just they’re film family. Like each one of them… Varun Dhawan is David Dhawan’s son, came to me as an AD (Assistant Director), he was an intern and then he became an AD on My Name is Khan. He was not offered like the earth and the moon. I mean eventually his father would have given him a platform, but it would not have been that extravagant and at the end of the day he had to go through his own struggle, that he was at business school, came back here, decided to be an actor, trained himself, did all kinds of training, worked for three years on his acting skills and became an AD to learn the craft, went through his own struggle. Alia is all of 17 years old, out of high school, 20 kilos chubbier than she is today, okay, and nobody knew that Mahesh Bhatt and Soni had this daughter called Alia. I heard through a friend of mine who’s close to the family who told me this girl acts in front of the mirror every day, ’cause she’s obsessed by Kareena Kapoor and wants to be a movie star. And I called her and I said she’s a fat girl, but yet something about her energy level made me want to do a test. She did a test and she was really fantastic in that test, and then I said, okay, lose that weight and then we’ll talk. Three months later she was back in my office, 17 kilos lighter, and I know weight is all to do with cosmetic, but that’s the way it is. You’re a movie star, you have to look good.
PT: Yes, of course.
KJ: Let’s not apologize about that, you know, that’s the way it is. And I took a test with her again, she was great, so it was her own struggle. I don’t think Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter would be like… there were 3000 people waiting in line to sign her for anything. At the end of the day she went through her own struggle. And then there was Siddharth Malhotra, a Delhi model, who gave it all up to be an intern as an AD. And wanted to assist, and his father’s in the merchant navy, from a total non–filmi background, so I would not get upset, but I would be like how ignorant it is for people to think it’s easy just because you’re a filmmaker’s child…none of them are Shah Rukh Khan’s son or Amitabh Bachchan’s son or anyone’s son. They are not. They are filmmaker’s children who possibly might have had it so tough tomorrow, like Arjun Kapoor, he’s Boney Kapoor’s son, but was given a break by Yash Raj, and he went to the grind on the screen test level till he got that role. Yes, the only thing you’ll question is, would you have heard of them if they were not David Dhawan and Mahesh Bhatt’s children. Yes, that’s the only advantage, the information that we have about them is easier to get to.
PT: But then that’s true of everybody all of us urban kids, we’re all connected in some way I mean then the privilege doesn’t, is not…
KJ: I mean I speak for myself when I tell you I’m a flop producer’s son. My father made five flop films back-to-back. And it’s only because I was an AD on Dilwale (Dulhania Le Jayenge) and I met Shah Rukh and Aditya Chopra had some faith in me, that I was positioned and like my father was given the chance that he could launch his son as a filmmaker. So that doesn’t make my struggle any less. It’s just ridiculous that everybody has this underdog story to sell. And they say, oh, poor thing, that boy in Ranchi, or that poor girl in Chandigarh, doesn’t have a break. Listen, let me tell you, and I say this with assurance, if you are good in any corner of this world and you will come to this city, and you will immediately get a platform. People are all jumping on new, beautiful faces. And the truth of the matter is if you don’t have the chips then you’re not going to make it. Whether you live in Ranchi or Chandigarh, if you have a way out you can come in and make it happen. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to. I see some of them, the people who come to offices with their photographs, I mean I want to go personally to tell them please, don’t try it, won’t happen for you, I swear it won’t.
PT: I wish you would.
KJ: And if you’re a great actor Anurag Kashyap will find you. I mean, you know, because he’s fathered… there are so many filmmakers who are taking new… look at Nawazuddin Siddiqui, he’s fantastic, he’s genius, he’s getting so many opportunities, so he can’t resent a better looking man. Because he’s got his own space, and a better looking man will have his own space. And they’ll both be creatively satisfied somewhere.
On love stories
PT: Romance as a genre, do you think it’s getting tougher and tougher to crack in the times we live in, I mean the demand for it doesn’t end, but…
KJ: No, it’s actually ended.
KJ: The best love story in the 2000s has been Jab We Met, it’s the only love story that made a mark. If you think about it, the great movies in the 2000s have been Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, Chak De India, Rang De Basanti, Munnabhai, none of these are love stories.
PT: Yeah, but why do you think we don’t make love stories like we used to?
KJ: I think everything to do with love has been done in Hindi cinema, and if you really start talking about love with its true edginess, then you won’t make a very palatable, commercial film. So a film… like you have a modern take to love in a Dev D, or you have a slightly threesome kind of feeling in a Cocktail, which still doesn’t really tear the envelope, because you’re actually talking about like three people in a situation. So everything to do with love today would have to kind of, it’s no longer like parents are objecting, (or) situations are such like that will come in the path of love. Love, the traumas of real, true, love today in urban India are far more internal. They’re about like infidelity, they’re about, like, compatibility issues, you know, to do with commitment issues. They’re to do, like, with probably inherent emotional violence in a relationship. Now who’s going to touch upon those? You can’t be rose tinted about love anymore, ’cause that’s not the way love is today.
PT: So you’re saying we’re not making real love stories anymore, because you require a certain degree of rose tinted-ness which is not…
KJ: Which is not, and also communication and technology have also killed romance to a large extent. Everyone is in everyone’s face all the time. How many great love stories are there, when I see a man gushing about his wife so much I know he’s having an affair. When I know lovers who are constantly showing their display of affection with each other in public you know something’s drastically wrong. So you know maybe we are just becoming too cynical, I don’t know, but that’s why nobody can tell a quintessential, beautiful, rose tinted love story anymore, because I don’t think anyone’s feeling it.
PT: What are your favorite love stories in cinema?
KJ: In cinema, well, my first memories of a love story is Roman Holiday, that’s the film I saw first, so I love that. I was a kid. I enjoyed the experience. I absolutely love Kabhi Kabhie, I love the romance between Amitabh Bachchan and Rakhee in that. I love Kaagaz Ke Phool, I love the madness of love between Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. I feel that love. I can watch it even now and weep, because I somehow feel his pain. Modern, recently if I had to see, I know it sounds cheesy, but I wept right through the Titanic, so I mean it’s probably me. Recently I loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think that’s really a fantastic love story that I loved watching… today. I even loved a film called, I’m blank about the name, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, what is the film?
PT: Blue Valentine?
KJ: Blue Valentine. I loved Blue Valentine.
PT: It was heartbreaking, but it was really, really nice.
KJ: It was. Yeah, those are pretty much the love stories that come into my mind.
On his boundaries as a filmmaker
PT: You know again back in 2009 there were a lot of other boundaries that you spoke of. That you weren’t comfortable making a smaller film, perhaps. But in all the films you said that, maybe, you know, maybe I won’t be able to relate to this (later), are you questioning all of those boundaries as well now?
KJ: No small films I will produce, I can’t direct them.
PT: No, direct.
KJ: No, no, I can’t. You give me a budget, I can’t do it. I don’t know what to do.
PT: Maybe two years later…
KJ: I don’t know. I can’t do it.
PT: …you’ll be doing another interview, you’ll be like…
KJ: Possibly, but right now I can’t, I can’t think. With newcomers I didn’t…
PT: What kind of boundaries do you feel you have?
KJ: I don’t think I have any boundaries anymore, I think I’ll do anything…
PT: Other than small films.
KJ: I won’t make a horror film, I don’t like the genre. I made a really bad one and produced a film called Kaal, that scared me when I saw it. It was that bad. Yeah, some things like that. But there’s no film that I don’t think I want to make. But the scale for me personally as a director, I can’t do it. I’ve tried very hard. Like I’m doing a short film now which Anurag (Kashyap) and Dibakar (Banerjee) and Zoya (Akhtar) are doing for a 100 years of cinema. I’m doing the fourth film, and they’ve given us all a budget of one and a half crores, I don’t think I meant to talk about this, but anyway it’s okay. One and a half crores has been given to each one of us and I’m like that’s not even the costume budget of the film, how am I going to do this, what am I going to do. So I’ll just have to beg and plead people to do things free for me. I’ll beg for favors, that’s the only way I’m going to pull that one and a half crore, and Zoya called me, and we’re childhood friends, and she was like you can’t cheat, you can’t spend more money. You can’t, like, dish into your own bank balance and, you know, make a bigger film.
PT: Yeah, I’d love to watch.
KJ: So that’s the one, if you’re trying to ask that’s… I’m doing it, that’s because I’m forced, for the name and sake of a 100 years of cinema and Viacom is funding it. I’d really like to see my own one and a half crore film.
On what defines a ‘Karan Johar film’
PT: Okay, I want your take on this, the other day someone was tweeting about Bol Bachchan, and they said I’m so tired of seeing Amitabh Bachchan, in these Karan Johar-type sherwanis, and, you know, it struck me, the number of times I’ve heard the phrase Karan Johar type film is completely at odds with the fact that you’re actually just four films old. What sense do you make of this?
KJ: I don’t know, I hear— family films, you make family films, I made one, oh, you make love stories, I’ve made one, oh, you make popcorn, bubblegum films, I mean like what is bloody popcorn and bubblegum at the end of the day. But I suppose only when you get that famous do you get stereotyped, so I have to take it as a compliment. And Karan Johar sherwani, for heaven’s sake, I mean really, he wore them in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, he was the patriarch of that family and the whole syntax from that is a bit OTT. I’ve gone through a gamut of three emotions I have to say, from annoyance to indifference and to now amusement, and I’m at amusement right now.
PT: Is there something stylistically that you’ve carried through four films or you’ve discovered has become your style?
KJ: Pure aesthetic, my dear, that’s it. Just the setting, 80 per cent of the country doesn’t have it, in the film industry, and we do. So whether it’s Sanjay Bhansali, who does it with candles and chandeliers or I do it with Prada and Gucci, it’s the same thing, it’s aesthetic. It’s a sensibility you have, you’re born with it, I’m born with it, others don’t, and I have it, I will exercise it, that’s the right I have as a filmmaker. But this doesn’t mean that my films are just purely designer even in terms of soul and content, no, there wouldn’t be an audience connecting to these stories if people just wore a Burberry jacket and posed in it. At the end of the day there is a story, there is a kind of content that you’re trying to tell and so if you have the aesthetic, and that’s the one, as you said, stylistic stamp, that my films have had, and they have a certain modern, western aesthetic. But now I’m born with it, why should I kill that instinct and start making people look tacky. I can’t do it. That’s the one thing I have.
PT: Don’t you have a problem if there was a more than an aesthetic style that became your style, I mean, the great filmmakers like (Pedro) Almodovar, who all his films look the same, feel the same, but each one of them is brilliant, if you like him.
KJ: I love him.
PT: Yeah, I love him too. And I’m trying to understand is that something to fight off I mean, what if every film of yours looked the same?
KJ: You know, I’ve realized I can’t wage a war with anyone anymore. I’m bogged by my own branding, like I feel like if My Name is Khan was directed by some Karan Chaudhary, the film would be better received. It’s because I made it then they strive very hard to kind of find something wrong, because oh, he can’t make a sensible film that is actually catering to an intellectual audience, there’s definitely some NRI… oh, so he’s catering to the Muslim NRIs now. So there is that kind of cynicism that creeps in too.
On writing men versus writing women
PT: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was Kajol’s film, I remember Shah Rukh giving an interview saying I’m just a foil to her in the film as she was to me in DDLJ, again Kabhi Khushi… , her character was etched out way more than you needed just to push the story ahead. All three women were very strong, very definitive, but she was the most detailed of all characters. Kabhi Alvida… , both your women were sketchier than that. And in My Name is Khan, in the second half especially, I wasn’t entirely sure what Kajol’s character was. Shah Rukh on the other hand was absolutely brilliantly written in that film. Have you become better at writing men or become worse at writing women or is that….
KJ: Yeah. I think I’m better at understanding the mind of a man. I definitely think that’s also true with my own evolution. That I became more man myself, like when I lost my dad when I was 32, I think that I grew up almost in those days that I lost him. And I understood what my responsibilities to my company, to my mother, to my life, are. And I think that’s what changed my entire take. Like I was a lot more, you know, when you’re a mother’s boy and you understand a woman much better, because your connection with your mother is so strong so my understanding of women came from my closeness to my mother which is still there today, but today I’m not her son, I’m like her father. You know, so I think when I assumed control over my life, my family, my being, I understood being a man much more.
PT: So basically you’re saying that it reflects actually your coming more in touch with yourself.
KJ: Oh, it does. In fact anything you see now will be so much more driven by my male protagonist, whereas I was far more driven by the women end of things in my previous pieces of work.
On his philosophy as a producer
PT: Okay. What is your ambition as a producer, other than of course making commercially viable films?
KJ: To make interesting content, to work with first time filmmakers all the time. Like, I believe in the creation of a filmmaker, I believe in empowering directorial talent. Making all kinds of film, every genre, a small budget, medium budget, high budget, different themes, commercial, non-commercial, artistic, what-have-you, everything that is viable eventually, of course, because I’m also a producer.
PT: Also maybe to create an ecosystem where everything becomes viable, because what interests me… I was reading another interview of yours where you said that obviously you’d be interested in a movie that lasts a 100 years over, a movie that makes a 100 crore, but you’re also excited about working with someone like Rohit Shetty, whose films, good as they may be, are unlikely to last a 100 years so.
KJ: That’s a completely commercial decision, it’s because I have overheads. I have a big company, I have people working for me, I need to roll out all kind of content.
PT: And it’s important to balance…
KJ: It’s like a boutique studio. So while Rohit Shetty is like the untouchable, invincible 100 crore man, I would love for his support, I need him more than he needs me. And so my brand, my company will only be enhanced by the commercial outcome of what he does for us. And he’s great, you can’t question his connect to the audience. And I think he’s in fact, the most viable filmmaker there is in the country today. And we being a production house on the rise, the combination of the two aspects would be great to come together. And I really like him personally. Like, I love the fact that he gives a flying you-know-what for anyone’s opinions, he makes films that he believes in. And I think that conviction totally pays off and I’m all about that conviction.
On homosexuality in cinema
PT: As a producer when you made Dostana, and that little gay skit in Kal Ho Naa Ho, do you feel like, I mean not feel, like, you know, did you guys manage to push the envelope for acceptance of homosexuals a little?
KJ: Yes, I totally believe that there was initially some criticism or stereotyping when it came to Dostana, but my whole idea is like nobody had made a full length two and a half hour film with a topic as risky as this, where actually they’re playing gay and you were finally shown the traditional Punjabi mother accepts it, which she does in a very serious, emotional scene, where she says she accepts it, there’s a whole scene between her and Priyanka (Chopra) on the bed and Priyanka manages to convince her and she gets convinced and she accepts John (Abraham) as her son-in-law. And I think that that was progressive and at least we brought gay into dining tables and discussions in this country. It’s such a taboo topic.
PT: And if John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan are playing, even faking being gay, how bad can it be?
KJ: No, that’s fine and also the mother doesn’t know they’re faking it. She accepts them being gay. And she’s like it’s fine, you love him and I accept that. I think that, to me, was the most progressive scene of Dostana.
PT: Was it intentional? I mean when you guys were talking about the film, let’s try and do this?
KJ: Yes, totally. We did. We said that the only way to get out the concept of homosexuality in this country, and not keep it festival friendly, is to actually lace it with humor that’s somewhere aesthetic. There was no kind of pink pants we gave anybody, we did it a little bit here and there, and barring one little love story bit which was just for humor, otherwise we played John Abraham totally straight.
PT: And it’s fine, I mean, you know, everyone can laugh at themselves, gay people can laugh at themselves…
KJ: Yeah, that’s fine, and they should. And I can’t tell you the feedback we got from the homosexual community about like how great the film has been, how everyone loves it, you know, how everyone took their mothers and their fathers and you’ll be surprised how many old people really lapped it up, they loved it. So I feel it’s out there, you know, like being gay is cool as well, so it’s fine. It’s part of your orientation and that’s who you are. So if you’re gay, or you’re straight, it’s no big deal.
PT: Yeah, and possibly like you said this was the only way to do it with mainstream Hindi cinema.
KJ: Yeah, otherwise we’d be sitting in a festival and talking to like an arty crowd.
PT: Preaching to the converted.
KJ: They’re all a pretentious crowd, like, you know, trying to talk to them about how…
PT: Who are anyway not the people with the hang ups.
KJ: Otherwise 80 per cent of the films made in India about homosexuality are always sad. They’re all sad. They’re about taboos in society, about, like, fathers slapping their sons, about police arresting them and I’m like, I want to make a happy gay film literally.
PT: You’re a brilliant interviewer, what is your process?
KJ: To hear, to not go back to your sheet, which is pretty much what you have done, which is great. To not sit with an agenda, to not have literally 20 questions— that you need to ask those 20, because sometimes the one answer leads to various others, so I think that’s what I do, I try and make it like a conversation. Because I’m a people’s person, that comes easily to me and because I know some of the celebrities really well it’s also easy. But it’s also tough because you know them so well that to kind of swing on this interviewer aspect in you and bring that part of your personality out is really difficult. But I don’t know, I’ve never had a problem. I don’t know, I don’t think of what the process is, I’ve never been trained in the field. I have no idea, but I know the one thing you have to do is make it like a conversation. Look into the eyes when they’re speaking and really understand where they’re coming from and take it to another question right after that. I’ve never gone through a list of questions. There’s a research team that gives me these questions all the time. Some people I don’t know I do a little bit of research. But eventually I am such an inquisitive, curious person myself that that also helps.
On this era of filmmaking
PT: You know, very few filmmakers who started in the nineties like you remain relevant today. What are the key changes that you have seen?
KJ: In the industry?
PT: In the industry.
KJ: Well we’ve been through a sea change, I mean everything has changed, the whole platforming has changed, everything, the way we market, project, make our movies, the way we schedule them, the way we budget them, I’ve been through the interim zone, where I came in ‘98 with my first film and I was an AD in ’95, what those days were and what today is, there’s no comparison, it’s. like, far more organized in that respect. Of course the people are equally messed up and the world is that much more idiotic, but at the end of the day the cinema process is much more modern, more exciting, more evolved. We’re still dealing with the same things emotionally, we still have fragile egos, we still have deep levels of insecurities we still have complexities that some of the actors, actresses, technicians bring to the table. Handling that is a big part of my job, that hasn’t changed, that never will. An actor will be always as insecure, complexed and messed up as he or she was in the seventies, eighties, nineties. That does not change. The process, the external aspects, all have.
PT: Give me a couple of words and phrases that come to your mind which define this era of filmmaking, fortunately or unfortunately…
KJ: Definitely, as I said, a schizophrenic audience, uninformed corporates, deluded actors, and confused filmmakers.
PT: Fantastic. Why was the golden era which is the late forties to sixty, which is what the historians call it, why was it the golden era according to you, other than nostalgia of course?
KJ: Pure passion. A dying phenomenon today, pure passion, filmmakers whether K. Asif, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy made films…
PT: Even Raj Kapoor…
KJ: …vintage Raj Kapoor, outstanding of course, how can I forget, made films for films and films alone, not for any other reason.
PT: And they were obsessed beyond…
KJ: It was like an artist putting—if you go back to the fifties—like an artist putting brush to palette. Didn’t know where he was going, was just passionate about the outcome, that’s the way all these filmmakers… they painted palettes with conviction, passion and love. All that is diminished and depleted today, all that is just like box office weekend, 100 crore turnover, actor fees, what comes after all that, it’s no longer about that light in the frame, that performer, the glint in the eye, that beat of sound in the music, that expression of love and intensity, that hold of the man and woman, it’s all out of the window, it’s not there anymore.
On being ‘The insider’
PT: How much of an insider are you, I mean people see you as an ultimate Bollywood insider, how much of an insider really are you, do you really know everything that’s going on news, gossip, figures? Does it get exhausting or… ?
KJ: Totally. I think I’m reaching a phase of completely, of emotional exhaustion and information exhaustion right now. I don’t want to know half the time. I used to be much more of an insider than I am today. I’m trying to kind of develop what spiritual people call detachment, which gurus are, I’m trying to do it myself.
PT: I would imagine knowing everything that’s going on in Bollywood would lead to detachment eventually.
KJ: Eventually it does, it leads to exhaustion and therefore detachment. And I think that’s the phase I’m in, I’m in the exhaustion mode right now.
On Brand Bollywood
PT: Has Bollywood becoming a brand—which has also coincided with your becoming a filmmaker—(has it) become a much bigger brand internationally than it used to be, has this come with its own baggage?
KJ: I think that baggage we’ve let go of. I think there was a kind of stereotyping attached to Bollywood earlier, oh, we were a song and dance filmmaking nation and we make love stories and it’s all kitsch and garish and red, blue, and green and yellow in every frame. I think that’s kind of gone now. And festivals, people in the world, have understood that our bar has been raised definitely, though sporadically and few and far between, but definitely we have stories to tell and we have a certain craft in, and the great thing about Indian cinema is that we’re really hugely self sufficient, which is something the foreign studios haven’t been able to get their hands around. They’ve taken over almost every country and they haven’t managed India at all. In fact I have conversations— I’m like you’re nobody here unfortunately. We always make films on our own terms, we’ve always made it, we have such a large domestic audience that we’ve never needed to reach out. I mean I have no interest in whether my film releases anywhere else in the world, but India. The diaspora for sure, I’d love every Asian Indian who understands the language to see my cinema, but I don’t want to work with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and Will Smith. I don’t want them in my movies. I don’t want to make an English language film. I have no interest in going down and sitting in an office in LA and waiting two years, so that an actor hears my script. I have no interest, I don’t want to walk, if they give me an Oscar in my life I would gladly accept it as gladly as I would accept a national award with the President and it would probably mean more to me. So, I mean, I like to wear my black tie and go because it’s a great event. I love it. I watch it every year. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to take five years of my life just to earn it, earn that international acclaim. It’s great, I see the award ceremonies. I feel so much dignity, grace, even if it’s fake and put up. I love it, and I wish we had the same. That’s the only thing I watch it for to see how terrible and idiotic we behave at our award ceremonies. But other than that I love the movies I make, I love the world I live in and I love the fact that Hindi cinema is a part of my life. Like I feel I’m blessed that I’m in this profession and I don’t feel the need to kind of… this brand Bollywood that is there, I hope we are enhancing it as we speak as a community of filmmakers. And we never need to reach out to any other country to support our creative urge at all, and I’m glad we haven’t as yet.
On Aditya Chopra
PT: You started your journey with, and because of, Aditya Chopra. That’s what you’ve said a number of times. How do you guys see your respective journeys now. He was also on his first film then when you assisted him…
KJ: It’s probably the most challenged friendship this industry’s had of two people who are kind of like, you know, self sufficient, are doing their own thing and yet best friends. We’re great with each other, I think I have learnt everything I know about cinema from him. He’s been my guide, he’s been my tutor, he’s also been the reason why I am a filmmaker, so I am internally and all my life I will be grateful to how he has contributed to me as a man, as a human being, as a filmmaker. And I am just amazed at what he created himself, and he always wanted to. He is really one person who has lived his dream in every which way. He wanted to create a studio, he was the first studio we know that came out of an organic production house in India and is really the only quintessential studio that operates like one, where there’s creative and balance and, you know, everyone else is grappling, trying to get their act together, and they have it, and Yash Raj is a humungous powerhouse in the movie industry. He’s also very proud of my achievement, that I’ve done it in my own way, alongside, and what’s great is we co-exist without any sense of envy and jealousy and there’s a lot of mutual love and there’s a lot of mutual affection and yet we keep our work completely separate from each other.
PT: Do you take feedback from each other often?
KJ: Very rarely, when I’m really stuck against the wall, and I really need that voice of validation that would really matter, then I’d go to him with something and he does the same. Suddenly, sporadically, he’ll, say, react to this title or react to this song or react to this screenplay. And I would do the same. But we try not to, kind of, keep our journeys… we don’t mix them up because I feel that’s where the confusion would start in a friendship that is this deep and close. He’s happy for me, I’m happy for him, but we don’t try and collide our work atmospheres at all.
On his favourite directors
PT: Favorite directors India, Hollywood, world?
KJ: Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan, Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, vintage Raj Kapoor, loved him, Raju Hirani, contemporary, Dibakar, Zoya, I love Zoya.
On making friends and keeping friends
PT: You said, I’m assuming mock seriously, that you’ve made a career out of the kind of friends you made. Now that sounds deceptively easy, because making friends might be well, but keeping friends in an industry this incestuous and insecure cannot have been easy, so how do you manage that and does it take its toll?
KJ: Of course it has. Maintaining friendships is always difficult, keeping in touch with this busy life of ours is not easy, but it takes two to tango and I think I’m going to stop tangoing now, ’cause I think I’ve given up on just maintaining these bonds and equations, so some of them have to just self maintain, if at all. Or then diminish if they need to be, ’cause I don’t feel the need and urge to kind of hang on to something that only I’m hanging on to. So lots of these friendships are great and, while they’re solid, I feel the need to kind of back off in general, so that I can lead my own life and not have any kind of baggage in my head emotionally about trying to, kind of, feel any concern for any other human being in this profession, but myself. ‘Cause that’s what normally comes with the zone of friendship in this job, that you’re always bothered about what will he think, what will she think. I don’t want that anymore. I don’t want the baggage of that. I just want to feel like I’m a great friend to have and if someone has to respect it they must and if someone has to need me I will always be there, but I’m tired of being the only one, because normally that happens when you’re the only child. You are the only investor in a relationship, you know, you’re the one keeping in touch, you’re the one making the calls, you’re the one landing up at the right time at the right place. As I said when I turned 40 a lot changed for me physically like I feel like I need glasses now. And also a lot changed emotionally. I just finally don’t feel the need to be there for everyone all the time. I feel now people better start feeling the need to be there for me, if required, and if not then I’m very happy on my own.
On making moulds and breaking moulds
PT: You know one of the big reasons you’re emblematic of our generation is because of the out of the box way in which you conceived your life, you know, you weren’t just a director and a producer, you wanted to make clothes, you went ahead and made clothes, you anchored shows, you made no bones about the fact that you want to look good and wear good clothes, what I’m trying to understand is that you’ve often spoken about the fact that you were an under confident kid, you were growing up in a fairly unimaginative terrain in south Bombay, where did you find the imagination and the confidence to go out and live that many lives?
KJ: I don’t know.
PT: You don’t know.
KJ: I don’t have an answer to that question.
PT: Do you have any role models?
KJ: No, I was born with an instinct that I would be famous.
PT: But, you know, Karan, you didn’t stop there, right, that’s the reason…
KJ: I was born with a desire to be in the limelight. I loved fashion as a child, clothes that didn’t fit me, of course, you know, were things that I looked at a lot, loved cinema, I watched a film every day, I never thought I would be a filmmaker though. I just love the world, the drama in the entertainment world and I wanted to so be a part of it. In school I showed signs of being good at elocutions, drama, duets, etc., but I never thought that that would be my calling eventually. I don’t know where it shifted and so it makes my strength and belief in destiny much stronger that some things just had to come to me and they did. And when they did, I feel that when things come to you, you just have to love what you do. I love what I do. And I was one of the first few filmmakers who went out there and said, you know, put your face out there, you know, why not, I love a live audience. I have no problem in facing the paparazzi. I have no problem in facing the flashbulbs on a red carpet, I love it. It’s what I live for, it’s what I do, I could speak to a crowd of a 1000 people and feel very satisfied at the end of it. I like applause. It’s all the things I like, so why run away from these things if you really like it, who are we trying to fool and who are we trying to lie to. So my decision to doKoffee with Karan, I still remember conversations with three or four filmmakers, who all told me don’t take away the mystique of a filmmaker. I said mystique for who, in this world where is the mystique and mystery for anything. You know, I love it, I want to do it. It was great and those very four people, out of them I think three of them were on television right after, so.
PT: Yeah, you started it all.
KJ: So why should you run away from the fact and why be embarrassed, if you like the limelight say it: that’s why we’re here, it’s show business. Who doesn’t like to kind of enjoy the attention, and there are people who genuinely… like Aditya Chopra, genuinely doesn’t like it, he hates it.
PT: Sure, fair enough.
KJ: And God bless him and that’s his theory on life and that’s how he’s lived it consistently and I respect that. But 85 or 90 per cent of the people are not, they’re in denial, they’re lying, they pretend like they don’t want to be in the news and they all have hired publicists. So it’s completely double standards to another level altogether. If you don’t like being in the papers why do you have a publicist? I have somebody who does my… we all need communication. I have a publicist, I have an infrastructure that does it, when I want to be in the papers I will, when I don’t want to be— that also is a strategy, because I have a release coming up and I don’t want to be in the papers. So it’s all thought over, and that’s the job, that’s our life, that’s what we do, that’s part of your job. When will people start understanding it comes with the territory.
PT: What is your relationship with fashion, other than the fact that you are associated with a label, personally what is it like, do you follow it?
KJ: It’s of a consumer.
PT: It’s of a consumer in the sense that you’re only concerned with what you need to buy or do you follow fashion as well?
KJ: I do, I read everything, fortunately because I travel so much my flight reading is all catching up on fashion. So the Vogue is always with me or the GQ is. Every bit of fashion, I shop so much and I’m staring at… I even go to the women’s section at times and just see what’s in and out. It helps me in the job I do. I know exactly how the new season of Stella McCartney is…
PT: Do you see it as haute?
KJ: I do and sometimes I know when Chanel is having a change of designer and I know these things and I know exactly…
PT: Oh, it’s great fun, yeah.
KJ: …like the fall collections are better this time, you know? I know the new upcoming designers in New York. I just know it all. And I know when I stare at somebody as to what they’re wearing. It’s embarrassing sometimes to point out a handbag to a lady and say, oh, so you’re wearing the (Alexander) McQueen clutch today. I have absolutely no problem knowing this information, it’s great, I feel very happy and satisfied, I love it.
PT: What about your fashion label? You’ve started designing. How involved are you?
KJ: Well, not really in the last year, but I’m going to get far more proactive next year. Varun and I had a large chat and said we really want to do this. I’ve had a really busy year and a half, I haven’t managed to pull off a lot that I planned, but next year we’ll be far more proactive, we’ll be starting by opening a store in Bombay.
PT: Okay, what is your design philosophy, and how involved are you, do you sketch or is it just conceptual?
KJ: No, I don’t sketch, but it’s always references like it’s always things I do, I click photographs on my phone about little details I like, I email them in to Varun, or like images that I like, even street fashion, I move around with the camera a lot of time that I travel, I love street fashion, it’s taught me everything I know. I love staring at what people wear. Sometimes very slyly I click photographs of things, of combinations of colors I like. Because I think street fashion teaches you a lot, for them it’s trial and error they don’t care, but for you it’s actually, oh, my God pink, green and black all look good together, you know if you kind of put it together interestingly. So that’s like a lot of observations I make. Be it people, relationships, their mannerisms or what they wear, that’s pretty much what drives me, I don’t watch a lot of movies any more, I don’t read a lot of books and I certainly don’t listen to music, so I’m the strangest creative person you’ll find, but I think observations have made me who I am.
On lessons he has learnt at 40
PT: Okay, 40, you’ve been asked this every single interview you’ve done since, five things you’ve learnt about life, top of the hat?
KJ: Five things I’ve learnt about life, is if you can— try and avoid your level of expectation from the human race, because disappointment is an eventuality. I’ve learnt that to really love what you do and enjoy that in the moment is very critical, you feel excited about something, to express it, show it, and to reduce your level of nerves really, because I feel that the nervousness that we feel on a daily basis about things eats into the excitement level that we really should feel for the work we’ve done. So I want to enjoy the process a lot more. I want to feel that level of happiness which I don’t do, and I haven’t done. I’ve learnt if you can have like a couple of friends you should nurture just those, and there’s no directory required in life. If you have those two or three, invest in those, it’s like putting money into a bank. In those two or three that you really feel will be with you for life and care for you no matter what. Sometimes you know the level of positivity and negativity even people close around you have, you know. Sometimes the most amount of negative energy can come to you from a close friend. And you know those people. So the ones, keeping those aside, the two or three people that you know will love you no matter what, invest in those, like make it like a life job, like a profession, that’s the one thing I definitely have learnt. Fourthly, I think I’ve become less religious and I’ve started believing in the power of the universe much more, and I believe that my prayers which used to go to idols, I’ve stopped doing, and I believe very strongly that my religion is my inherent sense of correctness and goodness. Or goodness is too of course, too generic a term. But if I say correctness, like, be correct, be right, be as true to humanity as you can be and that in itself is a religion. That’s what I’ve really learnt over the years. So going to monuments and idols and temples, performing rituals no longer motivate or move me anymore. And I believe they shouldn’t. I believe that we’re all a creation of a certain kind of energy and that energy comes from within and if you can exercise that and put it out there in terms of doing the correct thing, then you are closer to what we call god.
PT: Yeah, that’s the point when you separate superstition from spirituality…
KJ: Correct. Lastly I think I’ve learnt that I need to definitely work on my personal life a lot more than my professional existence. I’ve learnt that now is the time that I have to focus on definitely having a very strong personal life, which I’ve denied myself, because I absorbed myself in too much work, I think I need to take it a little easy if I need to kind of venture into me, much more than myself as a company, but me as a person.
PT: Yeah, are you less afraid to fail now?
KJ: Yeah, hurt comes as part of the territory of love and feeling, but there’s a certain magic to that as well. And I think hurt is very therapeutic. It’s like self pity, it does so much for your soul.
PT: Do you have any irrational fears?
PT: Name one.
KJ: I think death is the most irrational fear, I fear it.
PT: It’s a rational fear.
KJ: No, really, it’s an eventuality, how can it be rational. I fear it all the time.
PT: What do you fear when you fear death?
KJ: The end of a journey, I don’t want this to end. And if it ends and I want to know what’s still happening.
PT: Then you’re saying the loss of consciousness, the end of consciousness.
KJ: Yeah, consciousness, if someone can guarantee I’ll be around at my funeral, I’ll be really happy, I won’t mind dying. But I don’t think that will happen, so.
PT: Or it could, you don’t know.
KJ: Irrational fears are also, no, I don’t think I have any irrational fears. I fear failure, but that’s a rational fear. I fear… I don’t know actually, I can’t think of one…
PT: What keeps you sane, first thing that comes to your mind?
KJ: My mother— she’s such a downer that she keeps me sane. She doesn’t like anything I do, she’s always like, oh, God, someone else has made a better film than you or somebody else is writing a better theme than you or why are they honoring you? What have you done? I think she does that purposely and I think that has kept me on my toes. She really is my big ticket to sanity.
PT: Give me the image that comes to your head when I say glamour, one or two images.
KJ: Rekha, I don’t know, I just thought of her, I don’t know why.
PT: Wow. Wow.
KJ: I don’t know, I just thought of her suddenly. I got a flash of her with her lips.
PT: And her golden kanjeevaram.
KJ: Yeah, with everything, glamour, yeah. I think I grew up thinking that was glamorous, so maybe that’s why.
PT: She was, right…
KJ: Yeah, today I would think it is over the top, but then I grew up thinking that that was glamour.
PT: Okay. Would you like to retire?
KJ: No, never, never.
PT: Do you want another life?
PT: Completely separate from all of this?
KJ: No, I want another chance.
PT: You want another chance at this?
KJ: Yeah, a different past maybe.
PT: But you would never imagine a completely different life?
KJ: No, love this too much. No, I feel bad for people who don’t do what I do. I don’t want to be anything else, no.
PT: Not a maharaja of an estate?
KJ: No, this is definitely another life and I was definitely some kind of an aspirational human being in my last life for me to have got what I did in this life. No I can’t imagine doing anything else.
PT: So what would retirement look like?
KJ: My God, it’s the most depressing thought on the face of this earth, I never want to retire, I’d rather die. I mean, if that were the option I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to stop and watch other people do things that I’m not doing. It would kill me. I have no interest in going and watching movies and seeing other people kind of in the thick of things and I’m so not. I won’t be able to take that
(First published on The Big Indian Picture, October 26th, 2012)