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June 13, 2017

What Makes Karan Johar A Bollywood Favourite?

Text by Meena Iyer. Photograph by Dabboo Ratnani

Perfectly playing the role of godfather in the lives of many, he pouts often, preens unselfconsciously and pontificates with a wisdom far beyond his years

In the pantheon of Bollywood’s influential producers and directors, Karan Johar lords over as the presiding deity. He is in that enviable position where he can afford to throw his weight around as he pleases, knowing well that he’s worked hard to have earned that privilege. So, when he’s accused of nepotism or of being the Bollywood mafia, Karan finds it tough to rein in the irresistible urge to give it back as good as he gets it. After all, he hasn’t had it easy nor was he offered it all on a shining platter.

As a talk-show host, KJo — as he is fondly called — has the rare ability to be delightfully sporting even when the joke is directed towards him, but, equally, he’s unlikely to forget or forgive when rubbed a way he doesn’t quite dig. He can be all love and laughter at once, but invade his personal space or intrude into areas which he considers no-trespass zones, and you can be rest assured that neither will he take kindly to it nor will he leave it be. If he makes stars out of newcomers and nobodies, and gets their unflinching loyalty and love in return, he can also give many sleepless nights by offering no more than a shrug of his cold shoulder or by giving them the insouciant once-over. In an industry where friendships are mostly fickle and fake, and a film’s fate at the box office often decides one’s popularity and pull, Karan has transcended this norm to create his space that is not buffeted by the turns and tides of a film’s fortune or failure. He may have begun as the protected, pampered overweight boy who was bullied in school and had to deal with sexual tendencies he couldn’t quite understand or put a name to, but today he is comfortable — in his own skin and with his sexuality.

Eloquent and articulate, Karan is mostly in an expansive mood. On a normal day, Dharma Productions’ humungous office in Andheri would be enough to house an army. However, one afternoon last October, members of his staff found that there weren’t enough corners to hide. Reason: the boss was in a black mood. And, no one wanted to take the chance of crossing his path just then.

What had caused the fur to fly? Well, one heard that some self-styled trade pundit has made a statement on how he was paid by Karan to run a smear-campaign against actor-film-maker Ajay Devgn, whose film Shivaay’s release was clashing with Karan’s own Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) at Diwali last year. Quite obviously, Karan is none too pleased about his name being dragged through the mud. It’s not in his nature to fire in that manner though he is fiercely competitive and would want nothing more than for his film to upstage the competition.

Sitting in the reception area, I was counting my toes, wondering if my interview would happen. And following a slight delay, I was summoned. “Professional hazards, these are,” was all he was willing to offer by way of an explanation, as I seated myself in a plush chair across his huge ornate desk. I could clearly tell Karan hated being put through this sticky situation, but he was quick to recover. Within seconds, the one-eyebrow-raised-look gave way to a smile. Ensuring that his more flattering, left profile was on display, Karan animatedly spoke about the chemistry between Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor in ADHM. The palpable tension that had filled the room just a few minutes ago was further defused by the arrival of macarons and tea. And, before I knew it, I had a notebook’s worth of quotable quotes, the type Karan effortlessly doles out.

Perhaps it is because of this quick wit that KJo is at number one in Mumbai’s social index. In my opinion, his Dharma Productions is second only to that of the iconic Yash Chopra’s YRF Studios. And his rise to the top, in just 18 years, is partly because he is a people’s person. What he lacked by way of experience, he has built on with his astuteness, self-deprecatory remarks and sassy charm.

“Thank you for calling me aloo (potato),” he once said to me right in the middle of a film party. He was referring to an article in a daily which I edited, where he was equated to the vegetable that goes well with everything. “My mother was most amused,” he added. “I spent the better part of my adolescence trying to get rid of my likeness to that very vegetable. It is ironic that you go and call me just that,” he joked. That’s Karan for you, always ready to make light of things, even if he is actually a tad irritated.

Juggling eight to ten meetings in a day, dealing with film production, television anchoring, fashion designing and what have you, his days are exhaustive. What’s more, when he’s finished a 12-hour workday, he still has the energy in him to either host a party or attend one, and very few do the former better than him. Like the time he hosted French luxury shoesmith Christian Louboutin. Actor Randhir Kapoor jokes, “I don’t think my daughters ever cook dinner at home. Karisma (Kapoor) and Kareena (Kapoor Khan) are dining at Karan’s every evening.”

His 5 a.m. lifestyle doesn’t dilute his work ethic. Mumbai’s self-confessed ‘unsuitable boy’, world-renowned for his NRI family dramas, has silenced critics and claimed his position as the master of the game. Not just that, he has also changed the dynamics of Indian cinema and created space for experimental film-making by launching 13 debutant directors under his banner.

Chasing content over all else, Karan has now become a force to reckon with. Everyone knows that when a leading Hollywood studio came knocking seven years ago looking to forge a partnership on home ground, his was the first door they rapped on. But the Malabar Hill boy who made Bandra home isn’t looking to just pile up stock. Films are his lifeline and his quest goes far beyond box-office numbers.

Talking of cinema, family dramas do form the core of Dharma Productions, but the company is also telling a number of different stories, quite successfully, I might add. “We are focusing more on content,” he says.  His only aim in life is to make movies till the very end, and he maintains that “with all its sell-outs, I still breathe and eat Hindi cinemas.” And it is so because he loves indulging the people that he spends so much time with.

If he’s not making movies, he’s hosting or judging television shows. Koffee with Karan (KWK), Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa or India’s Got Talent, the churn is continuous. “What I really love about all this whirlwind activity is that I get to interact with people from various walks of life,” he quips. Of late, though, his sometimes condescending or patronising attitude (depending on his mood) has been putting people off. He recently had a face-off with Kangana Ranaut, who while a guest on KWK, accused him of nepotism. While Karan laughed off her accusations while on his sofa, he couldn’t help but take a dig at her later, saying that the curly-haired actor was becoming an expert at playing the victim card. When Kangana retaliated, Karan recoiled, hurt. And like Ajay Devgn and Kajol, Kangana too has been struck off from his social list forever.

Ideally, Karan would like a Utopian world, where everyone loves him. But he’s realised that his foot-in-the-mouth habit and blunt-speak has occasionally backfired. So he’s backed down somewhat and gone into his creative nook where all that matters is his passion for cinema. All, did we say? No, not really, because apart from his obsession with his creative muse, he is totally devoted to his mother-and-anchor Hiroo, and his latest loves — twins Roohi and Yash.

An actor who recently visited the twins shares, “Karan seems to be revelling in his new-dad avatar. God, how unbelievably domesticated is he!” She adds, “I hung around his home for close to an hour and for the most part Karan was cradling Roohi in his arms with the utmost ease. He is also excited about their nursery (designed by Gauri Khan), clothes, shoes and gifts. The twins are the best thing to have happened to him; my gut instinct is that he will make a fantastic parent.”

His plan for himself over the next five years — until he hits a half-century — includes directing as many films as he can. Liberated in his head, because the fear of failure no longer intimidates him, he’s ready to experiment. He adds, “I may fumble and fall but I know I will rise again.” He’s shown that to us before: the ability to bounce back stronger than ever in the face of adversity. His blue phases may be frequent, but rarely are they long. Karan is nothing if not resilient and is made for the long haul.

He doesn’t quite like the ‘uncle’ title that has been bestowed upon him by some of the star kids. “I feel old when I’m addressed as uncle. However, as far as my production house goes, we ensure we’re hiring young crews because that kind of enforces a certain vigour in me. And that is not going to change ever.”

Not one to get complacent about his achievements, though he is hardly someone you’d ever call modest or self-effacing, he has a life mantra that has stayed with him all along. “I do not allow success and happiness to fester. I feel like if I allow them to, they will become vegetative in that zone. I like to remain on the move constantly. Success should only give you relief, nothing else, especially in an industry such as ours, where things are so erratic. Surely, nothing can be taken for granted,” he philosophises with all the maturity of his two score and five years.

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