I wish I could call myself Karan Saxena, not Karan Johar

The manicured Karan Johar talks of his work with hard-eyed honesty. Working with a new instinct, he is seeking to overturn his stereotype

October 6, 2007 in Culture, People
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karanGive us a sense of what made up your mindscape in the years that you were growing up.
I had a very sheltered childhood. I was the only child, so I was pretty spoilt. My father had a production house called Dharma Productions, which I’m continuing now; we also had an export firm called Yashwant Exports. It was a difficult time for us. My father was having a very bad phase with the movies. He’d make money on the export firm and lose it on the films. But I was sheltered from all the hassles my parents were going through. I knew about it because I overheard conversations. We used to live in a really tiny flat in Malabar Hill — it was like a 1,000 square feet. But I was absorbed with myself. I had obesity issues — initially because I was indulged — but then it took away my self-confidence completely. I felt I was completely useless. You know how it is in these buildings — everything revolves around sports, playing football and cricket. If you are fat, the boys have nothing to do with you. You hang out with the girls and walk around the building with them in the evening, discussing your problems with each other.

So being fat overwhelmed your world?
Yes, one morning when I was about 12, I decided I needed a new life, a new identity. I told my mother I wanted to go to boarding school. She’d always told me about the great time she’d had at St Mary’s, Sherwood’s sister school — that’s how she knows Amit Uncle (Bachchan) so well. I was also very close to Dimple’s (Kapadia) daughters — in fact, her eldest daughter Tina was perhaps my first crush. Tina was in a school called New Era in Panchgani, so I decided I’d go there. On the very first day, a boy came up to me and the very first thing he asked me was, are your parents dead? I said, no. Do they beat you? No. Then are they divorced? I said, no. So he said, then why are you here? I was horrified. The next couple of days I was ragged. I missed home terribly. I couldn’t believe that I would not see my mother and father’s face when I woke up. They had been my life till then, my world revolved around them. I told Tina all this, so she said, why don’t you run away? So crack of dawn I woke up, packed my little bag and took off. But before I could catch the bus, I slipped on a stone, rolled down the hill, and landed straight at the feet of the watchman. He picked me up and took me back. I was crying, muddy, hysterical, and they put me up in the assembly like that.

Third day in school, I am in this alien land, being put up in the assembly, thousands of students staring at me. I was weeping and bawling. My mother had an angina attack when I called and said I wanted to come back. She said, you are just weak, you are not willing to rough it out, not willing to fight, what kind of a boy are you? You’ll never make it in life if this is your attitude. And she said, you’ve really disappointed me. I still remember her words. They just sank in my head, just killed my insides. When I came home, I went back to my old school. It had a very happening club called the Interact Club. Earlier I used to always stand outside and watch what happened inside. I tried to make myself invisible. Because I was shy and so complexed about my weight, I never joined in. But when I came back from New Era, I felt I had to find myself, I had to be someone. I suddenly had this ambition to make my mother proud. So I went in — and there was no looking back. I was very good at debate and elocution and stuff like that. I won a big inter-school cup and overnight I became this superstar in school. I came into focus — social focus. I gained confidence, had lots of friends, stood for house captain and won. That incident of going to boarding changed my life.

Were films a big part of your life as a kid?
No, because we lived in Malabar Hill, I was totally cut off from the film fraternity. I used to go to Abhishek’s birthday party where you saw baby Hritik, baby Farhan, baby Tusshar, baby Fardeen, baby Saif, all the babies. But I never enjoyed it because I didn’t know anyone well, barring Abhishek and Shweta (Bachchan), and Adi and Uday (Chopra). Being a south Bombay boy, and fat and complexed, I became snooty — that was my defence mechanism. So it was sheer chance that I got into films. I’d done really well in college, I was headed for a course in France. Ironically, just a year before college ended, I was standing at Churchgate Station when I bumped into Adi. The first thing he asked me was, have you seen Saudagar? I had, but I lied. I always did that, I never owned up to my passion for Hindi cinema. I didn’t think it was cool enough. I was trained by my parents to believe cinema wasn’t for me, until that chance meeting with Adi. We went to watch the film together, and afterwards we talked animatedly over it for hours. I loved it. Adi and I became really close. We’d meet everyday and talk cinema. One day, Adi said to me, why are you going to France? Why are you running away from the reality that you are a filmmaker? You are a walking, talking film, you even have an interval in you. You are overdramatic, melodramatic, funny, you’re not only a filmmaker but a writer as well, you just don’t know it. Then he asked me to work with him on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaiyenge. For two weeks he drove everyday from Juhu to Malabar Hill to talk about the film with me. Two days before I was to leave for France, he asked me to stay and assist him on the film. We had already paid a hefty fee, it would strain our economic circumstances, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I told my father, and he said, wonderful, if that’s what you want, give it a shot. So I stayed.

What explains your obsession with perfect colours, perfect figures, this sort of saturated opulence in your films? Is it revenge for being fat?
I think it comes from my need for beauty and good looks, which all through my childhood I didn’t have. The good-looking clothes I coul – dn’t fit into, everything I always wanted to be and couldn’t be — it’s all of that. Also, I suppose my need for opulence comes from the fact that I grew up in a 1,000 square feet house. So it’s all a very aspirational lifestyle that I’m portraying. But I’ve also always loved glamour. I love Yash Chopra’s movies — Silsila, Kabhi Kabhi. I saw his cinema first, then went back to Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor. People ask me why there’s no poverty in my films — but I’ve lived a very, very sheltered life. The only trauma I had to deal with was being fat, so my films were about the things I knew about. My first film had to be about heartbreak and first love. I was such a good friend to so many, that’s what I’d always hear about. Then I made Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam — that was just about me being given this big toy called cinema and I wanted to show off with it. I couldn’t believe I had actually become a filmmaker. All through your life you never think you’ll do something and then it happens — your first film is applauded by the world — and then you just want to show off. K3G is all about me trying to show off, nothing else. It’s me saying, look, I’ve put up this big set; look, I’ve put up this star cast; look, they’re wearing beautiful clothes, look, look, look. Today I’ve become a school of cinema, and whether you like it or hate it, you club it like a Karan Johar film.

But if you’re so self aware, why would you not move away into doing something more?
I believe Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna was my attempt to break my own mould. But what I did wrong was blend in some of my old need for opulence and scale and a star cast. I should have stuck to my initial thought, my first instinct, which was to make it an intimate drama of two couples. Where I went wrong was that I made it 30 minutes too long, made it over opulent. There were such big stars, I felt I had to justify their presence in the film. But I should have just stuck to my new thought process.

What was that new thought process?
To make an intimate film about four people — just shoot it, make it very stark, more about the minds. I was there 60 percent but I still borrowed 40 percent from my previous school of cinema. But I’ve realised my mistake. Whatever I’m writing right now, I’m coming at with a totally new head. I’ve always understood my failings. I always say I’m an incomplete filmmaker; I cannot make all kinds of films. I don’t know better. In fact, I’ve made mistakes in all my films — Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a raw, innocent work, I ignore that because it’s my first work. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam is calculated. Yes, there are emotions from my soul in it, but there are also large calculations, and some emotional manipulation. The last twenty minutes of Kal Ho Na Ho is not something I’m proud of, but I did it to play to the gallery. My initial thought was to end it more subtly with Shah Rukh just walking away. There was no death, I didn’t want to juice the emotion which is what I ended up doing. So I’ve never made a film that I can proudly say is my film, that I can proudly tell people, did you see Lagaan, I made it. Or, did you see Rang De Basanti, I made it. I haven’t made that film yet, but I will.

So what’s changed? What has allowed you to move away from your old parameters?
I grew older, that’s all. Nothing’s changed. You must understand that a lot of filmmakers who’ve made great films have been through a cycle of work and life before they’ve made a film. I wrote my first film when I was 24. A sheltered 24, over indulged 24, spoilt 24. But I appreciate all kinds of cinema. I’m not brilliant, I’m just hardworking and sensible, sensitive and aesthetic, I’m not brilliant. But I hope to be one day. So I get really amused when I read people like Anurag Kashyap who writes blogs on Yash Chopra and my kind of films. I’m like, I appreciate Black Friday, I think you’re talented but I don’t like your attitude. All kinds of cinema can co-exist, so why attack a bigger banner just because they’ve made successful films. Writing blogs on a legend like Yash Chopra? You have some guts and gumption to do that. And you want to get away with it? This upstartish attitude really angers me.

This ease with which you speak of your work and its loopholes — is that also new?
No, I’m always in touch with reality. I’m not stupid. I don’t like living in a bubble. Delusion is the biggest disease in our industry and I hope never to catch it. I know I’m not the best, but I’d like to be. I’m very ambitious, but there are things I won’t do to reach where I want. I travel, I go on world platforms to speak, I meet people who praise and criticise me, and I love to hear both. I go on the Net sometimes and type “blogs on Karan Johar” — I want to read what people are writing about me, I read every single e-mail, every line of every review. I knowthat when K3G was released, I didn’t deserve any award, because it was the year of Lagaan. When Rang De and Munna came, I told myself, look, I’m not getting anything and I don’t deserve it because these are great pathbreaking films. I had stuck to formula so I must bear the brunt of it at an award ceremony. And do awards matter to me? Of course they do! I love them, I love making acceptance speeches, I love walking up wearing my black suit and hugging my mother before I get the award — that whole moment is what I live for. Do I want the Oscar? Of course I do. I read The Secret the other day, and it said, visualise, so I sit here and visualise myself in my Armani suit, walking with my mother on the red carpet in LA, entering the Kodak theatre, sitting in the twentieth row, hearing my nomination, getting the award, going up and ending my speech with, this is for you India. I have it all planned. But I will never make a two-hour film without songs, which might bore sections of my country, just to achieve that.

Unlike many directors, you are something of a star yourself. Your television shows have given you a very public persona. Does this hinder you? Make you afraid to fail?
Hopefully not. See, my gut and my spine is commercial, so no matter what, even while experimenting, I’ll always be mainstream.

What is this new project you’re working on?
It’s too early to talk about it, but it’s tentatively titled My Name is Khan. It’s basically a story of a couple and their journey. I wish I could say — “Directed by Karan Saxena”. Sometimes my name hinders a film, because audiences come thinking there’ll be a lovely shaadi song. That worries me. I’ll have to strategise the promotion very cleverly — make it very clear that this is me — Karan. (laughs) Not Johar, Karan Trivedi maybe, or Saxena or Karan Thapar — anything, but certainly not Karan Johar.

Why do you always cast Shah Rukh? In an interview with us, Shah Rukh had spoken of how his presence in a film can be like a runaway horse. He makes a film balloon out. So are you open to working with other actors?
Totally. I’m totally open to doing that, but I just couldn’t see this film without him. I’m sure there’ll be a time when I’ll work without him, but I don’t think any experience will match what I’ve been through with him. He’s almost like a habit you don’t want to break. When he’s on your set, with you, he makes things happen. When he is not on the set with me, I feel I do lesser work.

What is it he brings to your sets?
He makes what you visualise happen. Not just with his own participation, but with co-stars, the setting, the tone — everything. He cares about the larger picture in a way that I’ve seen no other actor do. He’s addictive; he’s addictive. I mean, I know when I don’t work with him, there will not be a single day of my existence on that film that I won’t think back. I don’t want to go through that feeling — I’m scared to go through that feeling of regret that I don’t have Shah Rukh with me on set. As an actor, I really think he’s a superhero. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. Yes, he has some scheduling issues, coordinating with him can be difficult, but I have access to the best secretary possible — his wife, she’s my best friend — so I can meet Shah Rukh at 12 or 1 at night. He also has a great tendency of making you feel you’re special. But there’s no follow up. Gauri and I always tell him about this. Everyone ends up believing they’re really close to him, but that may not be the case. What comes after that is hurt, and he reacts by getting hurt by their hurt. So it’s kind of a strange emotional space. But I understand him totally. He has the best wife, the best kids, but in his heart, he’s a loner. He can be hypersensitive. You could say absolutely nothing, and he could get upset. I don’t even say “shut up” to him — I treat him like I’d treat my father. It’s a real myth — we are not friends, he’s like a father figure to me, or an elder brother. When he walks into the room, I stand up. He connected more with my father than me actually; I just came with the package. He always says he’ll love my father more than he can ever love me and I kind of like that.

It’s interesting Karan, your films set so much store on role playing, family, fitting in. Yet you sound highly individualistic. There’s been so much speculation about you being gay — that in itself must make you appreciate the value of individual space. Why doesn’t this come up in your films?
Because my work is not only about my thoughts, it’s borrowed from the world around me. I know I made Kabhi Alvida because I am intrigued by infidelity. I personally believe it is very tough to be faithful, or completely loyal —man or woman. I’m amazed when women friends tell me they’ll leave if their partner cheats on them. I always tell them, you never know, you may be able to tide it over. Sexual infidelity can be forgiven. I have a theory on all these things, but I get scared to open my mouth because you never know how it will be interpreted. I believe you can be sexually attracted to someone else even if you’re in a strong marriage. In fact, sometimes it makes your marriages stronger. You probably give your marriage more after you deviate sexually, there’s a kind of guilt that makes you perform better. These are stark realities that you can speak of to some, and you can’t to others. Having said that, I also believe that roleplaying is a very important part of our lives. I do it all the time. Family is very important for me. I believe in it as an institution. Yet I’m very individualistic. If you speak to my mother, she’ll tell you that when I need to be on my own, I just go off. I walk the streets of New York or London — anywhere out of the country — and that’s when I feel I’m me. About my sexuality — I don’t feel the need to clarify that because it is no one’s business. There have been a lot of speculations and rumours. At first it used to irritate and annoy me, but now I’m amused. From being annoyed to being indifferent to being amused — it’s been a journey.

You say you love Ekta Kapoor’s work. It’s a really conservative view of the world. 
I love her passion, I don’t watch her work. My mother watches it. What I love is that when she was 18 she said I’m going to make a multimillion dollar company and she did. I love her drive, I love her. Who’s to comment on her creativity? The world loves it. After my father’s death, my mother has a life thanks to Ekta’s serials. I’m grateful for that. On various levels we are both criticised for similar reasons — I’m accused of mushy melodramas, and bubble gum romances. Her’s is a little more extreme. Was your father a big influence? Huge. It’s three years since he’s been away — and I know other people have lost their loved ones, but it’s been a shock to my system. I have this out-of-body experience sometimes, I feel he’s in that room opposite me. I still have him on my mobile — because when I’m scrolling through numbers, I can’t not scroll through his. Sometimes I find myself just staring at that name. I think I’ll enter a new phase in my life when I get over this feeling, some kind of new emotional space in my head, but I still haven’t come to terms with his death yet.

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