‘My Name is Khan Opened My Mind To The World’

Three years ago, hit director, Karan Johar said he hadn’t yet made a film he was proud of. Here, he talks of the unexpected changes the making of My Name is Khan has had on his sense of self and cinema.

March 6, 2010 in Culture
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New direction Filmmaker Karan Johar flanked by a poster of Shah Rukh Khan

There’s been a big shift of concern in the kind of films you are making — whether it is Kurbaan, Wake Up Sid or My Name Is Khan. Is this a conscious transition?
Karan Johar: A few filmmakers — only Adi [Aditya Chopra] and me actually — have been part of a transition in cinema. When Ashutosh [Gowarikar] made Lagaan, he hadn’t catered to the audience before, he had only made a couple of films. He immediately brought in a new sensibility. Farhan’s first film also brought in this new cool. While we had catered to a certain kind of cinegoer’s demands in the 1990s and then saw the evolution of the audience. I feel the need to adapt with the times. I had done a lot of films that were internal experiences, and as a filmmaker to challenge myself I felt the need to do something that yanks me out of my comfort zone. And as a producer I go by the diktats of the young minds I put my faith in — whether it’s Tarun Mansukhani who wanted to make Dostana, a rom-com with a mild edge or an Ayan Mukherjee who wanted to direct a coming-of-age film Wake Up Sid or Rensil D’Silva who chose to make a film on global terrorism. This year we have a quintessential date flick coming up called I Hate Love Stories and the official adaptation ofStepmom. These are not necessarily pathbreaking films but extremely warm mainstream endeavours. For myself this phase is going to stay because I’m in a different headspace from when I made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (KKKG).

So these new concerns are not just about adapting to your environment, but also something personal?
Of course it is. Cinema is a reflection of your own state of mind. So I felt different when I directed KKHH and I feel totally different today — whatever you feel will reflect on celluloid and I don’t feel like I want to do something I’ve done before. I felt boredom had crept into my work.

The last time you and I spoke, you said you wished you could adopt a different name because of people’s expectations of your cinema.
I’m glad I may have kind of broken the shackles of my own perceived image. In media branding when they referred to a KJo film it was associated with terms like gloss, popcorn, glamour, mush, bubblegum, which were almost hurled at me like weapons — I felt like I was slotted too soon which was complimentary in a way but also annoying. You can’t slot me with two to three films, wait for two decades. With Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna I felt there was a shift in the perception, but now with My Name Is Khan (MNIK) I feel there is no way that I can be slotted in a category.

What triggered MNIK for you?
What annoyed me was when intelligent, educated, affluent people talked nonsense. That really riled me. A conversation I had with people I met in New York over dinner upset me. It was not said but there was an undertone of complete racial assault which put me off. I have a problem with generalisation and putting people into boxes. At a political and human level. Even if they’re just saying ‘fat people are sweet’ or ‘short people can’t be trusted’ I have a problem when people make statements like this. You cannot generalise one community or religion, it goes against the grain of humanity. A certain amount of general goodness has been forgotten with the cynicism of our times. I feel very strongly the need to address it as a filmmaker. Addressing the issue of the identity of the Muslim in the modern world was one way to address the human community at large.

That conversation triggered off the thought process. Then I went back and researched with various organisations that protect minority rights in America. My story was different then. Then we realised the simplicity of the plot would seem artificial if we went down the typical route. We had to go through a man not of our times, whose mind was not cluttered with what our minds are usually full of. We may have romanticised the character. He has Asperger’s Syndrome which is high functioning autism and he sees life very differently, sees things literally. So he comes from a place of innocence and vulnerability.

It gives a place for the social constructs to fall away
Zarina Wahab’s character — Rizwan Khan’s mother — her philosophy could be extremely simplistic to some and deeply profound to others.

When you were doing this research, did it politicise you, change you?
I felt the need to engage myself with what was happening globally. It opened my headspace up to so much. When you do this kind of research the information that you get isn’t just facts, you feel it, you’re associating it with your own film – so it made me passionate towards what was happening in the world.

What were the really startling moments of discovery in your research?
Heartbreaking — me and Ayan, the director of Wake Up Sid, went together because I needed help compiling the research. The people we met at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), — it was the little moments and stories, not of riots and rage, that made us well up. When women spoke about the looks they got at supermarkets, at stations, the look-and-look-away, that hurt more than the larger incidents. How do you react to a silent stare? Or a snub at the ticket window? What do you do there? You come home feeling violated. The tiny moments that moved people’s lives, that made members of the Sikh community let go of their identity, what made women stop wearing the hijab — it’s all there in the film. When women are raised a certain way and have been taught certain values, have to forsake their identity to fit in with the world at large — I don’t think any of us can ever feel it unless we have experienced it. There is a silent perception even in our country, and a louder perception drawn out of it. It needs to be addressed in some way. One film can’t change the world. Even if a handful of people feel differently, you have achieved what you set out to do.

Kurbaan and MNIK are both set outside India. Is it more difficult to do things in the country?
I’d like to address so much but do we have a filmmaker’s creative democracy? The ability to put something out which might shake your perceptions? Can you put your product out there and be assured of complete safety? It is tough. You think a million times before trying to make a statement. We are questioned as mainstream filmmakers, that we don’t do socially and morally relevant things — but do we have carte blanche? With anything mainstream there is more fear of backlash.

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‘I’VE NEVER MADE A FILM I’M PROUD OF’

KKKG 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; they’re wearing beautiful clothes, look, look, look. Today I’ve become a school of cinema, whether you like it or hate it.

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.

My gut and my spine is commercial, so no matter what, even while experimenting, I’ll always be mainstream. 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 my country, just to achieve that.

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.

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) Karan Trivedi maybe, or Saxena or Karan Thapar — anything, but not Karan Johar.

excerpts
PREVIOUS CONVERSATION

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The ghost of ‘hurting sentiments’ has turned creativity on its head.
Some of us can still put across a point of view without hurting anyone. I’m against putting something out there which is solutionless and only serves to make you feel worse. I don’t think that is cinema. It has to be elevating, triumphant, show a window of hope. I am against films, documentaries that show you tragedies and travesties without a way out. Even if I romanticise it MNIK makes you hopeful about humanity.

Over the Mumbai/Bombay issue with Wake Up Sid, you apologised to the MNS. But this time you’re holding your ground.
I’m a filmmaker and a pretty sheltered one at that. I’ve never dealt with anyone but the people of my industry. All I knew was my world and it was pretty secure. When the incident happened the last time, I handled it as best as I could. But you live and learn. Today as a result of what we’ve been through I have a better understanding of myself.

‘What made Sikhs let go of their identity? what made women stop wearing the Hijab? None of us can ever feel it unless we experience it’

If you were to crystallise the heart of MNIK, what would it be to you?
Shah Rukh used to tease me saying, ‘You’ll never make a superhero film’. This is my superhero film. Rizwan’s one power is humanity. He can’t fly, has no telepathy, but humanity is a power that one never attributes to superheroes. Rizwan Khan is an aspirational man and it’s ironic that he is non-neurotypical. What does that say of you and me?

How different was the experience of working with SRK in this film?
I saw a totally different SRK in this film. I saw him quieter and calmer, always in character. Even when I saw him on sets I would feel like I was seeing Rizwan in a corner. He had absorbed so much of the character that he was doing strange things even off camera, he was walking like that, staring at things vacantly, also I think with age he’s reached a point of calm that has helped his portrayal. SRK is the most emotionally evolved man I know. His understanding of people, his intuition is spiritual and fantastic. You can’t disassociate Rizwan and SRK — part of you has to feel it strongly to portray a character like that.

Do you feel this is essentially him or a new phase in his journey?
He’s entered a new zone in his life as an actor and an individual. Being a parent has changed his whole personality.

He did say that he owed it to his children to take a stance with the Sena.
The father mode has put him into another realm all together. You are a man of your conviction and integrity only when you put it out there.

‘This is my superhero film. Rizwan can’t fly. He has no telepathy. His one power is his humanity’

Do you feel upset that Kurbaan was not that well received by audiences?
I was very disappointed. But you can’t just annul their perspective. There was obviously something we did wrong. There’s obviously some reason that MNIK is doing so well in its second week even though it is not exactly a mainstream film. As a producer I feel I, not its director Rensil, failed Kurbaan – I projected it very wrongly in its marketing, there was a sexual energy we tried to project which worked against it. The debate within the film about the radicals versus the moderates might not have come across too strongly, the message was lost in subtle portrayal. I stand by Kurbaan as one of my finest productions.

Did you want to portray religion more boldly in MNIK? Say, about the closed circuit aspects of Islam?
Shivani and I who wrote the film, didn’t have to struggle with the portrayals but we were definitely very careful. We live in an extremely sensitive society. We are very emotional, the first to take offence, so you have to be careful. I must admit there was holding back. But because we were coating it with a layer of goodness and humanity we did get away with a lot.

Do you feel there is a new mood in the film fraternity? Is space being elbowed to make socially relevant films?
That happened some time ago with Rang De Basanti. Raju Hirani has a great balance of social causes and entertainment in his films. He wants to entertain with something that is relevant — I find it aspirational.

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