Moviemavengal just tweeted me an awesome article (really, you should all follow her on twitter), an interview with Karan Johar where he goes in depth about his creative process, his career ambitions, and so on and so on.
This is one of those READ IT kind of posts. Don’t just read my discussion and excerpts, READ THE WHOLE INTERVIEW. Really, do. I had a very very hard time limiting myself to a reasonable number of excerpts, and I left a lot of good stuff out.
Okay, back now? The whole thing was fascinating, but I especially liked how it covered Karan’s work on 3 different levels. There was his personal connection to the plot of his most recent film, there was a discussion of his overall body of work and his changing priorities, and there was a discussion of his position within the larger film world, both of India and globally.
Starting with his personal connection to the idea of unrequited love, he’s got some interesting quotes. For instance, about how the quotes and references to older films throughout ADHM are deeply meaningful to him, and to the characters.
These were characters who, like me, have grown up on Hindi cinema…I grew up in Malabar Hill. Nobody watched Hindi movies there….My connection to Hindi cinema, my passion for it, is more from the fact that my mother used to listen to old Hindi film songs – Rafi, Kishore, Lata, Asha, Farida Khanum, Noorjehan. And Elvis Presley….So when the VHS phase came out, when I was about nine or ten, which would be about ‘82 or ‘83, I wanted to see the movies that those songs were in. I took all in – Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt and Yash Chopra and the cinema of the time, films like Himmatwala and Tohfa and Justice Chowdhury and Maqsad….My maid at that time, Vimal, was equally cracked, like me. After school, I didn’t want to play football or cricket. We’d go to the movies. And sometimes we’d see the film five times….Yes, they were not considered great cinema. But for me, it was my life – Hai hai garmi hai, which is in Ae Dil…, or Ice cream khaogi from Justice Choudhury, or the flying sari song in Mawali, or the naag dance in the temple performed by Sridevi and Jayaprada in Maqsad, with sweaty armpits. That was my thing. It was considered my quirk. I never talked about it in my neighbourhood and I never spoke about it to kids at school because I didn’t think anyone would understand. I knew I would be judged, and I didn’t want to be judged. So with them I was like, “Yeah, I listen to Madonna and George Michael and read Archie comics.” But secretly, I used to be dancing to these songs.
So it’s not formula. It’s my love for Hindi cinema. It’s my love for cinema.
(Oh my gosh, the armpits are sweaty!)
And his discussion of the importance to him of the unrequited love track.
The first time I fell in love, I was in my 20s, and I loved someone right till I was 31. And then I felt that emotion died within me. I wasn’t feeling alive at all. But the second time I fell in love – this was another 7-8 year phase –I realised that while it is heartbreaking and the worst feeling in the world, it made me feel alive. I felt something had woken me up. You can take the power of that feeling and translate it to every other aspect of your life, including your work. You don’t have to get it back. The moment I felt it come to a close – I knew I wouldn’t even be able to handle the friendship at the time; it was that difficult – it got a little messy in my head, which is why I needed to talk to a stranger, like a therapist. That was the zone I was in when I wrote this film. I felt that I needed to hold on to that feeling about the positivity of love.
Huh! I always assume Karan is talking about Shahrukh, but I don’t know if he really is. Because I don’t feel like “I felt that emotion died within me” really matches with how casual and happy they still seem when they interact together. But even if, maybe, Shahrukh is the first person mentioned, he certainly isn’t the second person mentioned. I could see, possibly, Karan falling for Shahrukh, and just being lonely and heartbroken for 7-8 years, and then getting past it and being happy to just be friends. But I can’t see Karan and Shahrukh being at the point where he couldn’t even be friends with him any more.
Oh, and the follow up questions:
Have you ever been in a relationship that was a two-way thing?
But both times the other person knew about your feelings towards them.
Yeah, yeah. There was total honesty.
Huh! Well, this makes me feel both sad and happy for Karan. That he has never had a mutual relationship. But that he was able to be healthy and honest both times he got caught in a one-way thing.
The discussion of his overall body of work and development and how that fits with this film, now that was fascinating!
I don’t how to write Kuch Kuch Hota Hai anymore. I don’t know how to cater to that person I was, and even then, I wasn’t being myself in many parts of the movie. Kuch Kuch… has so many contradictions. It had a certain honesty that rang through, but actually it doesn’t add up. I was 25 when I made that film and it was really everything that I thought Hindi cinema was. I was being a producer’s son who wanted to give my father and the company a big blockbuster. So there were “designed” moments. There was religion. There was a Muslim character. These were things you were told to work in so that the film would reach a large audience. It was a Diwali film, so I put something Diwali-esque, like that Raghupati Raghav song.
So how would you have “designed” Ae Dil… had you been that older Karan Johar?
I could have pushed the cancer angle. I could have been as emotionally manipulative as I was in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. That film was just me showing off. I wanted the helicopter shot. I wanted the big mansion. Kuch Kuch… gave me money and now I wanted every movie star in the business in my poster. It’s the only poster I have in my office. I love that portrait. I remember people exiting the previews of that film and they had mascara running all over. Those days it was considered an achievement to make an audience cry. I chose to make Ae Dil… lighter. That was me being updated. That was me being 2.0. I didn’t want you to walk out with tears. The emotion I was chasing was “bittersweet.” Maybe I could have done without the cancer angle altogether. But I didn’t see a different ending. Does this impact the box office? Yes. Can I do something about it? If something comes naturally to me and I can cater to a vast audience with me still being honest to my thoughts, then maybe. I hope that can happen, but right now, I don’t know. Even Kabhi Alvida… is a flawed film. It had many stars. It had three item songs. None of this was required. The intensity and integrity of that film was completely compromised by my holding on to the identity of a commercial filmmaker. With Ae Dil… I think I have let go.
This is something he has referenced before, and which you can see just from how his production studio has developed. The “Karan Johar Film” that everyone derides, that was him just trying to get his start, figure out his voice. The real “Karan Johar films”, that’s everything Dharma productions has done in the past 15 years. Modern, clever, casual, funny, and dealing with relationships as they really are, with all the mess and complications.
More specifically, thank you Karan for acknowledging the problem with KANK!!! When I watch it, there are certain scenes, for instance the proposal at the end, which are just so lovely and “real” feeling. And then there are those other bits that are so over the top and ridiculous, I don’t even know how to feel about them. If KANK had been made like ADHM, I would have unreservedly loved it. But it felt too betwixt and between to really understand.
Thank goodness, he is also asked specific question which I was wondering about, where is the bench scene?!?!? Karan always has a bench scene!
I never planned those bench scenes by the way. But how else do two people talk? And where would I have had a bench scene here? I don’t hold on to anything, and I have never understood this question: “Why?” Why is there no bench scene? Why doesn’t Rani Mukerji love Abhishek Bachchan in Kabhi Alvida…? What is the answer? Because she doesn’t. That’s all. Why is Ranbir Kapoor relentless in his pursuit of Anushka? Why can’t he move on? He doesn’t. That’s all. There’s no answer to why.
Oh, and he goes on to give the same obvious explanation that I figured out all on my own just watching what he left onscreen for some of the “unexplainable” bits of the plot.
Now you can ask why he is flying a private jet and sharing a hotel room. There was a line that I edited out, from when they were discussing their Paris plans. She says, “Plane kakharcha tumhara. Hotel kamera. Aur khaana fifty-fifty.” [Essentially, she says she will pay for the hotel.] There were jokes making the rounds, that only in a Hindi film will you find a man who owns a private jet doing all this.
He also addresses the question of whether Ranbir’s character was too influenced by his Rockstar character.
I am influenced by Imtiaz’s banter, and I knew I was going to be compared to his film with this plot point. But I needed music in the film because I love music, and there was no way Ranbir was going to break out into song if he was not a singer. So I did it my way. Ranbir and I were both very conscious about Rockstar, so we played down the rock star bit . Because I don’t believe there are rock stars in this country. We don’t have Jay Z and Kanye West and Beyoncé. Who’s bigger than a movie star here? I didn’t want to be like older Hindi films and show that Ranbir is a huge star now. He is just an Internet sensation, like the Coke Studio stars or the guys who do YouTube videos.
Plus, HA! Great Imtiaz slam! He’s right, there ARE no rockstars in India! It’s not there thing. Also, great quote for an interview the week Rock On 2 comes out.
(Not saying Rockstar didn’t have great songs, but really, this concert footage is ridiculous)
And then finally, Karan himself and how he sees himself as a filmmaker and the state of Indian film.
We are in a regressive zone of cinema viewing. Yash Chopra’s films were applauded for showing a new facet of human relationships. He was never shown the thumbs down because there was no Facebook and nobody felt the need to fill up a page. They liked the film or disliked it in their own personal capacity. I’ve had feminists attacking me on this film. This film is a tribute to Mohammad Rafi – he is referenced three times. My protagonist wants to be Rafi. And yet, I’ve had Rafi fans attacking me. Nobody is a bigger Rafi fan than I am. What is Twitter? You can write about any topic you like and there are people who read and comment. You must have an opinion – every bum on the seat is a critic. I have learnt to live with it.
Now, this is a fascinating argument to me! He goes on to talk about how he finds it useful and important to read the critics take on his films. How he knows all the messages from friends and supporters are meaningless, he has to be able to understand how others see the films. But I think what he is talking about here is something different, the idea that somehow just saying “I liked it” isn’t enough of a comment any more, neither is “I didn’t like it.” You have to justify and convince others and so on.
Another fascinating argument, which in a bigger sense is about how the kind of on set training Karan received is as valuable as the “formal” training a lot of the newer directors are getting. At least, that’s how I read it:
I’ve always been a film person and my referencing for film is film itself. All my learning has come from cinema. It’s never been the books I’ve read. Books train you to tell stories. Films train you to tell them on celluloid. I don’t think Kabhi Alvida… has any story. It’s just the characters. When your characters supersede your story, you know it’s also about the moments you are creating. Now Raju Hirani is a storyteller. More than a filmmaker, he is a storyteller. He will never lose his story. My films are more about the characters and their journey, which is zindagi. Life. Perhaps only Kuch Kuch… among my films was heavy on story.
He says some more, later, after explaining that he could make a more “artistic” film, a more “adult” film, but he chooses not to. And these quotes also, in a backhanded way, feel like a discussion of his training and background versus other filmmakers.
Does that influence you at all? Do you want more respect from the new-age filmmakers?
Yeah I do. But I think it’s too late for that. I don’t think it’s going to come in my lifetime. And that’s not a goal anymore. I still would like Anurag Kashyap. I still respect a lot of his work. But I am not chasing adulation anymore. I am not chasing love.
Do you think you’ll ever make a festival film?
If that’s a film that won’t get a mainstream release, then I don’t want to make it.
Do you think you can make a “serious” film?
Yes, I think I’m perfectly capable of making a serious film. But again it might be the commercial limitations that stop me.
Do you read this the same way I do? That Karan is just plain not interested in making movies that the audience doesn’t relate to? He says he doesn’t care about ADHM’s low box office reaction in an earlier part, and how he is okay with that, with it not being a massive hit. So when he says “commercial limitations”, I don’t see it as “I need that money!!!”, I see it as “I want my films to actually be seen by people, not just critics.” I find that admirable! To make art for art’s sake is, in some ways, selfish. Karan wants to make art that people will actually see.
You ready for my favorite part of the interview? Box Office dork that I am? Karan gives us the formula to read the global box office! Don’t be surprised if this quote appears at the head of every global box office post from now on.
You know, I don’t know why my films do well there. If you go to the UK, you’ll find the Asian community is far more rooted in tradition and culture than some of us in urban India. Let me get mildly technical here. There is a certain mapping that can be done. The UAE and Dubai behave like Bombay. The UK behaves like Gurgaon, Delhi and Punjab. They go for colour, glamour, music, song, dance. The USA behaves like Mysore. So the films that perform exceedingly well there are the ones that are more intelligent, like Piku, Pink, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons. The template for “evolved” Hindi cinema will work very well in North America. So you lump everyone under “NRI,” but there are differences. Ae Dil… is doing exceedingly well in the UK because it’s also doing very well in Delhi/Gurgaon. It’s doing very well in the USA because it’s also doing very well in Mysore. It’s doing well in the Bombay/Maharashtra belt, but nothing path-breaking. So that’s what it’s like in the UAE. Action, on the other hand, will do very well in the UAE but nobody in the UK will go to watch it. So I cannot design a movie for all this. I can only make the movie I want, and hope that the audiences – cumulatively – give us love.