I know a lot of my readers are reading this, and I wanted a place for us all to discuss. I also know a lot of my readers don’t want to bother but might want a preview of what it says. And I think I have found a way to satisfy both of you! Without feeling like I am breaking some kind of plagiarism rule or skipping important parts.
Karan is wonderfully open in this book about everything in his life, his childhood, his romances, his friendships, everything. However, for me, the over-whelming message of the book is that everything in his life comes second to his films. That’s what he dreams about, that’s what he thinks about, that’s what gets him up in the morning and keeps him going through the day. And, while I find Karan fascinating as a public figure, I am also more interested in his films than his personal life. Or, to put it another way, I am primarily interested in his personal life as it relates to his films.
So, in order to give a substantive and interesting post on his book without worrying too much about missing things, I am going to group it based on his films, instead of chronologically or by emotional topic like it is in the book.
Dostana: The first film in Karan’s life isn’t one he made himself, it’s his father’s one big hit. Which came out when Karan was a little boy and affected his whole childhood.
It didn’t affect him because it made him love movies. He is very clear in the book and in other interviews that it was his mother listening to film music which first entranced him with film. No, Dostana affected him because it changed the social life of his childhood. And I found the glimpses of how the film industry social life works fascinating!
Karan talks about how his father was just a sweet warm charming man who everyone loved. And I believe it, because that is how he is talked about to this day, “Tom Uncle” that everyone got along with. But no one really paid attention to him or invited him to parties or made him part of their “inner circle” until after Dostana came out.
His father was kind of a classic film hanger on type. Started in one thing, got to know people, ended up as a “Production Manager”, so in charge of running all the details on a film set. And then kind of fell into producing just because he knew everybody, and his first film was a runaway hit. That made him “one of us”, but not really. Karan is constantly mentioning how his family lived in South Bombay, not Bandra or Juhu, in a tiny two bedroom apartment.
The “real” film stars were in the suburbs in their bungalows or big apartments. That is the gang that really grew up together, that lived and breathed films their whole lives, that learned everything by osmosis. Karan and his family were ever so slightly outside of that. His father had the one big hit, that got him entry for several years to the bigger parties. And more than that, his father was really really nice, so people really wanted him around. But he was always “just” a producer. Not an artist, not Talent. Sure, some of the talent became close friends with him, the Bachchans in particular Karan remembers going around with a lot, and Zoya and Farhan. Seeing them at birthday parties and so on. But it’s not the same kind of relationship Karan would have with these same people as an adult. Dostana got the Johars in with the in crowd, but it wasn’t until Karan’s talent became apparent that the family really “arrived”. There’s a line between the artists and the businessmen.
Nameless TV show: I always thought that Karan’s debut was DDLJ, but no! It was some TV serial he was in as a chubby teenager. Again, fascinating for how the industry works. Just by virtue of living in South Bombay and knowing everybody, Karan was offered a small part as a chubby teenager in a TV show. Someone called up his Mom and she said “okay, sure”, and that was it. I wonder, if Karan hadn’t been Karan, if this would have been the start of his stardom. He talks about how he loved the elocution and debate type classes in school, and excelled at them. But he was so unhappy in his own skin, he never felt comfortable opening his mouth or showing himself. And, of course, he was right that it would be dangerous and people would judge him. An effeminate teenage boy might work in a TV serial, but it’s not going to the hero role in a film.
The other interesting part about this is that it was the first time Karan saw Shahrukh! He was waiting for the TV producer in the waiting room, and there was this young actor sitting across from him, chain smoking and guzzling coffee and solving a crossword puzzle. He sat there for a couple hours while Karan was waiting as well. And then finally the assistant to the producer came out and said “I’m very sorry, he won’t be able to see you today.” And the young actor said “That’s fine, just wanted to tell him that I won’t be able to do his serial after all, I’ve decided to focus on my movie career”. And then he left. And the assistant said to Karan “Can you believe that? Does one TV show and thinks he’s going to be a movie star!” And, of course, that was Shahrukh.
It’s a cute story, and fits in with my general impression of Shahrukh, that he was always super driven and ambitious and self-confident, but also careful about burning bridges (wanted to try to talk to the producer personally). But I also find it interesting for what it says about Karan. First, of course, that he has such a clear memory of that first meeting which tells me that on some level he must have known this would be an important person in his life. And second that just by virtue of having a failed producer as his father and living in South Bombay, he could bump into a future movie star. That fits with other stories I have heard, it really is a small town in some ways.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: I had somehow had the impression that Karan and Adi were childhood friends, if not relatives. But this book makes it clear that while Karan had known Adi since forever, as “Yash Uncle and Pam Aunty’s son”, they weren’t really friends. There was that Juhu-Bandra and South Bombay divide. Unless the two families made a special effort (which it sounds like the Bachchans used to do with Karan and Shweta and Abhishek) the kids couldn’t easily play together. But Karan and Adi knew each other from birthday parties and other big events.
It wasn’t until Karan was in college that their relationship really ignited. And it was all mixed in with Karan’s coming awake to film. You know how in my book I talk about that moment when I fell in love with Indian movies? And in my thesis research I talk about how everyone I talked to had the same kind of story? It sounds like it was something close to that which Karan experienced when he first became close friends with Adi. After loving movies his whole life, and being on the outskirts of the film industry, suddenly it was like someone had put in the missing piece of his heart which connected his experience of film as an audience member with his knowledge of how the films were actually made. And it was overwhelming and all consuming and all he ever wanted to think about or talk about or do with every second he was alive. Very similar to the experience I am guessing most of us had that first time a movie really clicked for us and suddenly all we wanted to do was watch more films and chase that high.
What I found most interesting about this part is what Adi was getting out of it. For once, the Juhu-Bandra and South Bombay divide wasn’t seen as a bad thing, but as a bonus. Adi had grown up living and breathing film. But not anything else. Karan, in his “exile”, had been reading Western fashion magazines and getting fluent in French and English along with Hindi and taking random elective classes like flower arranging. And most of all, he had been growing up with people who weren’t in film. He knew what the audience said about movies and film stars and he could provide that half of the equation to Adi.
And that’s why I find it completely believable that Adi would beg Karan for help on writing his first script. Karan doesn’t try to take undo credit for his work, I think, he doesn’t say “I wrote the script”. He just says he was part of it and Adi and he would talk about it all night, working out the kinks. I find this completely believable. There is a sort of Karan flavor to it, a reason that Kuch Kuch Hota Hai feels like a more natural continuation of the brand than, say, Befikre. Karan talks at a later point about how part of the reason he thinks he is still so close with Adi is because they are equally successful, there’s no jealousy or one-ups-man-ship (sp?) involved. And I think that’s true, Adi has more than proved his abilities post-DDLJ, he doesn’t need to worry about claiming full credit for that script. And Karan has as well, he doesn’t need to invent some crazy brag like this.
And because Karan wrote the script, when Adi came back and asked him to help make the film, he couldn’t resist. Even though it wasn’t in the plan and it went against everything his parents wanted for him. I think, reading between the lines of this part, they were worried that he would fall into the same “one of us but not really” trap that his father had suffered from. They didn’t realize, firstly, that this younger generation wasn’t quite as firm in the lines between business and talent as the older. And second, that their son was really really talented, no worries about him being over-looked or ignored anywhere. He would shine like the Sun on any film set.
I suppose a cruel person could read this whole book as a kind of humble brag, about how Karan kept falling up. And the DDLJ section is the area that most supports this idea. It’s unarguably the most important film since Sholay. And here is Karan, who barely has his name in the officially credits, saying he is responsible for most of it. That he came up with the modern look for the hero, helped write the script, even wrote the most famous speech (Shahrukh’s speech to Amrish Puri when he is leaving the house). But you would have to be a very cruel and kind of hateful person to read it that way, even in this section.
Karan isn’t just making himself look good, he is making Manish and Shahrukh and Adi and even Uday all look good through how kind they were to him on that set, and how supportive. And how smart, to recognize and encourage his talent. And after all, the proof is in the pudding. He runs half the industry today, why wouldn’t he have been some kind of a wunderkind on his first film set?
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai: The biggest result of the DDLJ shoot was that it gave him Kuch Kuch. Well really, Shahrukh gave him Kuch Kuch. Karan talks, very humbly, about how Shahrukh kept encouraging him and telling him how talented and brilliant he was all through the DDLJ shoot. And that at the end of the shoot, he just straight up said “My next open dates are October 1997, I’ll hold them for you, you are directing my next picture.”
I believe this, that Shahrukh was the one who pushed Karan, who got Kajol to agree as well, who kept calling and saying “when’s my narration? We are shooting in a few months”. Who even went to a meeting with Karan’s father and said “I will sign a second film with Dharma pictures, but only if your son directs it.” Because ultimately, he must have believed in Karan not just because he liked him, but because it was good business. Shahrukh was an outsider trying to make it. He was a star when DDLJ was filming, but he didn’t become a mega-star until after it came out. And if he worked with Karan for months, ran lines with him, talked about the details of the character and the script, got his advice on clothes and everything else, well, wouldn’t he have known that Karan had a Kuch Kuch in him? It’s just good business to push until that film comes out.
In later sections, Karan talks about the shock of the first time he had to make a film without his father, and in his memory of the Kuch Kuch shoot, you can really see what a loss that would have been. He remembers no problems, no conflicts, everything was just smooth. He lost himself in the process of directing his vision, didn’t think about budgets or logistics or any of that, all of it was taken care of by someone else for him.
And then the movie came out and, as we all know, it was a huge huge huge hit. Just, massive!!! In the excerpt, I already talked about how it was over-shadowed by the gang threat. But what I found more interesting was Karan talking about what a difference it made for his father, and the whole family really, to be able to keep their heads up and be proud, to be recognized, to be powerful in this world where they had always before been slightly “less than”. To have something to offer more than just charm. Made me think of all those other people who are always at the parties and the premieres, but are still waiting for that one big hit that will put them back on top.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham: The most interesting part of this film was the casting process. Karan said he wrote the script with certain actors in his head. Obviously Shahrukh and Kajol. And then he saw Kareena at a party, Refugee hadn’t come out and she was nobody, but she carried herself like a Queen, and he knew that she had to be in his movie. And Hrithik, right after Kaho Na Pyar Hai, everyone said it would be tense because of the tension with Shahrukh, but he wanted that young vibe. And then, of course, Amitabh and Jaya. Who he approached separately, because he wanted them to sign the film as actors, not as “Shweta’s parents I’ve known my whole life.”
Again, the actual filming process he remembers as smooth and easy, no issues. Hrithik and Shahrukh, yes, there was some coolness because of everything the media was saying. But otherwise, no issues. Really through out the book he avoids specific “making of” stories. It feels like part of a larger effort to avoid telling anything that someone may not want him to say. “Making of” stories would mean stories about Amitabh and Kareena and Jaya and all of them, and he doesn’t want to tell those.
In the same way, he will mention the first time he met Gauri, or playing with Aryan and Suhana, or being friend with Shweta since childhood, but he never gives details. It is just a little glimpse of this person in his life, and then they are whisked away again. The only people he really gives deep discussions of are Shahrukh and Aditya Chopra and Apoorva Mehta. And, of course, his parents. And it is these same people that he mentions as the ones he is closest to in the world. I think that his talking about them is a sign of his friendship with them. With Shahrukh and Adi and Apoorva, he can talk about his book drafts, send them the manuscript, get their okay on stories. But with Amitabh, he wouldn’t even want to ask him the favor of reading the manuscript, better to just not mention anything about him at all and leave it at that. And so all of these people in his life are mentioned, are present, but any part of his life which directly related to them and would involve detailed information, that is completely expurgated. Not onset stories, no vacation stories, no party details, not even any childhood memories beyond the bare fact that he knew these families and played with their kids.
Kal Ho Na Ho: First of all, HAHAHAHAHA!!!!! I WAS RIGHT!!!!! A MILLION TIMES OVER!!! I RULE ALL!!!! It’s just as I always felt when reading or writing about it, Kal Ho Na Ho is really a Karan movie. He wrote the script and gave it to Nikhil Advani thinking that he should let someone else have a chance to direct. And then immediately regretted it and never really was able to let go. It may have had Nikhil’s name in the credits, but it was still a Karan film.
And secondly, just like I have been saying for years (I wrote my first grad school paper on this back in 2010), Kal Ho Na Ho was a stab at bringing queerness out into the light. Maybe it was done in a funny way, with some stereotypes and all that, but it was there! People learned that two men could be in love, that a good Indian boy might be gay.
The honeymoon phase started to end with this film. It’s funny, Karan never really puts it together, but part of the reason why Kal Ho Na Ho and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai felt so different is because Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham came out between them. Suddenly Shahrukh Khan was a big big star. Even if he caused no issues on set, that changed things for the rest of the cast, made them feel differently about being in the film, put more pressure on them. Put more pressure on the director, on the whole production team too.
And more than that, K3G changed way India did movies. Suddenly there was just so much money around! And that brought it’s own kind of pressure and expectations and standards. Karan talked about how after K3G, he was really depressed because Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai made it look so old-fashioned. That’s why he wanted to make Kal Ho Na Ho, to show he could be hip and modern too. But K3G was the real future of the Indian film industry, the NRI audience, the overseas audience, they all turned out for the stars and the songs and all the other glorious mess that it was. And that meant that suddenly the industry had a few billion more people’s expectations to live up to.
Kaal: I saw an interview with Karan a few years back where he had essentially the same story for the making of Kaal that he puts in this book. He didn’t get “horror”, he trusted the director to understand the vision, he realized it would be a complete disaster at the very last minute and threw on a couple of songs to save it, and barely got out with his losses covered.
(I didn’t see the movie in theaters, but I totally rented the DVD as soon as it was out, watched the opening song, and then returned it. Which is the same as what the theater audience did, only they just walked out after the song was over)
The one thing he adds is a discussion of how it taught him about what the strengths and weaknesses of his company were. Without thinking about it or meaning to, he had built a Dharma “brand” and Kaal was rejected partly because it broke that “brand”. And his solution was to figure out a quick marketing move to essentially trick people into believing it was still part of the brand.
Oh, and also another glimpse at how the Karan and Shahrukh relationship works. Shahrukh was invested in Kaal, because of course he was, Karan and he did everything together. And when Karan knew it would flop, Shahrukh was right there to shoot an item song to get back their investment. I like this glimpse because I like learning about this particular relationship. But also generally, how uncynical and emotional and relationship based this industry is. Karan doesn’t tell the story like “this was precedent breaking, for a big star to do something like this last minute just for a friend.” He tells it like it was a smart move on their part, but not otherwise remarkable.
Speaking of relationships, this was the first film he made with Apoorva Mehta as the studio head instead of his father. I was bawling on the train reading the section with his father’s death, not because it was objectively sad (death is always sad, but this wasn’t like Neerja or something in terms of tragedy), but because Karan did such a good job of putting us in his mindset at the time and making us feel how this was the end of his world. And after putting us through that, we also felt how much he needed his friend, his first friend from all the way back when he was a lonely little boy in school, to come and help run the company.
From my analytical side, again I am fascinated by what a small world film is. In two ways. First, that the CEO of Dharma is literally Karan’s oldest friend in the world. He wasn’t hired for his MBA credentials (although he has that), but just because of the heart connection. And he took the job, moving his whole family from London to Bombay overnight and leaving a good position with Eros, not because it was a great opportunity (it wasn’t at that time, Dharma had 3 big hits, but they were no Eros), but because Karan needed him. And the other way, that Apoorva may have grown up outside of the film world just like Karan, but after getting his MBA and all of that, just by virtue of living in Bombay, he was as likely to get a job with a major distributor like Eros as with any other company.
One final note on the death of Yash Johar and Karan taking over. Karan, through out this book, is as open as he can be about his sexuality. And he doesn’t hide that he is sentimental and soft and likes his friends and his art and all of that. But when he talks about becoming the man of the house and the head of a whole business with hundreds of people relying on him after his father’s death, he is clear that this was him taking on the responsibilities of a man, just like generations of his family have done before him. And he did it without noticeably changing himself. I don’t think Karan wrote this to make a big statement, but I hope people see the statement in here, that you can be a man, you can be the head of a household and a business and take care of everyone and all of that, and still be gay. The two things go hand in hand.
And that’s the send of Part 1! With the start of Karan as a producer and studio owner, coming of age as the head of the house and the studio. I’ll get into part 2 tomorrow.