This is fun, I should be able to write this whole thing without doing additional research. On the other hand, this is also a topic that many of you in the comments know more about than I do. So feel free to correct me, or expand, as needed.
On the season before last of Koffee with Karan, Shahrukh made a joke about how Karan is always having to defend his love of Shahrukh the same way Shahrukh has to defend his love for his country, and it’s true. And odd. I’m not sure why there is this pattern, why the media and public are always so focused on looking for a rift between then. Maybe because it is such a very unusual relationship we just can’t accept it is true? Maybe because it is such a beautiful relationship we want to tear it down? Maybe just because it is a passionate close friendship between a gay man and a straight man and we don’t believe it is possible? Anyway, most of us who are Shahrukh fans have accepted that, while he and Karan may have their ups and downs, at heart it is the kind of lifetime bond that can never truly be shaken.
In his memoir, Karan tells the story of the first time he saw Shahrukh. He was in high school, a fat funny looking kid, and a friend of the family suggested he do a few TV roles. He was in a waiting room at a TV studio, waiting to meet a producer, and he saw this very handsome young man sitting across the room doing a crossword puzzle. Finally the office man came out and told the young man he was sorry he had waited so long but the producer wouldn’t be able to see him today. The young man said it wasn’t a problem, he just wanted to meet him face to face to tell him he wouldn’t be doing his TV show. He was going to concentrate on movies from now on, he was going to be a movie star. And then he left, and the office man turned to Karan and said “he’s a fool, you will never hear the name Shahrukh Khan again”.
It’s a great story, but I always take these Karan stories with a grain of salt, because he is a writer and he knows how to tell a good story. What I do believe happened is that Karan saw Shahrukh in a waiting room 5 years before they met for real and remembered that moment because something sparked, even then. Even if Shahrukh didn’t notice him.
Their real meeting was on the sets of DDLJ. Aditya Chopra had met Karan first. They knew each other from the occasional children’s parties as kids, but then met again when they were both finishing college and Adi kind of adopted him. Adi had grown up living and breathing film, it was all he knew or cared about. Karan grew up in South Bombay, living and breathing the whole artistic and social life of the city. Adi brought Karan into the world of film and encouraged his interests to blossom, Karan let Adi pick his brain for fashion and western styles and ideas. And then Adi invited Karan to help him make DDLJ. Karan started in the costume department (where he met Manish Malhotra, another young friend of Adi), and one day was brought in to meet the star, Shahrukh Khan. And he told Shahrukh “you should wear tighter jeans, my friends say your butt is very good and you should show it off”. And Shahrukh blushed bright red because he was so embarrassed, but was also impressed.
Over the course of filming DDLJ, Shahrukh and Karan circled around each other, slowly getting each other’s measures. Karan helped right that final speech Shahrukh gives in front of Amrish Puri about why he and Kajol shouldn’t elope, and Shahrukh was so impressed when it was over that he told Karan he shouldn’t do costumes, he should write his own movie. Most importantly, Karan won over Gauri. She hated film people, thought they were boring and didn’t have anything to talk about. But during the European leg of the shoot, when she came over to be with Shahrukh, he handed her off to Karan to entertain her and show her around, and she loved him. She told Shahrukh he was the only interesting person she had met on a film set.
At the end of the shoot, Shahrukh told Karan he had another commitment coming up, but he would be free next October and Karan needed to have a script ready by then because they would start filming. He even called across the room to Kajol “Kajol, clear October, we are making a movie for Karan”. But of course Karan didn’t really believe it, that’s not how movie stars behave and that’s not how films are decided.
At this point, Shahrukh and Kajol were the hot new pair onscreen. They weren’t the top actor-actress, but they were very good and getting better with every film. And then DDLJ came out, and Shahrukh was rocketed to the stratosphere. Suddenly he was the biggest name in town and everyone wanted him. The idea of him doing a movie for this kid on his film set seemed even more fantastic.
And then one night Karan was in his bedroom at home and his father came in and asked to speak with him. His father looked very shaken, and Karan was alarmed. And then his father sat down and said “Son, today Shahrukh Khan came to see me. I’ve been wanting to sign him for my movie, and he said yes, he would do it. But he wanted to sign two films with me as producer, and he wanted the right to pick his director for the second one. I said of course, and he said he wants you to direct the second film”.
So that’s how Karan became a director. Because Shahrukh forced him into it. They made Kuch Kuch together and by the end of the shoot, Karan was part of the family. From Shahrukh’s side, he talks about how meaningful that relationship was for Gauri. She was only 21 when they got married and she moved from Delhi (where she knew everyone and had a large loving family) to Bombay (where she knew no one and their first apartment was one room with a mattress and a hotplate). Shahrukh was working 20 hour days trying to get his career started, Gauri was bored and lost and lonely and felt out of place in the film world, and then Karan appeared. He was Gauri’s first real friend in film, the first person she felt comfortable with in Bombay. And if she hadn’t been comfortable, there was a real chance Shahrukh would have lost his career. They agreed when they got married that if it wasn’t working after a couple of years, he would move back to Delhi with her and get a “real” job.
Shahrukh’s first child, Aryan, was born while Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was being planned and made. Karan was there for all of it, supportive and understanding to both of them. And then Suhana came while they were planning Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. At this point, Karan and Shahrukh were essentially joined at the hip. They did everything together, went every where together. This is when they started the joke of calling each other “Bhai”. Because all the other movie stars had these tough gangster-like friends, and here was Shahrukh with fey Karan, and shy serious Aditya, so they called each other “Bhai” to make a joke of how un-gangster they were.
This is also when Shahrukh offered to protect Karan from gangsters. KKHH was premiering opposite a mob-backed picture, Bade Miyan Chote Miyan. Karan started getting threatening phone calls telling him to change his release date or they would shoot him, giving details of the clothes he was wearing that day to show that they were serious. He was terrified, his parents were terrified, the police told him to avoid going out and making himself a target, he was thinking about not even going to the premiere. And then Shahrukh came to see him and told him it was his night, he should go. And if he was afraid, no worries, Shahrukh would stand in front of him and block him so any bullets would hit Shahrukh instead. And that’s what he did.
In 2002, 8 years after they met, they were making Kal Ho Na Ho in New York. Karan was the writer and producer, his father Yash was there as well to help with the production stuff. And in the middle of filming, half a world away from home, his father started to feel sick and they went to see a doctor and learned he had cancer and only months to live. Karan was in a daze, he was an only child of older parents, his family had always been his father, and his mother, and himself. His mother was strict with high standards for him, his father was the soft loving blindly supportive parent. And the big strong cheerful nothing-can-stop-me parent. And now he was sick. And they had to finish the film, and they had to explain why Yash wouldn’t be on set any more. Karan went back to the hotel and went to see Shahrukh, he told him the news and Shahrukh fell down on the ground, sobbing, saying “I can’t do it, I can’t lose another father”. He was so upset Karan ended up comforting him, not the other way around.
After Yash died, Shahrukh didn’t leave Karan’s side. The first film Karan tried to produce after was Kaal, Shahrukh jumped in as a co-producer just to be supportive. Karan saw the first cut a couple of weeks before the release date and knew it would be a flop, just knew it. He was in a panic, his production house was going to go under and he was going to fail his father’s memory. He called up Shahrukh, and Shahrukh made a song for him to slap on the front of the film, literally within days. Kaal was still a flop, but not so bad that it killed them, and Dharma lived on.
This was the era when Karan was Shahrukh’s official costume designer on most of his films. For Main Hoon Na, he was air mailing in sweaters and jeans and fancy looks. He picked out Shahrukh’s FilmFare outfits and everything else. On a recent Koffee, they also joke about how Shahrukh is most embarrassed by Karan when they are shopping together. Karan picks out outfits for him to try, then goes into the dressing room with him to see, and even asks passing folks “what do you think? Does this look good?” and Shahrukh HATES it. At this point in time, Karan was the most successful producer/director in Hindi film, and also the guy who bought Shahrukh’s sweaters. Gauri used to be that person (she went to school for design), but she had two kids now, so Karan stepped up.
Karan had an idea for a movie on infidelity, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Shahrukh agreed to do it, of course. During filming as they got farther and farther into the plot, Shahrukh got more and more uncomfortable. He questioned Karan, do these characters really need to have sex? Will the audience accept this and forgive it? He didn’t think it was a good idea for the film, thought it wouldn’t work. And he was uncomfortable with those scenes as an actor. But Karan told him no, he wanted this, so Shahrukh said “okay” and did whatever was asked just because Karan asked it. And then he was right, the audience was uncomfortable with the film and with Shahrukh. But it was still the right thing to do, because his friendship with Karan was more important than any audience.
The first “rift” between Karan and Shahrukh was around the time of Student of the Year. Karan had always sworn he would not make a film without Shahrukh in it, said he didn’t even know how to direct without Shahrukh. Varun Dhawan, one of the stars of Student of the Year, Karan’s first Shahrukh-less film, confirmed that. He said in an interview he was nervous about working with Karan, because he had seen him with Shahrukh on the My Name is Khan set, they didn’t even talk any more really, Karan would just look at him and he would do the scene exactly as Karan wanted it. He was worried he would be expected to be like that, and he just couldn’t.
When I have a rift with my friends, or family, we don’t talk or see each other for a while. And then you get over it and come back together. Karan and Shahrukh’s relationship, it was too close for that. There was a difference, everyone could feel it, but it wasn’t the kind of difference that breaks up a friendship because their friendship couldn’t be broken ever, they have a bond that is too strong to snap. This was when Aryan was preparing to go away to boarding school, Karan was over to the house all the time helping him get ready, keeping Gauri calm, making sure Suhana was okay. He talked to Shahrukh to coordinate visits and kid pick-ups and dinners and all the little minutia of life. I guess it gets down to the explanation Karan gave for why Shahrukh co-produced Kaal. They were together all the time, it just made sense to produce a film together, it was easier. They weren’t together because they were working partners, they were working partners because they were already family. The “coolness”, that just meant they weren’t working together any more. They were still family. And like family, it blew over eventually without anyone doing anything. One day they just called each other up and talked and said “I miss you”. And then it was done.
They are maybe in another coolness period now, it’s hard to tell. Three years ago Karan had his birthday party in London so it wouldn’t conflict with Aryan’s graduation from high school and he could go to both. Two years ago, Karan had his birthday during location filming and Shahrukh wasn’t there. They co-produced Ittefaq together last year, but that was the last time they worked together. And Shahrukh wasn’t on the last season of Koffee With Karan. These are the little clues we see, this is how close we expect them to be, if they aren’t flying around the world to be together on Karan’s birthday, if they aren’t producing every film together, then it means they aren’t as close as they have been in the past. But that’s nothing. The kind of closeness they have, the history they share, the way they are embedded in each other’s lives, the surface of the relationship may ebb and flow but the core will never be touched.