We’ve been talking back and forth a lot lately about the issues with Karan’s public image and how it does not reflect who he is outside of the limelight. At least, I don’t think so. And I wanted to go through the actual facts of his career, not how he presents himself but what he has accomplished behind closed doors, so we can take a look at Karan the Artist and Karan the Businessman. Most of this post is simply listing out and counting categories of films from Dharma productions.
Disclaimer: This is based on publicly available information about Karan’s career, plus his memoir which inspired no denials or corrections from anyone it talked about, and which was written with extreme honesty and openness leading me to take it as the truth.
Since the release of his second film, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Karan has turned himself into a character from one of his movies. He is gossipy, funny, shallow, and catty. He likes who he likes and doesn’t like who he doesn’t. He is man who likes watching the celebrities rise and fall and not interfering. The impression he gives is a troll who feeds off the fame and talent of others and enjoys manipulating them. But the reality of his career and resume reveals somebody who is very very different. I want to try to write a post that focuses on Karan the professional and his remarkable accomplishments, not Karan the public figure.
Karan in his autobiography goes into great detail of his early life and childhood. I’m just going to mention the 3 important facts that relate to his life as a producer and artist:
- Karan’s father was a minor failed producer. He only made one successful film in his career, Dostana. His main job was as an importer-exporter, films were a hobby for him not an income. Karan was not born to power or influence in the film world.
- Karan was the only child of elderly parents. He has only one relative his age, a second cousin, otherwise he is completely alone in the world. He has no “nepotism” available to him.
- Karan was a sad sensitive child with few friends, his first real friends were in college, he is still close to them and made one of them the head of his production house. He has always been loyal to those who befriend him.
Now, moving on to his professional career. At 21, Karan met Aditya Chopra. They had seen each other at a few parties as children, Karan knew him as “Yash Uncle and Pam Aunty’s son” not as a particular person. Now, they were both out of college and loafing around the city waiting for the next chapter. Aditya was committed to film, had been his whole life, and had a successful banner (Yash Raj Films) waiting for him to take over. Karan was not planning to go into film, his father hadn’t produced a movie in years and their family banner (Dharma) was essentially dead. Besides, Karan had no training, had never thought seriously about film. But Aditya started talking to him and loved his ideas and begged him for help. It was not his connections that got Karan his start, it was his genius.
Karan and Aditya wrote DDLJ together. It was Aditya’s idea, but Karan wrote the speeches, helped him finalize the plot, everything. Aditya was the one who asked him for help, begged him even, because he recognized his talent. And when they finished the script and Aditya’s father gave him the go ahead to start filming, Aditya begged Karan to help, said he couldn’t make this film without him. This is Karan’s version (not bragging, but just saying it) in his book, and Aditya gave the seal of approval to it.
On the set of DDLJ, Karan started as just the wardrobe assistant and occasional extra actor. He planned to stay just in wardrobe, he liked clothes. But as Aditya turned to him more and more, and the people on set slowly realized that he was essentially co-directing the film, he was moved out of wardrobe and into more of an assistant director role. Towards the end of the shoot, both the stars (Shahrukh and Kajol) told Karan they wanted him to direct their next movie and wouldn’t take no for an answer. This is not a normal thing. And it’s not something you would do just to be “nice” or because someone is funny and charming on set. Shahrukh and Kajol were both experienced stars by this point, and they saw something really remarkable in Karan.
Karan is very modest in his description of the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai shoot, says that it was just like an Archie comic, that he didn’t even know how to use a camera, that his father and Shahrukh put together all the details and he could just focus on his part of it. But the reality is that at 26, making his very first movie, he already attracted the top talent of the industry to him, and he broke box office records.
Karan is similarly modest in his description of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, that he wanted to make a movie like Sooraj Barjatya’s and Yash Chopra’s, that everyone was very gracious and generous in agreeing to be cast by him and follow his directions. But again, look at the reality and not just how he talks about it. 6 top stars agreed to be in this movie at his convenience no questions asked, 7 if we count Rani Mukherjee. They trusted his talent and his judgement. And their faith was rewarded with the success of the film.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was the first massive overseas hit. It brought Indian film to the mainstream in London, Berlin, Toronto, everywhere. DDLJ (also written by Karan) started the trend, but it was K3G that really brought it forward. K3G also built Yash Raj Films, they snapped up the distribution rights. The money YRF made from K3G box office, DVD sales, and now streaming is what keeps them churning along. Ditto K2H2 and DDLJ. Karan Johar’s original mind founded not one, but TWO of the studios that run the industry today. Love him or hate him, you have to respect that.
Post K3G, Karan had money to burn. He could have made another movie following his own vision, but he decided to artistically challenge himself. Dil Chahta Hai was the move he respected, original and different. He didn’t think he could direct something like that, so instead he wrote the script and gave the money to make it to someone else, Nikhil Advani. In his 3rd movie, Karan was already trying to nurture new talent behind the camera and push the envelope of Hindi film forward. Kal Ho Na Ho was another massive hit.
Karan’s father died during the filming of Kal Ho Na Ho. Karan was now 30 and sole in charge of one of the most promising small banners in Hindi film. His immediately called his best friend from college, Apoorva Mehta, who was working in London for Eros in a distribution role and ask him to take over Dharma films. Apoorva still runs it today.
Once Karan brought on Apoorva, his first instinct was to try a risky film with a new director and newer cast. He didn’t want to do the same old thing as his previous movies, and he didn’t want to write a script and supervise closely on set like he had for Kal Ho Na Ho, causing a difficult power struggle between him and the director.. Thus, Kaal. At the last minute Karan watched the final cut and realized that it was not going to make back the money they invested. So he filmed a promotional song and managed to save the film. He also decided from then on he was only going to produce films that he supervised and fully understood as a director. After those first two mistakes, he tried to find a balance between mentoring and control.
Now, since Karan and Apoorva started running Dharma, let’s look at some numbers. Not little individual cases and issues film by film, but the broad sweep of what they have produced:
Total films produced/co-produced: 38
Number of films from first time directors: 16, 42% of the total
Number of films from female directors: 4 (11% of the total)
Non mainstream Hindi films discovered, promoted, and distributed by Dharma: The Lunchbox, The Ghazi Attack, Bahubali 1 and 2, The Bucket List. 5 films, 13% of the total
Films with female lead characters: We Are Family, Gippi, Dear Zindagi, Raazi, The Bucket List, 5 films 13% of the total.
Films with Minority Main Characters: Kurbaan (Muslim), My Name is Khan (Muslim), Hasee To Phasee (Mentally Ill), Shaandar (Sikh survivor of 1984 Pogram), Kapoor & Sons (Homosexual), Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Muslim), Dear Zindagi (Muslim), Raazi (Muslim), Dhadak (low caste), Kalank (Muslim). 10 films, 26% of the total films.
Films that Deal with Controversial Social Issues (obviously some overlap with previous section): Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, infidelity and divorce. Dostana, LGBTQ issues. Kurbaan, the Muslim minority and prejudice. My Name is Khan, the Muslim minority and prejudice. We Are Family, divorce. Agneepath, human trafficking. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, divorce. Gori Tere Pyar Main, village improvements. Hasee To Phasee, feminism and mental health. 2 States, parental and spousal abuse. Ungli, corruption. Kapoor & Sons, LGBTQ issues. Dear Zindagi, mental health. The Bucket List, feminism and organ donation. Dhadak, honor killings. 15 films, 40% of the total in which social issues are embedded into the plot and impossible to ignore.
Films outside of the romance genre: Agneepath, Ungli, Brothers, Dear Zindagi, Bahubali 1 and 2, The Ghazi Attack, Ittefaq, Raazi, The Bucket List, Simmba, Kesari. 12 total, 31% of their output.
Films Featuring Talented Unconnected in the Hindi Industry: Wake Up Sid (Konkona Sen Sharma), Gippi (Riya Vij), The Lunchbox (Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur), Kapoor & Sons (Fawad Khan), The Ghazi Attack (Taapsee Pannu and Rana Duggabatti) 5 films 13% of total
Films Featuring Established Mainstream Actors With No Close Personal Relationship to Karan*: Kaal (John Abraham, Viviek Oboroi, Esha Deol, Lara Dutta), Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Preity Zinta), Dostana (Priyanka Chopra and John Abraham), Kurbaan (Saif Ali Khan and Viviek Oboroi), I Hate Luv Storys (Imraan Khan), We Are Family (Arjun Rampal), Agneepath (Sanjay Dutt, Hrithik Roshan,Rishi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra), Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (Imraan Khan), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (Deepika Padukone), Gori Tere Pyaar Main (Imraan Khan), Hasee To Phasee (Parineeti Chopra), 2 States (Arjun Kapoor), Ungli (Emraan Khan), Brothers (Jacqueline Fernandez), Shaandar (Shahid Kapoor), Kapoor & Sons (Ratna Pathak, Rishi Kapoor), Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai), OK Jaanu (Shraddha Kapoor and Aditya Roy Kapoor), Ittefaq (Sonakshi Sinha, Akshaye Khanna), Bucket List (Madhuri), Simmba (Ranveer Singh), Kalank (Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha), Student of the Year (Tiger Shroff). 23 films, 60% of the total
Films Featuring Actors with No Relatives in the Film Industry*: Kaal (John Abraham, Lara Dutta), Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta), Dostana (Priyanka Chopra, John Abraham), Student of the Year (Sidharth Malhotra), Gippi (Riya Vij), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (Deepika Padukone), The Lunchbox (Irrfan Khan, Huma Qureshi), Hasee To Phasee (Sidharth Malhotra), Brothers (Sidharth Malhotra, Jacqueline Fernandez), Kapoor & Sons (Sidharth Malhotra, Fawad Khan), Baar Baar Dekho (Sidharth Malhotra, Katrina Kaif), Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Aishwarya Rai, Anushka Sharma), The Ghazi Attack (Taapsee Pannu), Simmba (Ranveer Singh), Kesari (Akshay Kumar), Student of the Year (Tara Sutaria). 15 Films, 40% of the total.
Now, comparison with the industry as a whole! Just limiting it down to mainstream releases of 2018, because that is a manageable sample size for me, and a few easy to find objective measures (for instance, I wanted to include first time directors, but too many of them don’t have enough of a record online for me to be sure):
Total Number of films I am including: 71
Percentage of Films with Female Leads: Padmavat, Pari, Hichki, Raazi (Dharma produced), Veere Di Wedding, Happy Phir Bhaag Jayegi, Manmarziyaan, Helicopter Eela, 8 films, 11% of total.
Percentage of Films with Female Directors: Raazi (Dharma Produced), Manto. 2 women, 3%
Percentage of Films with Minority Main Characters: Hichki (disabled), Beyond the Clouds (Muslim), Omerta (Muslim), Raazi (Dharma Produced, Muslim), Sanju (Muslim), Dhadak (low caste, Dharma Produced), Mulk (Muslim), Gold (Muslim), Laila Majnu (Muslim), Kedarnath (Muslim), 10 Films, 14% of Total.
Dharma produces only 2% more female lead films than the average (although to be fair, 2018 was high on female lead films).
But the other categories are not even close:
3 times as many female directors work from Dharma versus the industry average.
Twice as many films have a minority lead character versus the industry average.
2018 gave us a good sample in general, but I want to compare with another banner over time. Anurag Kashyap gets a lot of deserved credit for discovering new talent. And he has produced 37 films, almost as many as Karan (and a few of them co-produced with Karan). Of the films he has produced:
Number of Films with First Time Directors: 10 films, 27% of total
Number of Films with Female Directors: 0 films, 0% of total
Number of Films with Leads who HAVE Relatives in the Industry*: That Girl in Yellow Boots (Kalki married Anurag, no greater nepotism than that), Shaitan (Kalki again), Aiyyaa (Rani Mukherjee), Luv Shuv To Chicken Khurrana (Kunal Kapoor, married to Amitabh’s niece), Lootera (Sonakshi Sinha), Hasee Toh Phasee (Parineeti Chopra, Priyanka’s cousin), Bombay Velvet (Ranbir Kapoor), Masaan (Vicky Kaushal, father is a stunt coordinator), Shaandar (Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt), Udta Punjab (Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor), Raman Raghav 2.0 (Vicky Kaushal), Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (Harshwardhan Kapoor), Manmaarziyaan (Abhishek Bachchan, Vicky Kaushal). 13 Films, 36% of total
You can disagree with a data point here and there, but looking at the raw numbers, what I am seeing is that Karan has a disproportionate focus on encourage new director talent, especially female talent.
The majority of his films feature established popular actors who have no particular connection to him. And so long as they are established, he doesn’t care if they come from a film family background or not.
30% of his films are not “Dharma” films, not the light romance that his studio is perceived as making. 40% of his films, including many of them that are “just” romances, deal with serious controversial social issues. A quarter of his films, again including many of them that are “just” romances, have a lead that is a member of a minority community.
Let me suggest a hypothesis. Perhaps the reason Karan spends so much time on talk shows and making nice in public and pretending to be harmless is so he can quietly produce films ranging from Kapoor & Sons to Dhadak that deal sensitively with taboo topics, topics every other mainstream filmmaker in India avoids. Perhaps the reason he uses so many established stars is so he can help so many new directors get started. Perhaps the reason he makes jokes about his female characters is so no one notices that Dharma leads the industry in promoting female stories and female talent. Perhaps the reason Dharma keeps pretending to be the harmless romance company is so no one notices that it has had 3 movies threatened with boycotts by the religious right in the past 10 years (Wake Up Sid, My Name is Khan, and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil). Generally, is it possible that Karan is peacocking around and hiding in plain sight so no one notices what is happening behind the curtain?
*All of these people have been to his parties and vice-versa and have appeared on his talk show. None of them were mentored by him, none of them invited him to their weddings, none of them support him at his father’s funeral, they are friends but they are not family. Notice I exclude Kareena, Kajol, Shahrukh, Alia, Varun, Sidharth, Rani, Abhishek, Amitabh, and even Akshay since he is Twinkle’s husband and Ajay since he is Kajol’s, and Saif after he married Kareena.
*I am literally looking for people with no relatives. Karan is accused of “nepotism”, let’s try to find actors who got their start through relatives. Doesn’t matter if they are big names or small or found adopted family in the industry or ended up marrying a fellow actor, were they born into it? I’m even being generous and only counting Shahrukh once.
*Anurag is known for discovering new talent, but I want to show that even the company that is the best at focusing on new talent still ends up using folks from within the industry. Just because they are there.