For Karan Johar, his work is also his play

The producer-director can't quite draw the line between work and play, not when it's about movies. Not that he's complaining

Published: Aug 3, 2015
For Karan Johar, his work is also his play
Image: Vikas Khot
Stylist: Shiraz Siddique; make-up: Paresh Kalgutkar; hair: Rajeev Gogoi

Being the man synonymous with Bollywood is hard work. Consider that it is only mid-morning when ForbesLife India meets Karan Johar at his Khar office in Mumbai, and he has already packed in a day’s work. He has just returned from a “quick trip” to London and is waiting to see the promos of the Akshay Kumar-Sidharth Malhotra starrer Brothers, scheduled to release in August. Later in the day, he has to attend a media event to launch a song from the multilingual mythological opus, Baahubali (release date July 10), which he is presenting in Hindi. All of this is in addition to the half-a-dozen meetings and calls he’s already scheduled. “My work and Dharma (his production house) are everything. This is what drives me. This morning, while we were landing, I was making a mental list of people I needed to call and meet to follow up on a host of things… it excites me. It’s what keeps me going.”

Karan, 43, makes hard work seem like the best thing since shaved parmesan, even though this larger-than-life public persona has come at a cost. For one, it has created a reputation of that snooty filmmaker who has all these camps in Bollywood; or branded him as part of the swish set for whom daily commute means flying from Mumbai to New York via London. “The other day someone asked me why I didn’t have a private jet. I told them I’d have to sell my house and live in the jet,” he laughs. Karan isn’t overly anxious about this exaggerated notion about himself. “If anyone bothers to scratch the surface,” he says, “they’ll discover that I am as vulnerable, insecure, complex and afraid as the next person.”

The other downside has been more disruptive: “Brand Karan Johar supersedes any of the cinematic attempts I have made.” Apart from the many he has produced, he has written and directed six films to date, and the easy inference to his films as glamorous and over-the-top romances does not sit well with him. “People always say that I make only ‘NRI’ or ‘family’ films. But I made one family film (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham..., 2001), one love story (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 1998), one popcorn film about teenagers (Student of the Year, 2012), one on infidelity (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, 2006) and a film that tackles religious prejudice (My Name Is Khan, 2010),” he points out. “My short film in Bombay Talkies (a 2013 omnibus to celebrate the centenary year of Hindi cinema) was about a married closeted homosexual. I have made films that are more than just popcorn films. But I will never get the credit for it because of Brand Johar.”

His resigned acceptance of this stereotype carries a tinge of resentment. He often jokes that if his name was Karan Kashyap, his films would have enjoyed more critical acclaim, but it is also not something that keeps him up at night. Not anymore. “It is what it is. People think I am a director who has become larger-than-life but is never going to make a great film. So until I make my ‘great’ film, I’ll just shut up,” he says.

There is a long pause. You can almost hear his brain working. Then he adds, “Actually, even if I don’t [make a great film], I have had a great time at the movies. Maybe years later, students of Indian cinema will look at my work and think that there was a beating heart in many of my scenes. Hopefully, I’ll get some acknowledgement in retrospect because I am certainly getting none right now from both the public and the fraternity.”

He may not be feeling the love from cinephiles, but his small-screen forays, especially the talk show, Koffee with Karan (KWK), have amassed him a legion of fans and helped build and strengthen Brand Johar—the personality—in their minds. “While his films were always popular, television gave the audience a chance to know the real Karan Johar. It changed the perception of directors and producers,” says Apoorva Mehta, CEO of Dharma Productions and Karan’s friend since the sixth grade.

When Karan was offered KWK in 2004 by SOL Production, he was advised against taking it up. “People around me felt that a director like me should maintain my dignity. Thankfully, I decided to go with my gut instinct,” he says. The show’s fourth season ended in April 2014 and there are plans for a fifth.

Since 2012, even before it became standard practice in Bollywood, Karan has been a regular judge on Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (India’s version of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing) and India’s Got Talent.

For Karan Johar, his work is also his play
Image: Vikas Khot

His decision to enter the realm of reality television raised eyebrows in the film industry, which, barring a few exceptions like Amitabh Bachchan, used to set itself apart from the small screen. However, Johar shrugged off the naysayers with the nonchalance of someone who knows a good thing when he sees it. “On India’s Got Talent, I am exposed to every form of dance, music and talent in the country,” he says. The show is a source of inspiration for him. As he is to a new legion of budding multihyphenates in the world of entertainment.

Consider that Karan is an enviable hybrid of behind-the-scenes filmmaker and a television personality. In between, he endorses products, throws some of the most talked-about parties and engages with his 6.6 million Twitter followers on movies, television shows, his travels and his fabulous life.

His sharp instincts and business acumen have made Dharma Productions (inherited from his father, the late producer, Yash Johar) one of Bollywood’s leading production and film distribution houses in less than two decades. Johar Senior launched Dharma Productions in 1976 after successfully handling the production of Bollywood classics like Jewel Thief (1967) and Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). With Karan taking over the reins in 2004, Dharma has released hit after hit such as Dostana (2008), Wake Up Sid (2009), Kurbaan (2009), I Hate Luv Storys (2010) and a retelling of Agneepath (2012). “I have already taken my father’s legacy forward and done more than he was planning to,” says Karan.

His ambitions for Dharma is unabashed. “I want to emerge as one of the leading content-providing production houses in the country. I want to do stuff with television and the digital platform. I want to take the next two years to solidify our place within cinema, and then branch out.” Happily, the years have given Karan the confidence to follow his own counsel, and as he grows older he finds it important to “do things the Dharma way”. A word given is a word kept, he says. “This is my father’s legacy. The moral and ethical fibre of Dharma is something I will never compromise on. I am very particular about how we, as a company, deal with people,” he explains.   

Actress Kareena Kapoor-Khan, whom he directed in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham..., describes Karan as a people’s person, just like his father. “I love feeding off Karan’s energy because he is always so positive. That’s why everyone loves him so much,” she says.

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Karan has a couple of decades’ worth of wisdom to share, and his legacy is important to him. “More than the craft, I think everyone who has worked at Dharma has learnt how to be a better person,” says director Karan Malhotra, 35, who has made two films for Dharma Productions, Agneepath and Brothers. “Karan is very old-school in the way he deals with people.”

Malhotra had only assisted Karan on My Name Is Khan when he was offered Agneepath. “Karan knew I was ready to direct even before I did. As a newcomer, any other producer would have told me to work with newer actors. When I told Karan I wanted Hrithik Roshan, Rishi Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Priyanka Chopra, he didn’t question my decisions. To entrust a newcomer with an A-list cast and a Rs 70-75 crore budget takes serious guts,” says Malhotra.

Karan’s faith in the director was rewarded with the film making over Rs 123 crore at the box office. The decision to work with Malhotra was instinctive, says Karan. “I am blessed with a really sharp creative instinct. I immediately know if something—a film, scene or a song—will work or not.”

As a producer, Karan is as involved as his directors want him to be. “The directors have him around if they want to tap into his knowledge, but they are free to execute their vision. He puts content before budgets,” says Dharma CEO Mehta.

But not every venture has been as successful. Consider his recent foray into acting: While critics praised his outing as the conniving newspaper baron and bootlegger Kaizad Khambatta in Bombay Velvet (2015), the film tanked at the box office. “You can’t avoid failure. Every career has ups and downs. I probably deal with it a lot better now than I did a couple of years ago,” he says.

For Karan Johar, his work is also his play
Image: Vikas Khot

In moment of unguarded honesty, Karan adds, “I am very defensive about my failures. I don’t like that about myself but I find myself making a joke about it before someone else can. I will run myself down because I am so embarrassed by failure. I think I need to stop doing that. If a film fails, I start talking about it before someone else does. I will never pretend that something wasn’t a failure, but I go to the other extreme. Humour is my guard.”

However, Bombay Velvet is a rare blip in a career that has seen many highs. “But I don’t take success too seriously,” he shrugs. “You shouldn’t take it for granted, overreact or live only for it. It’s wonderful to be successful because it acknowledges the work that you do. If you start thinking too much about your success, you’ll lose it. For me, success means moving on and failure means contemplation. Success provides you with the direction forward.”

It helps that his life is surprisingly regular, almost ordinary, he insists. When he is not shooting, he spends 10 to 12 hours in his office. His duplex in Mumbai suburb Bandra (designed by actor and architect Riteish Deshmukh and the venue of many Bollywood soirées) is out of bounds to the press. And he is up till the early hours of morning catching up on American television (he’s just started watching the new seasons of Orange is the New Black and True Detective).

Though he may call his life ordinary, any attempt to separate the man from Bollywood will be futile.

As the only child of producer Yash Johar and homemaker, Hiroo, Karan grew up in south Mumbai in the lap of Bollywood. Actress Zeenat Aman was a neighbour, while producer Yash Chopra, actor Amitabh Bachchan, poet, lyricist and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, and screenwriter Salim Khan were regular guests at the Johar residence. “I remember my parents being invited for trial shows (pre-releases). I’d throw the biggest tantrums if they didn’t take me for a 9 pm trial show because I had school the next day,” he smiles at the recollection. “I was okay with sleeping for a few hours less, but I couldn’t bear to miss a film. Being the only child, I was indulged quite often.”

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But it wasn’t the endless hours in a theatre or watching Guru Dutt and vintage Raj Kapoor films on VHS that made him fall in love with the movies. The passion was triggered by a chance visit to the sets of yesteryear producer-director Manmohan Desai’s film Naseeb (1981) at RK Studio in Chembur in the late ’70s. “They were shooting the song ‘John Jani Janardhan’ that had all the famous movie stars (Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore along with Amitabh Bachchan) in it. All these famous people in one room,” he says, unwittingly echoing the lyrics of the song. “I saw Manmohan Desai behind the camera and men in tuxedos and beautiful women walking around. I just sat there awestruck; my jaw on the floor.” That’s when the seven-year-old realised he had discovered his candy store.  

Though a child of the industry, the young Karan was never quite sure of his place in it. He never thought that this glamorous world could be his future. “I didn’t think I’d be able to fit in,” he says. At the same time, even as a child, he defied stereotypes. No indulgences in the typical male fantasy of joining the army or flying an aeroplane for him. (“I was and still am a nervous flyer.”) When asked ‘what he wanted to be when he grew up’, Karan would pick obscure professions like hairstyling and floral styling. “My mother was fed up with me. You would have never seen a child like me who wanted to do all these strange things. But I was always attracted to the arts.”

Karan’s love for the arts and the environment he grew up in were a match made in cinematic heaven. That he would go on to ‘dabble’ in the film space was all but inevitable. He was 26 when his directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai released, and since then, he hasn’t stopped “playing around with his favourite toy”— Bollywood.

This also gives rise to a pleasant quandary: What do you do for ‘fun’ when your work is ‘fun’? “In our business, the lines are blurred. For me, what I do is fun.” Life is his muse. Work is fun. The product of this happy union is a constant creative buzz.

For Karan Johar, his work is also his play
Image: Vikas Khot

He hasn’t taken a holiday in years. “I don’t like to take holidays. I travel on work and I get some me-time in between meetings or shoots. I don’t go to spas or beaches to just gaze at the sea. If you forced me to go on a holiday for 10 days, I’ll blow my brains out. I can’t do nothing.” But he does take about three days off every six months or so. “It’s when my body just gives up and I have the viral. I spend those days in a haze of antibiotics.”

Within the ordered mayhem that is his life, he finds moments of silence to channel his creativity. “I don’t have a set creative process. People draw from music or books; I turn to life for inspiration,” he says.

He draws from personal dealings and observations. “I could be in a room with someone and pick up little personality traits and details.” For instance, on his way back from London, “somewhere in the airspace over Mumbai”, Karan thought of a scene and a dialogue for his next directorial venture, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. “That’s how I write. I am random and erratic. No one should ever follow my way of working as a template because I am the most sporadic writer, director, thinker, ever. It was a really bumpy flight because of the monsoon, and suddenly I thought of a dialogue that was interesting.”

He calls this process a childhood habit. “Of course, I give it a varnish of Hindi cinema,” he adds. “Sometimes that coat is opulent, sometimes it is frivolous, and at other times, it’s exaggerated and dramatic.”

The sights and sounds of a new city almost always fuel his creativity. “I find travel invigorating,” he says. “I was in Venice recently for a family engagement. I had never been there and I walked through its narrow lanes, bridges and along the canals. It’s not the cleanest part of Europe, but it’s wonderfully cultural. I just sat in cafes and looked at people.”

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Places like a small bookstore in London and The Museum of Modern Art in New York are old friends who always merit a visit  “[On travels] I eat on my own, watch movies and plays and visit museums. I am not into sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. I unwind by walking the streets of exciting cities. People ask me how I am clued in to new sounds. It’s simple—whether I am in London or New York, I walk into places playing live music. They are playing the music of the times and you pick up on what people are listening to.”

The big city as a muse is visible, not just in his films but also in his menswear line, named after him and designer Varun Bahl. Karan says he tracks fashion trends based on what “people are wearing on the streets of New York”.

He also draws inspiration from good films. “When I see a great work by a colleague, envy turns into pride and goes straight into acknowledging their brilliance and then wanting to emulate it. It’s a simple journey,” he says. Karan keeps a track of all the films making a buzz. On his current must-watch list is debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Cannes-winner Masaan (2015). “I’ve been hearing such good things about it.” His association with the 2013 film, The Lunchbox, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival that year, surprised many. “I watched The Lunchbox at Cannes and immediately fell in love with it. I thought, ‘I have to be associated with this film somehow’.” (Karan ‘presented’ the Indian release of the film.)

Then, there is the time when the globe-trotting stops. That’s when he comes home to his office in suburban Khar: His “favourite spot in the world”. The walls of his cabin are peppered with movie posters, including one of The Iron Lady signed by Meryl Streep, and framed photographs of Karan’s best friends, actors Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan with his wife Gauri. Bound scripts are piled on every available surface.

As the interview draws to a close, Karan gets up from behind his large wooden desk to say goodbye. “I love my office,” he gestures around him. “It’s quiet here and there’s so much buzz outside.”

And that’s where we leave him. Unshaven, with flecks of grey in his sideburns and sipping coffee. 

(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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