An Unsuitable Boy

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This blog has previously carried content on K3G here and here. I had the chance to read the biography of its Director, Karan Johar, recently. Here is [some of] what caught my interest…

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I’ve had two unrequited love situations in my life. One in my twenties and one in my thirties where I’d loved and not received the love back, and I remember how hurtful that was. With Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, I feel I’ve put out my first personal piece of work. I’m pretty much Ranbir Kapoor in the film, and the film is all about him and his broken heart. There are scenes, moments in the film that are completely me.

Somehow, you always remember your first address – it was 92 Acropolis, Little Gibbs Road, Malabar Hill, Bombay 46. We had a wonderful view of the Queen’s Necklace. I believe very strongly in the energy of spaces. It’s really all about energy.

My mother has a series of first cousins and all of them were air hostesses with Air India. My fascination for the arts and glamour started with my aunts. It’s something I’ve never really acknowledged. They all used to smoke and they were extremely glamorous.

Girls always liked me. I think they felt comfortable around me and perhaps I also gave them sense I was effeminate. I remember how that word used to disturb me no end. I also hated being called fatty. But the word I hated the most was pansy.

My father grew up in Shimla. His entire family had a sweet mart business, called Nanking Sweets, in Delhi. He was one of nine siblings and around the time he was eighteen, he was told to sit at the counter, which he was very depressed about. He told me that his grandmother always felt he had a bright spark. She gave him money and jewellery and said, ‘Go to Bombay and make a life for yourself.’ She’d faked a robbery in the house a week before that. She had it all planned.

My mother studied in Nainital. She knew Amit uncle from college. Amit uncle was at Sherwood and she was at St. Mary’s. They were a gang of friends. My grandfather did not allow my mother to become an air hostess; it was too much for his traditional mindset. So she worked as Alitalia ground staff, went to Rome and studied Italian. She did all that before she got married.

My parents met at the race course and fell in love quickly, the quickest that I know of.

There was once an incident with a big box of Quality Street chocolate. It was sealed but I found a little edge where I could just peel off the Sellotape, open the box a bit and take out some chocolates. At the end of the month there was just one chocolate left but the box was still sealed. When my mother found out, I got a slap from her, one of the only two slaps in my entire life. The second slap was when she realized that I couldn’t tie my shoelaces even though I was twelve. Even today, I have a problem tying a knot. I do it but it doesn’t come easily to me. I put that scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. That fat kid in the film is a little bit of me.

There was a school called New Era. Tina (Twinkle Khanna) used to study there. I realized this school had kids from different backgrounds who were trying to fit in. I still recall the moment. I was standing right at the slope, just like that scene in Taare Zameen Par, which, by the way, was shot in the same school. I remember seeing my father in his red car, a second-hand Toyota Corrolla (a car that always reminds me of my father). I ran up to him, panting and puffing because I was so overweight. ‘I beg you, please take me home,’ I kept saying.

I had left Green Lawns to go to boarding school and my mother had to really beg the principal to take me back and tear up my leaving certificate. Green Lawns had a club called Interact Club, run by a Miss Doris. I joined the Interact Club. About two months later, while I was in class, a peon came and said the principal wanted to meet me. Miss Doris said, ‘Today is the preliminary round of the inter-school elocution contest. Yes, the school car will take you to YMCA Churchgate. Go and recite the poem and we’ll see if you qualify.’ All the big Bombay Schools – Cathedral, St. Mary’s, Campion, Bombay Scottish – were there. A familiar-looking boy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m in Scottish, which school are you in?’ He said, ‘I’m Yash uncle’s and Pam aunty’s son.’ I said, ‘Oh, you are Adi.’ He said ‘I’m reciting “The Great Dictator”.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m reciting “The Highwayman”.’ This was the first time I really interacted with Adi.

While I was in college, my father produced Agneepath, which although touted as a big hit turned out to be a big flop. My maternal grandmother had passed away and we had to sell her flat to recover the losses. So while I was having a good time in college, I was also seeing my father’s morale drop because he was going through a very bad patch professionally. In the last year of college, I had made a friend called Anil Thadani who’s now a famous distributor, and Raveena Tandon’s husband. He was best friends with Aditya Chopra. Over a period of time, Anil, Adi and I became really close. But I still hadn’t thought of joining films – not till Adi asked me to.

There was a speech that Shah Rukh had to deliver to the father, ‘Babuji, aap theek kehte hain.’ That speech. Adi asked, ‘What do you think the take of this speech should be?’ I said it should be like the Julius Caesar speech, you know, Caesar’s an honourable man, etc. it should be sarcastic, it should be like, ‘Yes, I’m a liar, so what if this liar loves your daughter like no one else. So what if I’m a deewana. So what if this deewana, paagal, liar, loves your daughter. I’m still a liar, still a liar.’ Adi liked the idea. So I sat down and wrote it and Adi took it from me and modified it. He kept 80 percent of what I wrote and put in his own 20 percent. Shah Rukh asked me three times. He said, ‘I can’t believe you’ve written the scene!’ He did the scene and from then on, I think something changed in the way he viewed me. He started taking me more seriously.

I remember Kajol had just started dating Ajay at that time and she would take me aside and confide in me. That time, Adi was dating a friend of mine who had given me forty cards, and I had to give him one for each day of the outdoor shoot. There was so much romance on the set; it was like a film about love, surrounded by love. Shah Rukh called me up after the premiere and said, ‘See, it’s October 1995. I’m giving you dates in October 1997. You have two years to write a film.’ ‘Don’t assist any more now. Write.’

I was supposed to come up with an idea for my first film and present it to Shah Rukh by January 1996. Nothing happened. In March-April of that year, Shah Rukh was shooting for a film called Chahat, which Mahesh Bhatt was directing, in Jaipur. He called me and said, ‘Come and tell me your idea.’ My love for Raj Kapoor was in the first line of the film; ‘Mujhse dosti karoge?’ Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was undoubtedly the most honest projection of who I was.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham has been the biggest success for Dharma Productions. Everyone in the world knows Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham as the go-to Bollywood film of this country. It’s true. It’s got the biggest brand value in Germany, in France, in Ireland. People at that time didn’t know so much about a film’s commercial earnings, and they’d say, ‘Really it did better than Lagaan?’ In this industry, perception is reality.

I will write a cool film. That’s how I began my journey to write Kal Ho Naa Ho. My first problem was with Kareena. She asked for too much money. She said, ‘Aditya Chopra’s assistant, Kunal Kohli has made this flop, so Karan Johar’s assistant, Nikhil Advani, is not be trusted either.’ The weekend of that film’s (Mujhse Dosti Karoge!) release, I offered her Kal Ho Naa Ho, and she asked for the same money that Shah Rukh was getting. I said, ‘Sorry.’ Kareena and I didn’t speak to each other for almost a year.

I made that speech about fathers and sons in Singapore, during IIFA, in June 2004. He passed away twenty-one days later, on 26th June 2004. Death is such a finality. I always say that when you get a marriage right, the loss of a spouse can be much worse that the loss of a parent. It’s so strange how marriage today has taken such a beating as an institution. But that generation got it right, my parents became each other’s soulmates, companions, each other’s strength, support, everything. I really feel that my mother is half of herself today, because she feels she’s lost a part of herself with my father. So I think I lost two parents that day. I lost my father’s body and I lost my mother’s spirit.

After Kaal I went into develop Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. When my father was alive, I was writing a love story set in pre-Partition times. But the canvas was too large. It was supposed have Shah Rukh, Ajay, Rani and Kajol. It was about two homes, and it had a Hindu-Muslim angle. It was a very strong subject, and would be called Kalank. But at the last minute, I pulled out of it. I started thinking of making a more intimate film. I wanted to do something bold. This is the one film I wish I could direct again and I will, one day. I feel very strongly about its narrative and I still think it’s got some of my finest moments as a director. The only thing is I feel I directed Rani too sad. And I made Shah Rukh too angry. And I wish I had directed Rani less guilty. She played it too guilty only because of me. Even Mr. Bachchan would say, ‘Karan, what are you making? What is going to happen? What are you doing to me? And I’d say, ‘Amit uncle, I am casting you as a slightly overtly sexual older man.’ Then he’d laugh and say, ‘You have come to the right person.’ Now I get irritated when people come and say that ‘Your best film is Kabhi Alvidaa Naa Kehna. We hated it then, but we like it now.’

My Name is Khan was a heavy film. Looking back, I feel I went wrong with fifteen minutes of that film. There was a whole hurricane angle that didn’t work at all. After My Name Is Khan, I began feeling the need to take a break from anything heavy. I also started fearing that I was becoming mildly irrelevant to the youth.

I love music. And I listen to only Hindi film music. I know Sanjiv Goenka, who runs Sa Re Ga Ma, really well. He is a friend of mine; he lives in Kolkata. So one morning – I didn’t tell anyone – I took the six o’clock flight to Kolkata, and called up Sanjiv. I said I had come to meet him and that I would have breakfast with him. I reached his house and said to him, ‘See, I’ve never asked you for a favour before this and I will not ask you again. But this is a favour you have to do for me. You have to give me “Disco Deewane”. I have to put it on the Student of the Year album. I know you have a policy that says you can’t do this. But you have to help me. I need that song.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yes, it’s a company policy, but you’ve come all this way… I’ll bend that policy for you. But promise me, you won’t ask me again.’

Anupama Chopra called me once – she had seen Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. There’s one scene where Imran has this board, he organizes his life on it, and Anupama wanted to know if that board was available in the retail market. I told her, ‘Anu, I’ll find out because finally there’s something you’ve actually liked in my film.’

It’s very difficult to keep relationships going in the film industry. Consistency is the problem, not creation. I’ve had my share of relationships. I’m close to Manish Malhotra, I’m close to Niranjan Iyengar, I have Shah Rukh and Gauri. The Bachchan family. I’ve known Rani and Kareena very closely. Even today, my body language is of being Aditya Chopra’s assistant. When he’s angry with me, he addresses me by my full name. He says, ‘See, Karan Johar, don’t argue with me.’

My one major relationship was overseas, with someone who lived in Los Angeles and then finally moved to New York. It didn’t work out. It lasted for just over a year. And that was the only relationship I’ve ever had in my life. Of course, I’ve fallen in love in the past. But I always end up falling in love with unavailable people. The best pieces of writing I’ve ever done were when I had a broken heart. I wrote Ae Dil Hai Mushkil post a broken heart. But heartbreak has really strengthened my core.

I actually did join a high-end dating service last year. I was in London and I was told about this service which takes on a lot of well-to-do singe people. They choose you, you don’t choose them. They called me and said there was someone interested in meeting me in Tokyo. But I really can’t be going to Tokyo to meet someone.

The other big thing that happened in my career along with my films was, of course, Koffee with Karan. The first episode I shot was not the first in the sequence of the telecast. It was with Saif and Preity. We shot it on Saif’s birthday on 16 August 2004. He was going through a bit of turbulence because he was on the verge of splitting up with his wife. Saif had to be perky on television and talk about his wife as if things were kosher. On top of that, we had lighting problems. It was a bit of a strange first episode. In my entire Koffee with Karan history, there’s only one person I ever gave the Rapid Fire questions to, and that was Sanjay Dutt. I remember some directors coming up to me and saying, ‘Are you sure you want to expose yourself so much? A film-maker has to have a sense of intrigue.’

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I have been thinking of having a child for a long time. It is the biggest emotional thought in my head right now. I am looking at literally getting a child as my old-age insurance. It will, of course, have to be a surrogate child, or I will have to adopt. I am afraid of growing old alone. That’s my greatest fear. Death doesn’t scare me, life sometimes does.

Karan Johar with Poonam Saxena, An Unsuitable Boy (Shobhaa Dé Books, Penguin, 2017).

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True to his word, Johar published this statement in March, 2017:

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