Karan Johar: I would give SRK a spine

Updated: Oct 27, 2019, 09:30 IST | Abhishek Mande Bhot | Mumbai

Karan Johar's debut and one of India's most enjoyed love stories turned 21 last week, catching social media's fancy. About time, we thought, we ask the maker of a film that gave Bollywood its biggest director, for a sincere post-mortem.

Karan Johar was 24 when he wrote the film. Pic/Getty Images
Karan Johar was 24 when he wrote the film. Pic/Getty Images

In a world of what-ifs, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai would've never got made. Or if it had, it wouldn't have been made under Dharma Productions. While the Yash Johar-run firm had some interesting movies under its belt - Dostana (1980), Gumrah (1993) and the National Award-winning box office disaster Agneepath (1990) - it remained a mid-list production firm that, safe to say, wouldn't have survived post-liberalisation India.

The debut vehicle of Johar's son, Karan, changed that. For the first time ever, Dharma had landed itself a blockbuster. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai released in 1998, on the same day as Bade Miyan Chote Miyan. Twenty one years later, this last week, KKHH trended online and unleashed a wave of nostalgia, while the Amitabh Bachchan-Govinda starrer was forgotten.

Rani Mukerji, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol and Karan Johar at the 20th anniversary celebration of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai at a Juhu five star in October 2018. Pic/Getty Images
Rani Mukerji, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol and Karan Johar at the 20th anniversary celebration of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai at a Juhu five star in October 2018. Pic/Getty Images

The '90s were defined by a handful of movies - the machismo of Ghayal and Agneepath (1990) made way for the importance of family values in a fast-changing India with Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) before, finally, introducing us to Rahul Khanna who wore snug tees, chains that spelt c-o-o-l and had girls drool. How that was possible is a question we can only ask in hindsight.

Karan Johar is the first to admit it. "Rahul doesn't stand for very much. He's a deeply confused character, doesn't know what he wants and, really, didn't do a lot much in the movie. Whatever happened to him was because there were people pushing him - his dead wife's spirit, his eight-year-old daughter, and Anjali herself. What made him endearing was his charm, his large heart and Shah Rukh's personal charisma."

Anjali need not be the long-haired, saree-clad sexy girl to win Rahul's attention because, as his BFF, she was always worth it all Mallika Dua, comedienne, actress
"Anjali need not be the long-haired, saree-clad sexy girl to win Rahul's attention because, as his BFF, she was always worth it all," Mallika Dua, comedienne, actress

Johar confesses that the ethics and politics of the movie were all wrong. "There was no logic or backstory to the characters. You don't know what Shah Rukh, or anyone else, does for a living in the movie. And the eight letters - one for each birthday - made no sense, either."

He was 24 when he wrote these characters. He hadn't studied film and was driven by a passion for larger-than-life cinema that bordered on melodrama. "Growing up, I saw my mother play Hindi film songs - everything from Rafi and Kishore Kumar to Geeta and Guru Dutt. KKHH was a homage to all the movies I grew up watching - everything from Kabhi Kabhie and Bobby to Silsila."

The most obvious one [change] is, of course, the premise. The film is all about how you live once, and you love once. But in that same life/film, the hero falls in love twice! So then? Mayank Shekhar, entertainment editor, mid-day
"The most obvious one [change] is, of course, the premise. The film is all about how you live once, and you love once. But in that same life/film, the hero falls in love twice! So then?" Mayank Shekhar, entertainment editor, mid-day

His influences have since changed. If Bollywood was his primary point of reference in adolescence, now he makes a conscious effort to engage with regional cinema as well as international digital shows. After this interview, he is set to meet Tamil filmmaker Vetri Maaran whose films Asuran and Vada Chennai are among those he recommends.

"I'm also a fan of Atlee's [Kumar, Tamil director] work; I loved Bigil," he says, "And I watch everything in the Telugu commercial space." Lately, Johar has also been watching The Family Man, The Loudest Voice and Fleabag.

I would rather have Rahul get together with Anjali than Tina. I mean, imagine the number of years wasted. I would change that, or perhaps, a longer version of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram Bhuvan Bam, YouTube star
"I would rather have Rahul get together with Anjali than Tina. I mean, imagine the number of years wasted. I would change that, or perhaps, a longer version of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram," Bhuvan Bam, YouTube star

"But my sensibilities changed because I surrounded myself with newer and younger energies. I became more democratic and began practising an open-door policy; that helped me understand where I was going wrong and act on it," he says, "I also became more comfortable in my own skin and stopped comparing myself and my work with others." Johar says he could see these influences working on him as early as the time he was making Kal Ho Na Ho.

"Saif [Ali Khan] was apprehensive of playing Rohit Patel. I had to tell him that it wasn't a sign of weakness but rather quite the opposite. I explained that a man who can stand by someone he loves while knowing she loves someone else is a strong person. It's not what makes him weak but human." The role would put Saif's career on the fast track, making him a bankable star. Incidentally, Saif had turned down a similar role just a few years earlier—Aman Mehra in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

The conscious effort to stay relevant also helped Johar create stronger women in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, his last major feature film that critics count as among his 'most grown-up movie yet'. Here, Anushka Sharma's Alizeh continues to rebuff Ranbir Kapoor's advances till the very end. If KKHH's whiny Rahul earned sympathy, Ae Dil's Ayan (Kapoor) earned a fair amount of criticism. "I didn't know how else to end the movie," Johar says, "I wanted the film to have that arc." At the end, it was Alizeh to whom your heart went out. In some ways, the two movies bookend Johar's directorial career so far.

Johar says today's Rahul would be someone who's more assured and strong. "I'd give him a spine and more EQ [emotional quotient]. I'd also introduce more confrontation. Rahul, today, would be able to have an open conversation with Anjali. He'll know that she likes him and he'd address that with her. If Tina were to die, he'd come to terms with his feelings for Anjali and go back to her, not sit moping."

There's a scene in KKHH where Rahul learns of Anjali's impending wedding and taunts her. She, in turn, refuses to confront him and walks away. "That's not how I'd written the scene. In my original draft, Anjali tears into Rahul and calls him out. She says he doesn't know how to stand up for himself. I threw out the scene because I thought it would cause a disservice to my leading man. Today, I'd keep it. Because now I understand, it's what would make them more human. More real."

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