Sometimes it feels as if Karan Johar has his own cinema genie, who turns all his wishes into money-spinning, mass-appealing hits. But it isn’t like that at all. He has everything, and he gives his all, every single day. In the two and a half years I’ve spent on the fringes of this industry, I’ve realised that unlike in other professions, here, the more successful you become, the harder you have to work to keep it. You wake up every day with the fear of the unknown and the fear of becoming unknown. In the course of my conversation with Karan, I learnt that Bollywood’s most powerful producer and star-maker isn’t above these fears either. He does, however, manage to own them—the man is a career case study on success, longevity, leadership and building relationships.
Mallika Dua: Your first film came out in 1998; it’s now 2019. Not only are you still famous, but also hugely relevant and influential. What’s your secret?
Karan Johar: Accessibility, availability and affability. I’m making myself do lots of things that people who take themselves very seriously don’t do. I also have a mother who keeps me grounded. When your basics are strong, you don’t take yourself very seriously.
MD: But this is an industry of megalomaniacs!
KJ: That’s also very entertaining to watch. Sometimes, you’re caught in a conversation where you think to yourself: if I don’t praise this person, this conversation will go south. I’ve become very good with fake praise. I have mastered the art of what to say after a screening. I just hug and say, “I’m speechless!”.
MD: Let’s talk about your relationship with Alia. Everybody knows you’re her mentor, are you also her harshest critic?
KJ: I have the same emotion for Alia as I do for my daughter Roohi. In fact, it was Alia who made me realise that I have a paternal instinct. I talk to her about everything. We have a very honest equation.
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MD: But you’re also great friends.
KJ: Alia is somebody who I can simply pick up the phone and talk to. She would never let me down. When I’m in pain, I can see her pain. We have each other’s back. I feel like I can take her for granted, which I don’t, but I can—and these are the people who become the most stable equations in your life.
MD: And after having Roohi and Yash, do you think you give fewer f*cks?
KJ: I do, and I feel like when they turn two, I will start spending even more time with them. There will be summer holidays, sports day, this day, that day…
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MD: Thanks to people like Deepika Padukone and you, mental heath awareness has found space in mainstream conversation. Can you tell us a little about your journey?
KJ: There is an in-denial introvert in me, which I turn into this loud, gregarious extrovert. Nobody believes me when I say that I feel shy when I walk into new places, or a room full of people. I did struggle with my mental health a few years ago. I went to a psychiatrist, and I was on medication for nearly three years. I think acknowledging your mental health is the first step in winning the battle against it. A lot of us do not do that. It’s considered a sign of weakness, but it shows strength. I’m glad I addressed it because I came out feeling emotionally victorious, ready to face life with an energy I didn’t possess earlier.
MD: As audiences, we have seen a shift in your films with regards to LGBTQ representation. From the flamboyance of Dostana (2008) to the refreshing portrayals in Bombay Talkies (2013) and Kapoor & Sons (2016). Was this conscious?
KJ: Sexuality is representative of a person’s identity in many ways. With the Kanta Bhen bit in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), people asked me if I was crazy because it was a commercial film. I remember saying that the only way to make India aware of something is to tread very carefully and use the medium of humour. Sure, we might offend some people, but that awareness will have been created. And I carried that same belief through to Dostana. Yes, there was some criticism about the stereotypical nature of certain characters, and yes, perhaps it was warranted. But there’s an important scene in the film: the traditional Punjabi mother accepting her son’s sexuality in an emotional, heartfelt, non-comical scene—and that was over a decade ago. My strength and courage has now grown to a point where I can depict what I want to. We are developing a film that has a very progressive take on homosexuality. I think it is the order of the day to do that.
When are you bringing Fawad Khan back?
I would love to bring him back, but now I think the ball is in the nation’s court.
Is Vicky Kaushal your Fawad rebound?
No [laughs]. Vicky Kaushal is not a rebound, he has great individuality.
The film of Alia’s you disliked the most?
Shandaar. I also produced it.
A habit of Alia’s you love, and one you hate?
Alia’s talent is a gift and I love that she works hard towards making it better with each performance. What I don’t like about Alia is that she, like me, gets hyper about stuff. We both get very wound up, very fast.
Is your jawline a 100 per cent real?
Yeah, I haven’t really done anything to my face. The thought has crossed my mind, but maybe post 50.
By today’s standards, isn’t Rahul from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai a douchebag?
He was a douchebag then too. He was lying all the time. It was just Shah Rukh Khan’s brilliance that he made it believable. If you really analyse, you’ll see he is a mess.
Sometimes, it takes a product of nepotism to smash the stereotype to pieces. That’s why I love Alia Bhatt. She gives me hope that everyone will be loved or hated based on their skills and not their DNA, and proves that privilege is just a word or a wasted opportunity, if it’s not accompanied by the kind of talent and hard work she brings to her craft. Alia is not a keyboard warrior, not the biggest fashion icon either, nor a sex symbol or a method actor, or a director’s actor. But she is one of the finest talents of her generation and that’s probably because she never lets herself get caught up with labels. Gen Z has so much hope.
Mallika Dua: In just a couple of years, you’ve gone from an object of ridicule and meme content to one of the most prolific actors of your time. How did that happen?
Alia Bhatt: I find it very tiresome to think about myself. I don’t like to analyse and dissect my journey. I feel very grateful and happy when people call my work prolific, but also find it amusing. I don’t have that kind of lens on myself, not yet.
MD: Do you have a technical process, or are you an instinctive actor?
AB: Sometimes if the role requires you to prep—maybe learn some sport, understand a specific body language—I’ll do it. But on set, I try and keep it as instinctive as possible and try to not think of any method.
MD: If you could redo one of your performances, which one would it be?
AB: I don’t think I would redo anything, to be honest, because even the performances that I could have done better have something different in them. So, it may be raw or unfinished, but it gives character, like it did in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014).
MD: You entered films when you were very young, and didn’t get to do a lot of things like going to college, and walking on the street or expressing feelings online freely. Do you feel like you missed out?
AB: I still say the F-word with my friends, I just don’t say it in public. I get to be myself enough. College is the only thing I didn’t do, but I didn’t really want to study anymore. So my college was and will be being on set.
MD: Are you insecure at all, professionally?
AB: I am insecure about getting insecure, because I am not like that at all as a person, and I don’t want to be.
MD: You did Kapoor & Sons (2016) where you weren’t the lead and didn’t have as much screen time. And now, the same with Gully Boy. What is the thinking behind it?
AB: I believe that anybody who has an effect on the storyline, is important to the film. If you take that character out, a piece of the puzzle will be missing— that’s the way I look at the story. If I am present through the film, but I am not really affecting the storyline, I find that way worse than coming for a shorter duration but making an impact.
MD: Talking about Karan, both of you share a very special bond. Does it ever bother you, even a tiny bit, when he mentors other new talents, like Sara, Janhvi or Kiara?
AB: Not at all. I think Karan is one of the few directors who gives newcomers such big films and it would be totally wrong for me to be upset about it. Unfortunately, people are constantly talking about nepotism to him, but if you see the kind of work he puts into bringing it all together, it’s a lot.
MD: You were insanely busy with work and had very little rest last year. Do you sometimes just want to chill the f*ck out?
AB: I got some time off around New Year’s, and that gave me a very big boost. It’s a nice feeling that everybody wants a piece of me. Sometimes even if I have an hour [to myself], I have to give that away. It catches up with you. I had started getting cranky, falling sick, and feeling like shit. I don’t think creative and emotional juices flow if you are not rested and if you are not at peace. You have to find something that calms you and I am still searching for it.
MD: There is an 11-year age gap between you and Ranbir. Does that ever affect your relationship?
AB: Not at all. Age is just a number. It could come in the way if your emotional quotient isn’t high. I have a very high emotional quotient, because of the way I was brought up—we have always had a very liberal outlook and we were always allowed our own perspectives. In any case, Ranbir is like a child. If anything, I am the older person in the relationship.
Photographs : Tarun Khiwal
Styling : Malini Banerji and Rahul Vijay
Art Direction : Prashish More
Hair: Yianni Tsapatori/Faze Management (Alia Bhatt), Rajiv Gogoi (Karan Johar)
Make-Up: Puneet B Saini (Alia Bhatt), Paresh Kalgutkar (Karan Johar); Assisted by: Akshita Singh, Divya Gursahani, Pujarini Ghosh, Dhvani Jhaveri, Pallak H Shah (Styling) And Akriti Bindal (Decor)