Karan Johar
Karan Johar talks about his work ethic, playing mentor to newbies and enjoying being trolled
Sarita A Tanwar (DNA; July 12, 2017)

He is among my top three people to interview. He is unpredictable, articulate and irrepressible. I am sitting with Karan Johar on a couch, having coffee and interviewing him, eat that, actors! “Let me put on my interview face,” he smiles. There is so much to ask him. From films to fatherhood (that’s another interview altogether). So without much ado, over to the filmmaker who refuses to age (40 plus and fabulous), to slow down (he is making more films than he ever did) and take himself seriously. Read on...

You have made nepotism the most Googled word in India and now there is news of you launching three film kids — Jahnvi Kapoor, Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Pandey — and taking it to the next level!
I think much has been said and debated about that word. One person talks about it, everybody discusses it and it becomes a national issue. I don’t think nepotism is one thing we should discuss because it has existed in so many industries since time immemorial. Can we say once and for all, RIP nepotism and move on from that?

Once the debate was triggered off, did it make you conscious?
I am not conscious at all. I look for talent for the movies I do. I am not confirming all the rumours of launching Jahnvi, Sara or Ishaan. But there will be three or four new faces that Dharma will launch by the end of this year, and they will be in pivotal roles and films. We have screen tested people from all walks of life, and if some of them happen to be from the film fraternity, I am not going to be apologetic. What is the harm if a friend’s daughter or sibling or child is talented and cast for a part? I had nothing to do with Mr Mahesh Bhatt before I chose to launch Alia. David Dhawan and his wife Laali are family friends but Varun went through the grind of being an assistant director for five years before I thought that he was good enough. Sidharth Malhotra was not from the industry and I never get credit for that. Or the 15 directors, who are not from the film industry that I worked with.

You are a mentor to actors and directors. How is it different?
Directors go through equal amounts of fears, anxieties and insecurities. You have to ‘baby’ directors much more than the actors. Somewhere, the actors are happy in their zone of vanity and that is the cocoon they can find lot of solace in. Directors have all kinds of apprehensions. They always have a vision that they feel that perhaps they are not executing to its optimum and they think they are not getting as much as they deserve. Then you have to try to explain to them that economics of the market don’t dictate this kind of a budget. So, I feel almost like a principal of an institute that has children of all ages, stages, rages and I am just having to kind of handhold them. So, before I became a parent I was already parenting. So, I have had an amazing experience at nurturing and parenting.

Is that also true for filmmakers who are not new?
Yes. See the ones that are not new are difficult because the dynamic has to be handled by me. The moment I am dealing with a director, who is already established, then I have to stop behaving like I am a director at all. Then I have to behave like a needy producer. Because I am also a filmmaker, that conflict of interest might arise in our dynamic. I let go off that. It is all about being strategic.

What happens when someone you launch becomes successful and over time feels you have nothing new to teach him?
Fortunately, there is a lot of regard and respect that I get from directors who have dealt with me. A lot of it is success. Let’s not lie about the fact that eventually our opinions are driven from our success ratios. Our justifiable opinions come from the reason of our success. For that, it is important for me to constantly be relevant even as a filmmaker. I cannot afford to stumble and fall in this company as a filmmaker. The moment I do, it will immediately be thrown back at me. You know, like the question mark face of ‘What do you know?’ If Ae Dil Hai Mushkil wouldn’t have been a success, if the music wouldn’t have been a big hit, if the film wouldn’t have achieved what it set out to achieve, I may have been in a position where I would have felt, ‘Can I afford to give my opinion?’ I can because I’ve come on the back of a success. The moment I give a failure, I take a step back. People might think he is 45 years old, he could be losing the plot, so it is so important to constantly be relevant. I feel like I cannot flirt with failure if I want to be a relevant producer because I am nurturing so many young directors who won’t take me seriously if I come on the back of a failure, it is as simple as that.

How do you stay relevant?
By constantly listening and not talking. Because I think most people who live surrounded by glass walls and in delusion don’t listen to people and opinions. I do not want to be surrounded by yes men. I want no men. I want people to tell me what’s wrong because what is right, you always have a feeling about. Your instinct tells you what’s wrong. But sometimes it may not hit you, so you need to be told. So, you need to be surrounded by people whose opinions you actually listen to. If you walk through the corridors of Dharma Productions you will find the average is between 19-25 and I listen to everyone. I listen, I am accessible, people can walk into this cabin, there is no appointment to meet me. I am accessible, affable, I am amiable and I am available. That is the most important criteria to stay relevant. It is also important to keep your ear to the ground. I am interested in what is happening in my industry.

Do you talk to people from all walks of life? I hear Aditya Chopra may not talk to the media, but in his studio he asks the opinion of everyone from the gardener to the driver to the watchman — in short his audience.
Aditya Chopra may not be social, but he is very connected to the ethos of movie making. He is more informed than I am. He is far more with the times than you could imagine him to be. He is not in a social domain, but he meets everyone. Every single head of every organisation. In fact, he is better connected to the corporate sector than I am. He taught me how to watch a film, how to enjoy in its truest form.

You used to go and watch movies in theatres earlier. I am sure you cannot step out in the public anymore.
I totally can. It is overrated. I go to PVR Juhu and it is my favourite spot.

Why don’t we see your pictures at the theatre like we do of actors?
I haven’t been in a while, but I go to theaters. You know what happens is, I get called for screenings. But actually I don’t want to go to preview theatres anymore. I feel all we are doing is lying. You don’t like it, you can’t say it. Also, then you are obliged to tweet how great the film is, even if it wasn’t. Now I wish everybody one day before and I don’t have to give my opinion. That is my new strategy.

A lot of filmmakers watch previews and tweet nice things, then bitch about it on private groups....
Of course, a lot of times one is lying... You can call it fake tweeting or as I call it; support tweeting. Sometimes I think everybody sees through it. If the film is not good and you are tweeting positively, you are doing it for friends. What are friends for?

Saying all the best, or give it love and all that is fine. Some people go to the extent of saying great film, fabulous work.
Yes, that takes it too far. I have to say I am completely guilty of overdoing it sometimes. And I am going to try and control that. But I feel that I have to support something because a friend has made a product, but without getting carried away. And yes, tone down the level of praise, if it is not worthy. I have to somewhere find that balance which I am not being able to strike.

How many checks does a writer have to go through before reaching you?
He doesn’t come to me at all. He or she can go to our development division, which at this moment is work-in-progress. But we have information on Dharma website and numbers that one can contact. If the team loves the script, it comes directly to me. So seeding and the wetting process is what we have a division for.

How many scripts do you end up reading?
I read about five scripts a month.

You are one producer who never goes on his set. Why?
I do not want to be there. As a rule I don’t go, I go once or twice to visit and wish them.

Your dad would always be on the sets of the films he produced.
Yes, but he was a producer who wasn’t a director. When you are a director and you land up on set, I feel actors might react to me differently, and the director on set might be mildly intimidated. I am the producer and also a director so in both ways I could bring an energy that will not keep the environment easy and comfortable on the set. Also, when I take a director, I want their own individualistic voice. I want him or her to make their film and not have my inputs enforced into their narrative because then they will never make their film. I do not want me floating around the company.

But when you see the film in the end you do give inputs...
That is when I step in. I step in the beginning and then right at the end during the final cut. And even then it is an exceptionally democratic process. I will never force an opinion on any director in the company even if it is their first film or they have an experienced backdrop. I will argue, reason it out, give them my opinion/perspective, but if they feel very strongly that ‘I want this cut and this is the way it is going to be,’ I will go with it. Because I am sensitive, they are filmmakers and I am one myself.

If you are coming from a space where you know better...
I can’t always know better. The moment you start believing that about yourself is the end of your creative journey. Perhaps I don’t know better. There are times where I have known better eight out of 10 times. But there are those two occasions where the director has been completely validated and vindicated as opposed to my opinion.

You have always been criticized for making movies for the elite class and the NRI. Does it bother you anymore?
Nothing bothers me. I am beyond people’s perceptions of who I am. I don’t want to actually combat the perceptions anymore because I have faced it since 1998 and it was like I was straddled with this bubble gum, NRI and elite and when I am asked “why?” I have a simple answer, why not? This is who I am. I am not going to apologise for who I am. I am unabashedly in love with Hindi cinema and Indian cinema. I grew up on the movies that actually altered my mental fabric towards entertainment. I will make what I want to make. So why am I not making something else? It is somebody else’s passion and they are probably better at it than I am, so let them.

You make these big budget movies, have you been tempted to make small film because you make that much and you make so much more money?
No. I made a short film once which you are given a crore to make and it was a really strong exercise I have to say. I don’t design a film by its budget.

I remember last year you told me that the CEO didn’t sanction a big clothes budget for ADHM and you told the stylist that you’d give her the budget she wanted from your personal account.
There are some indulgences that I cannot do without. I see my characters in a certain way in my head and now I feel like I have earned the right to be indulgent. I would never do something that would cause huge damage to me or my company. So, I feel I can make much more... but really money has never been my driving force. I have always been fortunate that it has never been something that I have had to do without. Money is a great pre-requisite and a great kind of plus to the job that we do, and do well. But as long as I have the lifestyle that I have right now and as long as I can continue to make movies through my company and go on doing what I am doing, I am happy. I don’t want to make that kind of money that perhaps will take my lifestyle to another level.

What would bother you more, if someone said something bad about your film or you?
I would rather they abuse me than my film. I don’t mind being abused. I enjoy it. I have reached a stage of social media nirvana. I am really alright with anyone who abuses.