Last week I had a chat with Karan Johar. I had wondered if his latest movie ‘Student of the Year’ and its cast would entertain audiences, so I decided to ask him the same. Karan was very charming and articulate for every question. If you’re wondering why Karan cast 25-year-olds as teenagers in the film, and are wondering if he would only make commercial romcoms, read on for a pleasant surprise:
MF: So this is your first film without Shahrukh Khan or any mega star for that matter. What is it like to work for the first time with first timers?
KJo: You Know I think I was more stressed out than them, because you have to deconstruct your own ways of directing. You kind of get into a pattern with movie stars specially with Shahrukh, and I think I got into a pattern as a director directing him and other movie stars, so I had to kind of deconstruct my own thought process. I found myself giving them really archaic instructions – telling them things like the way Shahrukh may have done it, overinstructing them, giving them stardom instructions and bringing them into your movie frame. Sometimes you need to let people be, which what I was not doing in my first 20 days of work. I was behaving like a really prehistoric, dated and been there done that kind of filmmaker (chuckles). Then I realized that if I am launching new talent I have to leverage from their roughness, their rawness and I shouldn’t overinstruct them. Eventually it became fun because I kind of began feeding off their energy. I realized I became a more subtle filmmaker in the process (I have always been slightly over the top, I have been a filmi child, grown up watching larger than life hindi films, and that has always been the way I operate in my head). In that way I was more scared than them, it was more nerve wracking for me.
It’s an entertaining fun film, it’s not like I am making path breaking cinema and moving filmi mountains. It’s a fun, happy film; song, dance and happiness. I was at no point sure as to what I was doing, I was always walking on eggshells, and the kids had more clarity than I did. I was also afraid of sounding outdated, especially with the current generation and how they speak. Colloquial banter of the twenty somethings is now is very different from who I am today, and I was brought up in a different 20’s and even that time I was kind of lagging behind the scenes.
MF: Alright. What was your thought process after ‘My Name is Khan’? Did you always want to make a smaller film after that?
KJo: I wanted to make a happy film. I don’t think I am capable of making any small movie.
MF: Ok ‘relatively’ smaller film, then
KJo: Yeah, I wanted to make a small film in terms of not having a big star or big star cast, I definitely felt that I should launch new talent. It actually started off as a smaller film but it turned out to be a big budget one eventually, but yeah the idea was to be on a zone where there’s a happy zone, a happy vacation, I’m very filmi that way, I love the quintessential shaadi song and dance and unapologetically love love songs. It might seem like I’ve not moved in my fifteen year career, but it doesn’t matter.
MF: Was SOTY the only project in your mind at that time or did you have other films in mind?
KJo: I had this idea of a fictitious school and this competition in my head for a while, and there’s no such institution that exists in this world, and it’s a figment of my imagination. And I’m not athletic or sporty as you can see, so I put in all the sport dreams in this film and all the fun and games that I love about Hindi films is really in this. I even ended up doing a few remixes of some of my favourite yesteryear songs.
MF: We’ve had a number of ‘Youth Oriented’ films over the past few years, like the Y Films for instance. So apart from the better cast, the better production values and of course the better director, how different do you think SOTY is from those films.
KJo: It’s its own duniya ki pichchar, What are the other Youth Films that you’re talking about here?
MF: Mujhse Fraandship Karoge, Luv ka The End and so on and so forth
KJo: (Smiles) You can slot it in the same category of course, they’re aspirational young high schoolish kind of films. I don’t think content wise there’s anything different, barring the scale and money there’s probably nothing different about it. It’s a simple narrative and it definitely has something to say in the end. It may look slightly more larger than life right now but it actually has its own layer of subtlety. Nothing is over the top in the film, barring the songs.
MF: You mentioned that you’ve auditioned a lot of people for the lead roles in SOTY, so is it a coincidence that a star son and a star daughter happened to be cast in the movie?
KJo: Actually Varun (Dhawan) was an AD on MNIK, subconsciously maybe because he is David Dhawan’s son, it may have played a part. I can’t say that nepotism did not play a part there, it may have, subconsciously.
But definitely Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter (Alia) played no part because I heard of her only from the outside. We had a series of 400 auditions because I wanted to cast the right girl, then my friend Niranjan told me that Mahesh Bhatt has a daughter and is dying to be in a movie. So I said ok call her in, and she came and she was fifteen kilos heavier and did the audition. I didn’t even know that she made it to the short list, Nandini my casting director said ‘I have to tell you this girl is definitely in the short list’. She said she is fat but she had something about her. I saw her audition tape, and she was PLUMP, like a plump Pooja Bhatt (Pooja was also heavier in her earlier days), then she did this Hindi film song and it reminded me of the quintessential Hindi film heroine but with a different kind of look. So I asked her to lose her weight and come back. I showed everybody the audition tape in the office.
MF: A common criticism of Hollywood high school films is that lot of 25 year old or 30 year olds play high school kids. In your film Alia looks like a teenager, but Varun and Siddharth are I think both 25, are you afraid that the audience is going to react negatively for the same reason here?
KJo: I don’t think so because the film is actually a flashback film – they’re all 30 in the movie. I haven’t revealed this yet.
MF: Ohh.. I won’t mention it in the article
KJo: No it’s ok you can mention it. In any case I didn’t want to keep saying it because I feel like I am justifying everything, I generally never say too much about everything, it’s for you to discover. Even in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ Shahrukh was 30 when he played a kid.
MF: But even in the flashback they’d still be 25 year olds right?
KJo: Of course even in flashback it’s a stretch to pull it off. What was actually tough for us was to make Alia look 30. It was the other way round which was difficult and we not have achieved it to the optimum because she is just 19. You don’t change much between 20 and 30, there’s a certain facial construct that changes that no CG in the world can do.
KJo: I couldn’t give her a wrinkle because she is 30, we were really distraught. If you see Varun and Siddharth in person, you will see that they are meant to be 30 years old. With boys, you just have to make them a little older, invariable the first thing you do is the stubble so there’s no rocket science there. On the flipside if I had cast all three 19 year olds, you have to understand that there is a ‘Movie Star Connect’ with an older face. When there’s a kiddish man, you don’t find a pan audience going to watch the movie, they’d say bachchon ki film hai, Nickleodeon should have it. With girls you still get away with it, but not with the boys. It was a commercial decision.
MF: Coming to your other releases of this year, ‘Agneepath’ was a big, big success for you. But it was a very violent film. Despite all the violence and the profanity it still got a U/A rating from the censors. So my question is, would you take your 10-year-old son or daughter to watch Agneepath, for the kind of content it has.
KJo: (Pause) It was a U/A film and it was cleared by censors, and to me the news on TV is far more violent than that film. That way I won’t take my 10-year-old child anywhere these days, so if you go by that barometer, my kid will be sitting with my dog in my house. Have you seen some of the reality TV that kids watch? I think they’re more offensive. In fact I’m scared my child would become more regressive watching some of the TV since there is both sexual content and violence on it. So to answer your question I don’t think Agneepath was no more or less than what is being exposed to kids on a daily basis. It was killing evil, yes it was violent, we had to actually tone down the violence from the finished film. Yes I would take my 10-year-old if he wants to see Vijay Deenatah and Kancha fighting each other. Every cartoon is also so violent today, every superhero is so black and dark, I mean where is the Mickey Mouse generation? My child will probably slap me if I show him Disney cartoons, that’s why I don’t want to have a child so I don’t have to face this dilemma (chuckles).
MF: Do we get to watch the uncut uncensored version of Agneepath sometime?
KJo: The director is doing a Director’s Cut DVD release, it has around 40 more minutes of material which went into the psyche of Kancha to explain why he was like that.
MF: That could be interesting
KJo: Yeah, we had to chop off a lot of the film for the length, in fact the first half of the film is a film in itself.
MF: Are you a fan of indie cinema?
MF: Which is the recent favourite indie film you’ve seen?
KJo: In the last three of four months I haven’t but whenever I go out of the country I watch a lot of world cinema. I’m a huge fan of Pedro Almodovar. I watched my first Almodovar film back in 1995 and I went completely cuckoo over him. I know nothing of my cinema reflects my love for him, but from his projections of sex to his sense of humor about food to his sense of humor about women, men, I find him absolutely brilliant.
Even the new Woody Allen is very fascinating. A lot of his earlier movies had this whackiness but recently I think he’s gone into new groove, post his New York fixation, I think he’s gone into a really interesting headspace altogether. I love this film ‘Warrior’ that I saw, I know it’s not independent but it wasn’t celebrated as much as I thought it should have been.
Independent, I watched ‘500 days of summer’ and liked it a lot, but I remember when I saw it for the first time, I was a little thrown off by it, till I saw it again. The first time I thought ‘have I got this cinema’? I hadn’t. For the first time I went in to watch this love story, and the characters threw me off.
MF: I think the opening line itself is ‘this is not a love story’. This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is NOT a love story.
KJo: Yeah, in fact someone came to me with an idea that I should adapt it, but I said we’ll never get it right, we’ll muck it up. Our version of an independent love story was what Shakun (Batra) made for us with EMAET, which had its own unusual kind of synergy about it. I would actually like to produce that kind of movie, no one comes to me with those kind of scripts. I’ve produced a small 4 crore film on the coming of age of a 14 year old girl, and I wish many more people would come to me with scripts that are different and interesting. People come to me with so much crap, in fact the word ‘rom com’ gives me a disease now, I go into hives when I read them. But I think that’s the reputation of the company, that we produce only safe entertaining rom coms. Some of the deviations that we tried didn’t work, like ‘Kurbaan’ didn’t work, but I want to put it out there that I’m interested in making all kinds of cinema. I may not have that range within me, but I would like to work with those that do.
I wish I had produced ‘Udaan’ – I loved the movie, I saw it and it just made me feel happy. It was oozing cinema even though it was such a simple narrative. I hope that people pitch slightly unusual films to us as well because I believe every film has a market if you position it right.
MF: Speaking of indie cinema, there’s this whole gang of ‘indie enthusiasts’ out there, who constantly complain about how our film industry only makes commercial masala. They even blame filmmakers for only wanting to make commercial masala. Is their anger justified?
KJo: Funny story, there’s this place in Bandra and Milind Deora had a conference there, and it was full of these intellectual, great, path breaking content makers. I was the odd one out there. Anurag Kashyap and I had a strange war of words earlier. Later I walk in and I see these fifty heads turn to see this commercial (pardon my French) chut aka me walk in, a guy who has no idea of great cinema, I could feel the vibe coming and hitting me. And Anurag, who is the doyen of this whole community says to me ‘do you think we should talk’, and I said ‘No in a situation like this we should just hug’, and we hugged and he said it’s all good, forget it. The very next week Rensil wanted to fine tune the dialogue for Kurbaan and recommended Anurag, but he asked me if I had a problem. I said not at all, he might not like my films but that doesn’t mean I don’t like his. I think Anurag has made some great films, I LOVED ‘Black Friday’, he’s a really bright mind. So he came in and we had this really wonderful chat and he says ‘you are nothing like I thought you were’, I said ‘I don’t know what you thought who I was, but it doesn’t matter because you are really good at what you do, and you don’t have to like my movies’.
I do get the angst of independent filmmakers because it is tough to walk in and penetrate through the larger studios and you get a little bit of runaround, but that’s also as such a very big and large part. I wish they had access to us, cos there are some scripts that are waiting to be told and I don’t get to read them. I want to read them. I personally read a script a night. But just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re good, it has to be different in a way that actually works as a screenplay. So if there is a way, through your blog, or maybe you know these people, do say that we are more than happy to read them.
MF: Alright, thanks a lot!
After I turned the recorder off we bitched about a couple of people and rounded off a fun discussion. SOTY opens this Friday.