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Interview: PM Modi Knows About Every Star; Padmas Given On Merit, Says Karan Johar

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By: Rohan Dua
Updated: September 10, 2022 12:36
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Bollywood producer Karan Johar with TNI Executive Editor Rohan Dua.
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Karan Johar, one of the most well-known and talked-about film producers and filmmakers in India, speaks to Rohan Dua, the executive editor of The New Indian, following the release of his film Brahmastra, which has created a sharp divide over social media. Excerpts from Part 2 of the free-wheeling interview.  

Rohan Dua: Do you really think that boycott campaigns affect the box office performance of any movie? There’s an outrage on Twitter against Brahmastra. Why?

Karan Johar: Brahmastra has been a seven-year journey. I and Ranveer put in all our efforts. Ayan Mukherjee has put his entire life into this film. It is his baby. The film has been made on a massive scale.

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We are very grateful to Disney, who actually backed our film from the first day but it’s Ayan’s labour of love. The film is deeply embedded in our mythology; trying to tell a story that can make every Indian feel proud. When you see this film, I assure you, you will feel very proud of our Indian filmmakers. Ayan Mukherjee has raised the bars and tried his level best. He worked relentlessly on the project for 10 years and then 7 years actually on the ground. How can we not only focus on the positives. I want to request everybody to just focus on the hard work and the labour that was gone into the making of the film.

A lot of filmmakers in these 10 years may have bought cars, but this boy hasn’t made any money. Ayan is literally leading the same life as he was living 10 years ago. All he wanted was to put all his heart, soul, and passion into creating something that can make this great nation proud about.

Rohan Dua: You have met the PM thrice. You have been bestowed with the Padma award.  The PM’s constituency is Varanasi, where the film has been largely shot. How fortunate do you feel about all this?

Karan Johar: I got a call from the ministry telling me that I was being awarded the Padma; when I was shooting for a film abroad. I was so overwhelmed. I felt very happy, my father was such a proud patriot. I remember that when I got the national award for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, he was so proud. Had he been there when I won the Padma, he would have been over the moon. My mother started crying when she heard I had been honoured by our country for my work in the entertainment industry. When you receive validation for your work, you feel good and there’s no better feeling than that.

PART 1: My Dad Was Punjabi, Mom Sindhi; Grew Up Visiting Gurudwara Daily With Daadi-Naani: Karan Johar

I met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had a very beautiful time with him. He met all people from the film industry with warmth. He knew everything about everyone. When he met Ranveer Kapoor, he enquired about Chintu ji’s (Rishi Kapoor’s) health; when he met Alia (Bhatt), he asked about Mahesh Bhatt; with Bhumi Pednekar, he spoke about her film Toilet. He was so kind and informed. I think that’s the sign of a solid leader. We went like guests and received a lot of respect. He himself has said: We are a great soft power. Sometimes, we ourselves don’t know what a huge impact our cinema can make. Wherever we go, everyone talks about Indian cinema. Modi ji has given our cinema and industry a lot of due respect.

Rohan Dua: But many believe that before 2014, the Padma awards used to be fixed and many of the deserving people didn’t get it. Do you think this has changed?

Karan Johar: I would like to believe that this is given on merit because I received it in 2020. It was given to me last year officially because of the pandemic. I am a person who always focuses on the positives, so I don’t like to talk on what was before. I think very deserving people are getting it now.

Rohan Dua: When the film industry is blamed for promoting certain people, indulging in nepotism…How do you counter such charges?

Karan Johar: I have been open to criticism but when we are talking about nepotism, are we only talking about leading actors? Why don’t we talk about those who have worked with our company, including editors, writers, directors, casting directors, and cinematographers that Dharma Productions very proudly introduced, at least 25 filmmakers, of which 22 have no allegiance to the film industry. Why don’t we get credit for it? Shashank Khaitan has made 4 films with us, Sharad Sharma, Shakun Batra, Raj Mehta, and many others have too. All of them have made films for us for the last many years. New editors, new designers and cinematographers…we have given a break to all.  The nepotism charge is levelled at us only on the basis of Bollywood actors but there are other people also who contribute to a film. We have given them opportunities because they were deserving. Nobody talks about Siddharth Malhotra; we had launched him. I can give you many names we have promoted who have no connection. You give so much importance to actors. Why don’t you give importance to directors, writers, and so on.

Part 3: Varanasi Embedded Into Brahmāstra, Lord Shone On Kesariya: Karan Johar In Interview

Rohan Dua: You also felt sad when Sushant Singh Rajput died.

Karan Johar: Losing any member of our industry breaks our hearts. We are such a united secular, full-of-compassion industry. The death of a young person is the most shattering for a family and the fraternity.

Rohan Dua: Even though there were charges of nepotism made against you at that time.

Karan Johar: People will always point fingers at you but in my heart, my intentions are always pure and clean and full of love for the industry and even for the people who are haters. I always find hate is also a form of expression of love. I accept both lovers and haters.

Rohan Dua: Alia Bhatt is one who has appeared on your show very often. Many people asked me on ‘Koo’ to ask you (before I was about to take this interview) that did Ranveer-Alia love started on the sets of Brahmastra.

Karan Johar: Obviously, when you are in close proximity during a film shoot, we come to know about each other well.  I think Ranveer and Alia’s love started while they were preparing for Brahmastra. Of course, the journey of Brahmastra was a long one and they found love for each other. I am so glad that they met during the film’s shoot.

Rohan Dua: You’re supposed to be one of the most successful producers in Bollywood. Many people still believe that Hollywood’s imprint in Bollywood is yet to come in terms of action, in terms of creativie thrillers. Do you personally believe that we are ahead of them or Hollywood has been ahead of Bollywood in terms of script?

Karan Johar: I don’t know where that competition is, really. It’s probably in people who are just wanting to copy anything. I think we’re very individual in our own way. Hollywood has always been a huge industry; has made such massive movies; has created a footprint in the archival zone of entertainment for a century and beyond. But we have been very individualistic in our own storytelling.

We have music, songs, and dances embedded in the fabric, drama, melodrama, and emotions at a high level. We have our own cinema and now I think lines are blurring of content, like you see films like RRR are getting so much acceptance in North America, right? It just shows the lines are blurring. People are reacting humungous to the performances.

Look at the lines that are blurring: we’re accepting Avengers and RRR. And we are hoping that eventually these lines blur further and further so much that we get integrated as one massive entertainment conglomerate.

Rohan Dua: Was there a time in India when cinema was at the top of everything in terms of entertainment? Do you think that films like Aurora or even for that matter Kashmir Files change that perception that we’re getting maybe only dominating. And how do you look at these two films?

Karan Johar: I’m a firm believer that cinema is like the mothership medium of entertainment and will always remain so. Yes, there will be other verticals.

I remember when TV came, they said it’s a threat to cinema. When digital came, they said it’s a threat to television and cinema. This is obviously noisy. They will all coexist and in fact, will make each other better because what it’s doing is empowering writers.

What OTT has done is that it has empowered writers. And I’m so proud that the writers have finally found such a huge place, deservedly so, in the sunshine of cinema and content. Look at how beautifully they are blooming and that’s how great content is coming on OTT platforms: YouTube platforms, cinema, Seattle. I mean, like at one point in time today we have so much happening in the zone of entertainment.

Television is at an all-time high and so are digital platforms. Cinema is now going to flourish. Yes, we’ve had tough years of pandemic and we’re doing some adjustments right now post-pandemic. And I think that will all settle down. And we have, we are hoping and praying that the space ahead of us is the golden period for entertainment. And that includes television, digital, and cinemas.

Rohan Dua: How do you look at Kashmir Files that was on a strong subject like ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits. Anupam Kher’s acting was also remarkable. How do you look at them?

Karan Johar: I think it’s a massive success. I told you earlier that an audience will always give a thumbs up to a film that they have connected with or can relate to. So whether it is Aurora or Pushpa or Kashmir Files or Bhul Bhulaiya or Gangubai, all these films have that connection with the audience.

You cannot have a hugely successful film if it doesn’t resonate with the audience. And every filmmaker must seek the validation that an audience has loved and appreciated their intent, their storytelling, their engagement to convince.

Rohan Dua: Many from the film fraternity also tried to isolate Vivek Agnihotri over Kashmir Files.

Karan Johar: I am not sure about who was isolating him but the business is for the world to see. So how does that matter I mean? Eventually, the audience gives you applause. And that’s Janta Janardhan.

Rohan Dua: Right. Of course, we would expect that it’s a roaring success for Brahmastra. The star cast is powerful, plus you are behind the production house as well. We, of course, believe that Brahmastra is going to create records. Many of your fans said it’s the most expensive Bollywood movie ever made. Is it true? Has it overshot its budget?

Karan Johar: It never overshot its budget. It was always within the budget and Disney is very well aware of that. It has effects that have not been seen in Indian cinema. And you know, what one doesn’t realize with VFX is that we are so used to seeing VFX in a certain way that the creation of fire, any VFX expert will tell you, is one of the toughest things. Fire and water are the toughest components.

Rohan Dua: Which is the part of the movie closest to you?

Karan Johar: The entire movie Brahmastra is very close to my heart. And it’s tough for me to single out that one part, but without giving you a spoiler: you don’t miss the beginning. It was a big surprise. And without giving it a spoiler, the end will hopefully amaze you.

Rohan Dua: The media also wanted me to ask you this question. You played a cameo in DDLJ . How much are you proud of yourself for doing that cameo?

Karan Johar: I feel embarrassed. I never wanted to be an actor. I am very happy that my primary passion is film-making and production. It (acting) was never something I was that good at. My primary focus is film-making and production. DDLJ was my institution of learning. Every memory of it is always going to be special.

Rohan Dua: Where did you actually meet Shahrukh Khan?

Karan Johar: I met him in the year 1993 on the sets of Karan Arjun.  He bowled me with his charisma. His aura and energy were so charismatic that blew my mind away. After that, I met and our friendship became stronger during DDLJ. He became my elder brother. Shahrukh, Suhana, and his wife — all are my family.

Rohan Dua: How did you look at this controversy about involving his son in consuming drugs? Did it disturb you?

Karan Johar: Abram is my Godchild. So in every respect, if he’s going through any kind of suffering means I too am. I think the family has already been through so much.

Rohan Dua: Your father was a much-loved person in the film industry. If I ask you, what are the three things which have stayed with you and become a part of your life — which you imbibed from him being a child? How would you like to carry forward his legacy?

Karan Johar: My father always said people need people and for you to be for people, you need to be there for them (and they for you).  Let’s be honest. I think friends are seasonal in the industry and it changes from film to film. But I believe, a relationship should be nurtured. It does not matter that the film is a hit or flop, but maintaining the relationship and respecting the crew members during the journey is important. The third thing he told me was to respect elders, and being humane at heart. I am still living with all these principles.

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