Top Bollywood movie mogul Karan Johar, who is riding high after the stupendous success of ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani’ (RARKPK), is understandably pleased that he has lovingly sculpted a glossy romance with strong undercurrents of woke appeal. Cancel culture, body-shaming, fat phobia, and subversive gender politics have all been tackled in this hyper-glam girl-meets-guy narrative. However, Johar remembers being called out for not being progressive enough in some of his earlier films – specifically Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s iconic blockbuster ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ (1998). And the person who called him out was veteran actress Shabana Azmi, who incidentally plays a crucial role in RARKPK, which is out in UAE cinemas now.
“Two weeks after ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ was released all those years ago, Shabana ji, who’s in my latest movie, saw that film in London and called me, asking me to justify how a tomboyish woman [Kajol] who suddenly became pretty after wearing saris and growing long hair, only for the hero [Shah Rukh Khan] to fall in love… I was silent and said I am really sorry,” said Johar in a video interview with Gulf News from his study in Mumbai.
Apparently, Azmi – who just couldn’t wrap her head around a woman becoming desirable only if she wore chiffon saris and sported make-up and salon-perfect long hair, was pleasantly surprised to see Johar admit his misstep.
“She wanted me to justify and I said: ‘I can’t’ and she went: ‘you are just taking the onus for this one’. I felt she had the right to be offended. Ironically, 25 years later into our conversation, she is in my “woke-est” film where everything is on-point,” said Johar.
While Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt’s delectable film ‘Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani’ (the love story of Rocky and Rani) isn't anything like Johar’s directorial debut ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, it’s equally glamorous while weaving in a good dose of social commentary and pushing cultural agendas.
In Johar’s star-fueled vehicle which released on July 28 in the UAE cinemas, Singh plays the flamboyant and wealthy Punjabi bachelor Rocky who falls in love with a fierce journalist Rani, the sari-clad feminist fatale.
Their sensually-charged meeting, a result of Rocky trying to help his ailing grandfather (Dharmendra) retrace his past lover (Shabana Azmi) who happens to be Rani’s widowed grandmother, is high on spectacle, drama, dance, and meltdowns on cancel-culture.
A scene where the outlandish hero who’s thoroughly confused by cancel culture in today’s times is one of the high points of this thoroughly enjoyable feature.
So was he armed with a “woke check-list” in his hand, we ask.
“The film developed organically and full credit to the Shashank Khaitan, Sumit Roy and Ishita Moitra … All of them really put their best step forward … We didn’t think our story would go down addressing cancel culture, subversive politics … One thing led to the other. But to answer your question: ‘no, I didn’t sit with a list of ten boxes to tick so that I can be the wokest person alive,” said Johar.
This multi-hyphenate, who produces and directs huge star vehicles and has sold this dream of love, heart-break, and courtship in majority of his productions, claims he is still a “woke in progress”.
“I am getting there and I am learing every day. I am adjusting my terminology every day and my thought process because, as you know, I made films in the late 90s. I grew up from the cinema from the ‘70s and ‘80s. So it took me a while to understand that chasing somebody is stalking and it’s not romantic. It took me a while to understand that some of the things that we have shown in our mainstream cinema is deeply offensive today,” said Johar.
Over the years, Indian cinema has been blasted for normalising love stories with women having little agency and glorifying chasing a desirable woman by a persistant hero is as an accepted method of persuasion.
“It took me a while to understand the gender politics of ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ and how it was not on point. I have learned the job and so just like how Rocky says in this film: ‘don’t cancel me because if you do that, how will I ever learn’. I resonated with Rocky cancel-culture meltdown,” said Johar.
Johar, also a wildly popular talk show host, wields significant clout in Bollywood.
Renowned for crafting genre-blending emotionally resonant films, this 51-year-old pop has shaped the careers of several Bollywood stars, including Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Sidharth Malhotra.
He is also responsible for shaping Indian pop culture through his lean-but-rich catalogue of films including ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’, ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’, ‘My Name Is Khan’, ‘Student Of The Year’ franchise, and ‘Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna’.
His latest film ‘RARKPK’, which has also done remarkably well at the box-office globally with a collection of over Rs1.3 billion in Indian box-office alone, seems to have appealed to all ages.
Apart from the spotlight on the young couple’s love and lust chronicles, played to wicked perfection by Bhatt and Singh, the movie segues into the bit where their grandparents explore love and chemistry in their 70s.
“I have explored the politics of love which I think all Gen Z and Gen X kids enjoy. But I am no fountain of youth like what my passport would say,” said Johar.
He claims he grew up on a staple of films like ‘Silsila’, ‘Kabhi Kabhie’, ‘Chandini’ and ‘Lamhe’, all love stories that talk about everlasting love, forbidden courtships, and unorthodox attraction. While he’s eager for his films to be relevant and resonate with the youth of today, Johar is still particular about retaining his signature in all his songs and films. His movies, often shot in gorgeous locations, invariably has his actresses dancing in the snow in a weather-inappropriate chiffon saris. The hero is in layers and puffer jackets in the same song. His another trademark is an actress’ hair flying even at a place with no wind, a point that Shabana Azmi gently pointed out. But she didn’t win that battle.
“I had to have those scenes! ... We shot the song ‘Ishq Wala Love’ [in 2012] where Alia was all cutesy, young, and bubblegumm-y high-school … It was 11 years ago in Kashmir. But I just needed Alia to be in that same location in chiffon saris now. If I missed that opportunity, I would never forgive myself.”
While certain elements from his films are sacrosanct, Johar has embraced progressive narratives in his recent films. ‘RARKPK’ is one of the rare films in Hindi cinema that address and acknowledge that senior citizens also have a right to love and choose their partners. Johar doesn’t rely on tired tropes to portray conflict in partnerships. Azmi and Dharmendra, who play characters who indulged in a clandestine affair in their twenties and later meet in their old age, are the strong pillars in ‘RARKPK’.
“That kiss between them is very poetic and romantic. In the scene where they are transported to 1978 when they first met was a poignant one ... There was applause in cinema halls when that moment came. It was heartening to hear the audience’s approval. I met Dharamji and spoke to Shabanaji recently, and they both said that many are calling them up and sending them clips of applause from cinema halls. It’s the biggest validation for any filmmaker,”
For Johar, who is often trolled for things ranging from his very existence to his fashion sense, validation from the audiences was crucial.
“It has been a seven-year gap since I directed a film. In the last two years, I may have questioned myself and my ability on whether I can transfer my creative energies into my filmmaking. It was important to gain my morale back for me so that I can forge forward in my 50s and create many more films. This validation with 'RARKPK' has given me wings to fly ... I don’t quantify love with money, but the kind of love I received for this film is overwhelming.”
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‘Rocky Aur Prem Kii Prem Kahani’ is out in UAE cinemas now