Eminent filmmaker Karan Johar, who was a guest at the latest edition of the Express Adda held at Tote on the Turf in Mumbai, spoke with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Express Group, and Shubhra Gupta, film critic, The Indian Express, on how Indian cinema has changed over the decades, growing cynical of the old-fashioned idea of love, the business model of filmmaking and all the noise that the digital world is making
On adapting to change
We recently moved our office from Bandra to Andheri. When I moved to Bandra, the first film we released was Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. We all know the syntax of that film. The last film that came out of the Bandra office was Kapoor & Sons. And we know the syntax of that. That explains the evolution of our 16 years in our Bandra office. We evolved because I allowed myself to evolve with the people who surround me. It’s important not to be deluded, to always be relevant, to always connect with your audience or know what’s right or wrong with your movies. It’s important to read critics and see what they have to say. Their opinions matter, all opinions do, even if sometimes they’re ludicrous. Sometimes you run the risk of going through the filth in social media. You have to filter through that.
Love: Then and now
Cinema in the ’90s was always slightly melodramatic, theatrical and aspirational. Rahul was created in the ’90s. He is the aspirational lover boy to the generation who grew up watching those movies. Today, he’s a lot more scarred, lot more grey. He makes more mistakes, he falters, he fumbles. He apologises for his mistakes. He’s not as heroic as Shah Rukh Khan’s arm-wide-open moments of romance. He’s flawed. In Kapoor & Sons, they’re all flawed, they all walk the grey path.
My view on love has gone to being cynical, for some reason. When you’re single for too long, you surround yourself with too many married people and their problems. In fact, infidelity is no longer something that is brushed under the carpet and spoken about behind closed doors. Now if you go to a party, you can stare at the husband while his wife is saying things about her personal life to me, and vice versa.
The business model of films
We’re going through a bit of a crisis. We’re losing footfalls and have increasing budgets. We’re in an unstable situation in the sense that, there are six-seven movies that make money in a year and there are many more that release. You either have breakthrough films like Neerja, Kapoor & Sons, or big-event films like Sultan. Look through the year and you have six-seven of those experiences—Rustom, Airlift, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons, the more evolved cinema experiences. Then of course there is a movie like Sultan, which is both entertaining and emotional and yet an event, because Salman Khan is such a mega movie star. The skew is going to shift and it’s going to cause its own storm at studio level or production level, so it’s time for us to re-evaluate what we do, how we make it, how much we make it in, and how we plan to position it in mainstream.
All of us—Yashraj Films, Dharma Productions—who are family-run businesses, have been in the thick and know of the economic structure of Hindi cinema and Indian cinema in general. Show me a film and on a piece of paper I will show you the basic recoveries. Then you realise whether you should make the film or not, and in what budget. What shocks me is that some people don’t do that basic mathematics, before putting the film out.
On the rise of digital media
What I’m afraid of is that, in the years to come, digital will be the parent, television will be the annoying mother-in-law and cinema will be the troubled child. Till we don’t nurture the troubled child, and give them the platform of being a proud parent, things will go all over the place. We need to nurture this troubled child. Right now, cinema is a troubled child. Budgets have to be controlled, content and writers have to be empowered. We write really poorly. Our problem is that we want to pay actors and directors a lot of money, and not pay the writer. Writing is the soul of the film. No director can go beyond a poor screenplay. You can correct it but you will never make it into a great film if the writing is not strong and that’s where we first need to go—change and empower our writers.
What I’ve done successfully is create writer-directors, because whenever I sanction a director, invariably he/she has also been a writer. I’ve stopped reading books, I read scripts, because I want to create a pool of working writers that actually changes the tide of Indian cinema. That’s my biggest endeavour. And then go on to create digital content.