Do you know both Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar called up Karan Johar after the release of his 1998 directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? But for different reasons. Shabana chided Karan for his anti-feminist gaze on the track of Anjali (Kajol). And Javed admitted he was wrong for turning down the film for its, well, sexually suggestive title.
But that’s what Karan Johar and his filmography have stood for: extreme polarisation, even from two minds who think alike. This dichotomy stems from the heart and mind of an evolving filmmaker, who is as much a fan of the mainstream Hindi movies as much as its reluctant critic. He’s as much a Dafli Wale dancer as a Balenciaga cheerleader. And he’s as much a closeted traditionalist as a work-in-progress woke.
That’s exactly why 25 years after his first film, Karan feels compelled to validate the woke discourse around it. He doesn’t only nod to all the regressive strokes, but in fact points at them himself and shares a hearty laugh with his naysayers. He may attribute wokeness to midlife crisis, but he’s really a self-aware filmmaker who knows how to take a joke.
The most common pain point that he pleads guilty to from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is Shabana’s gripe with the film. Why does Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), the cool dude on the block, feels the hots for Anjali only when she wears a sari, and not when she’s a tomboy in college. But haven’t we all worked hard on ourselves in order to seek validation?
Compare Anjali to Poo (Kareena Kapoor) from Karan’s 2001 family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Pooja, a girl from Chandni Chowk shamed and bullied by the kids from rich families in her childhood, milks the fuel, the distance, and the opportunity to work hard on herself and become the object of desire in her London college.
Sure, Anjali has left college on the contrary, and doesn’t even have a new, aspirational land to pick up from. But if an Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) can fuel his unrequited love into his music in Karan’s 2016 romantic musical Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, then why can’t Anjali channel it into self-care and win a prospect like Aman (Salman Khan) for marriage?
More than that, Anjali is an autobiographical symbol of Karan’s own struggles of fitting in. He self-admittedly took classes to work on his personality, even on his baritone, so that he doesn’t come across as too effeminate. For him to make Anjali reunite with Rahul doesn’t amount to condoning Rahul’s regressive gaze, but painting a silver lining for himself through fiction.
Aman > Rahul?
The second pain point, that even Kajol agreed with recently, is why would Anjali not choose Aman, whom the actor described as “the cooler guy”? Well, because women don’t always want men who will keep them happy, but men who know what happiness means to them.
Go back to the conversation between Naina (Preity Zinta) and her mother Jennifer (Jaya Bachchan) in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), a film which Karan wrote and Nikkhil Advani directed. Jennifer says Rohit (Saif Ali Khan) has the strength to love a woman who loves another man, unlike her father who undermined Jennifer’s strength and ended his life because he fell in love with someone else. The Amans of the world (Shah Rukh Khan) may sacrifice their love because they are dying, but the Rohits of the world have the emotional intelligence to know when to back off, when to lend a shoulder, and when to take the leap with their partner.
Or take Karan’s 2006 film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. Maya (Rani Mukerji) doesn’t love back her overtly romantic husband Rishi (Abhishek Bachchan), but is attracted to the acerbic, reckless other man Dev (Shah Rukh Khan). She feels borderline repulsed by Rishi: why wouldn’t she? He doesn’t take no for an answer. Dev, on the other hand, will show her the mirror, but also let her be.
‘Pyaar ek hi bar hota hai…’
Another argument that often crops up is how Rahul always preached “Hum ek bar jeete hain, ek bar marte hain, shadi bhi ek bar hoti hai, aur pyaar bhi ek hi bar hota hai.” Karan jokes that Rahul didn’t take the last part as seriously. But that’s the whole point: to make Rahul eat his own words. He had no plans to remarry, but can’t help it when Anjali reenters his life. It’s she who turns him into a hypocrite years after he friendzoned her. Let’s sing ‘Rahul is a cheater’ in that annoying tone?
Karan is a bit of both Rahul and Anjali. Growing up, to him, involves both transforming physically and sartorially and shooting down his rigid beliefs. As far as the most glaring loophole in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is concerned, how did the one or two-year-old Anjali read the first two of the nine letters her mother left behind? Let’s slide in what Karan had been reiterating throughout, “Tum nahi samjhoge, kuch kuch hota hai.”