While I deliberated on the title of this piece, this was my least favourite one. Given that Mr. Johar is a man as secure as any, what need of his and what qualification of mine would justify such a piece, I had wondered. But even after putting this thought away, I felt the need to write this for my own clarity. I thought that if writing is indeed the litmus test of ideas, then I would lose my conviction along the way. So, if you are reading this, then rest assured that I stand by my premise. Writing has only helped crystalize my thoughts on the matter.
I don’t hope to convert hoards with my essay, but if I could push even a few to think differently about Karan Johar, I’d think this was worth it.
The three sections to this essay are:
The current Auteur Theory and its pitfalls
Karan Johar: An examination against the Theory
The Technical (The Mind)
The Stylist (The Body)
The Auteur (The Heart)
An evolved, comprehensive model of the Auteur Theory.
SECTION 1: THE CURRENT AUTEUR THEORY AND ITS PITFALLS
Most film lovers are familiar with the Auteur Theory. Briefly, it is a film studies concept that originated after the second World War in France, when film critics such as Francois Truffaut, Andre Bazin et al. defined and argued over it. They broadly used it as a value system to group together certain kind of filmmakers above others. It was later incorporated in the American and British film culture by critic Andrew Sarris’ interpretation of it, and his subsequent debate with legendary film critic Pauline Kael, who was as acerbic as she was assertive in her take-down of Sarris’ essay.
The simplified version of Sarris’ argument was that directors who inject a personality in their films are above those who make a narrative motion picture without any personal touch whatsoever. That an Auteur leaves his films with his imprint on them, that he’s above being just a tool in the film-factories that the Hollywood studio-system had become. It mythologized the film’s director as the literal author (auteur) of the movie. Such a director is till today, usually, if incompletely, defined as one whose individualistic style and almost complete centralized control over a film is what makes the film great. Their films are easily recognizable in their themes because of recurring patterns, styles, and voice. Overly simplified as that definition is, it isn’t entirely inaccurate. And that’s the definition many film lovers might think of whenever the theory is mentioned.
But before we get to Kael’s rebuttal and what evolution I think Sarris’ take needs, let’s explore the take itself and its pitfalls.
Pauline Kael (left); Andrew Sarris (right)
There are two main problems with such a narrow definition. One is that it upends the value system, for better and for worse. Better because in 2021, we must surely not be that judgmental on only one metric, and the value system must go. Auteur theory isn’t and shouldn’t be absolute. There are as many exceptions to it as there are examples of it, and plenty of great films are left unexplainable by the theory. And the narrow definition upends the value system for worse because it boxes most directors as capital-A Auteurs, thus rendering the entire exercise of classification futile.
For example, it works when we say that Kalank is heavily inspired by the style of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films. We’re inadvertently calling Mr. Bhansali an Auteur, which he arguably is. Or, when a time-bending science fiction film comes along, there is bound to be a Christopher Nolan reference in its reviews, and if film is above average, we can even expect the word ‘Nolan-esque’ in its descriptions. When Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit invokes mentions of Wes Anderson, we acknowledge and attribute a certain stylistic take to the latter, thus calling him an Auteur. Most Hrishikesh Mukherjee films are more-or-less recognizable after watching a couple. And so on. But by the same definitions, most directors with any personal trademark or recognizable patterns at all can all be called Auteurs; from Rohit Shetty, Michael Bay, Manmohan Desai, to Satyajit Ray, Guillermo Del Toro, Raj Kapoor. Without valuing one set over the other, there should be a better way to classify directors, as all filmmakers mentioned above are noteworthy in their own way.
The second problem with this narrow definition is that it is just that, a narrow slice of Sarris’ classification. His original argument was in the shape of three concentric circles as shown below, from this article.
Andrew Sarris's Auteur Theory
Andrew Sarris: “The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle as personal style; the inner circle as interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.”
As illustrated above, we today colloquially call any director an Auteur as long as they have a visually distinct personal style, which is only one of the three concentric circles in Sarris’ theory. So, we get essays arguing that Michael Bay and Tommy Wiseau are Vulgar auteurs, but auteurs nonetheless. And yes, with this definition, they all are.
Now that we agree that the Auteur Theory as defined only by visual directorial trademarks and their recognizability is simplistic, let us see if the above, more nuanced multi-layered take on the theory holds any water.
As defined by Sarris, the concentric circles do represent a value system. That’s again the most immediate problem with this model.
The first assumption here is that value is best in the centre, and any director who can earn a spot in that centre is an objectively ‘better’ director.
The second assumption is that a director must fall within the outer circles if he is inside the inner ones. There is not only no room for pure technicians, but they are also held in lesser regard than the ones in the circles inside. In fairness, the original 1962 essay did have a mention for exceptions and conceded that certain directors are auteurs before they’re great technicians.
The last problem, which is what Kael primarily argued for, is that all that’s discussed so far assumes that it can only be applied to directors. Kael instead wished for abolition of the Auteur theory because a) a film is a collaborative process, b) repetition without development is decline, c) criticism is an art and not a science, d) a critic that uses a single theory is like a gardener who uses a lawnmower on everything that grows. She called the concept of “interior meaning”, defined as the “tension between the director and the material”, as a “mystique and a mistake”, and instead argued for unity of form and content.
To evolve this narrow, director-centric, value-based, and concentric-circle theory, we might assess a director most peculiarly fit for its current definition: Karan Johar. Peculiar because while he fits obliquely into all three circles, at the same time he is almost never taken seriously as a filmmaker. A section of the audience seems to hate him personally, sometimes by focussing only on how problematic some parts of his films are, and other times by how ‘immoral’ his work is. Another section seems to think of itself to be above such “fluff.” That there is no study of why his films strike a chord when they do, is telling.
I can't help but consider Karan Johar a maverick in Bollywood. Years from now, or perhaps even today, an Indian depiction of New York in a festive/positive manner can invoke a "Johar-esque" tag. That the man is man enough to be brutally honest about his creative pitfalls, his personal battles, and embraces his perceived shallow image is fodder enough. And yet, as a director, he has a somewhat distinct (if superfluous) style in his shots and composition that makes him worth a study.
SECTION 2: KARAN JOHAR, THE AUTEUR
Let us, for argument’s sake, humour the thought of placing Mr. Johar against each of the three concentric circles in Sarris’ theory. He might just qualify for all three professions: that of a technician, a stylist, and most contentiously, an auteur, as we find out in the following sections.
2.1. The Technician: “A Good Director Must At Least Be a Good One”
Most films are somewhere on the spectrum between formalism and realism. Formalism refers to stylization of visuals and storytelling, where aesthetic elements are not drawn from or geared towards reality. They can have vibrant colour palettes, fantastical or surreal imagery, obviously fake veneers to their production design, use of special effects, “unrealistic” writing, acting and/or tone. George Melies, the famous director who made A Trip to the Moon (1902) and was mythologized in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, was one of the early pioneers of formalism. Recent but extreme examples are Speed Racer (2008), Alita: Battle Angel (2019), or Saawariya (2007). Even Aaron Sorkin’s films might tilt towards formalism because his characters speak in a way only they can. Karan Johar’s films have a polished, glossy look to them, something that makes them look hip, trendy, modern, in somewhat narrow but absolute definitions of those words. From what little we understand of formalism vs. realism, his films are a hundred percent formal in the way they look, sound, and feel, aesthetically; they do not look or sound amateurish, technically. We all can agree that while he isn’t known to be a great technician himself, he assembles around him the best people who can do the work.
Kabhie Khushi Kabhe Gham (2001); Dharma Productions
On the other side, film theorist Bazin again was one of the first ones who argued for realism around the mid-40s. He said that the goal of cinema was to represent reality – long takes, wide shots, eye-level camera, controlled editing, etc. – were the methods he admired and advocated. What we Indians called Parallel Cinema (or the Indian New Wave) was an extreme ‘genre’ of realistic cinema. Off late, Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, or Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly lean heavily towards realism.
While Karan Johar’s form is formal, his content is more honest and more real that he gets credit for. What I mean by form refers to the aesthetics, texture, and tonality. Johar’s films do not claim to represent social or political angst, issues, or to serve any purpose other than entertainment, isn’t a problem as most of us think it to be. Most of his films could well be remade as Broadway musicals – high on drama, spoon-fed emotion and intensity, and they would not lose their emotional impact. And all departments are complicit in this presentation of a formal story. For example, the acting Johar demands from Shah Rukh Khan or Alia Bhatt isn’t the acting a Gauri Shinde will ask for in her films. His depictions, while not always painted in broad strokes, are manipulative by design and his audiences go in to get manipulated. There is no claim of visual, aural, or surface realism.
And when I claim that the content is honest, I mean his themes, ideas, and outlook (which we get into in a later section); all those are real enough to have an impact.
The downside of such rigid formality is that the visuals date easily. In an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, Johar admits that the only technical things he knew before he started his career was when to use the wide shot, the medium, and the close-up. Next time you watch a Johar film, notice his use of close-ups for obvious dramatic effect and of wide shots for scale. It is simplistic but the knowledge of this apparent ‘surface-level’ employment of the camera does not take away from its intended dramatic effect. For example, the opening mukhda of the title song for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM, 2016), wholly relies on an extreme closeup of his lead actor’s face.
Johar also has shown tremendous growth and learnt much along the way. In his book and interview, he has mentioned how Nikhil Advani, the director of Kal Ho Na Ho (KHNH, 2003), was a big influence in teaching him film grammar, Aditya Chopra for teaching syntax for films, and Ravi Chandran, a veteran cinematographer, for learning camera movement on the sets of My Name is Khan (MNIK, 2010). Anil Mehta, another legendary cinematographer, pushed Johar to get more edgy and realistic for the scenes in ADHM.
Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016); Dharma Productions
That’s not to say he doesn’t have his own vision. Even before these ‘lessons’, Johar had a recognizable albeit heavy-handed technique. The constantly moving camera, another one of his admissions, the swell of music at the exact moment geared for maximum impact, the clothes, the locations, especially of his earlier films, are what we still stereotype him for. While Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH, 1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (K3G, 2001), were marked by exaggerated and overdone visuals, Kal Ho Naa Ho deserves its own Mankiewicz – Welles debate (the question of who between the writer and the director deserves more credit for ‘making’ the film, with reference to Citizen Kane) because it has Johar’s fingerprints all over it, much more than Nikhil Advani’s, as evident by how the style later became a Johar staple and not an Advani one. The fact that KHNH is usually mistaken to be Johar’s film is further proof that he indeed has a distinct aesthetic style to his work. Before the film, for which Johar has admitted he wanted to emulate the ‘coolness’ of Dil Chahta Hai (DCH, 2001), I had never seen the use of split screens or swift thematic crosscutting done this well in Hindi cinema. Regardless, the result is that while Dil Chahta Hai looks effortlessly cool, Kal Ho Naa Ho’s earnest attempts at being so don’t seem copied from it. Instead, it established a new signature phase for Johar. Gone were the stilted symmetric shots that bowed to production design (KKHH and K3G). The opulence was now in real locations, a new muse of a city, and even sets that don’t yell out their fabrication (Maahi Ve). To an untrained eye, the set for Chandni Chowk in K3G was very clearly a set, while Kal Ho Naa Ho and his later work seemed to make an effort to sell the sets as real locations, even for the traditional family number set in a banquet hall.
His candidness also extends to how he sheds his technical crew and pursues the next big thing. His actions are as honest as his words. Apart from the DCH inspiration above, immediately after the success of Rang De Basanti, Johar roped in the film’s writer Rensil D’silva as co-writer and director for his own production, the somewhat underrated Kurbaan (2009). In the Imtiaz Ali era, we clearly see the influence of Rockstar, Love Aaj Kal and Tamasha in Johar’s last, ADHM.
Another example is in the sound department. While Jatin-Lalit’s melodious songs layered his first film, Johar oversaw a multi-composer album for K3G, much before that became more common in the 2010s. In his later films, he has stayed with all the most popular names of the times – Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for three films (Kal Ho Naa Ho, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, My Name is Khan), Vishal-Shekhar for one (Student of the Year), and Pritam for his latest, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
Extended to casting, this translates to him casting the biggest names in his films, capitalizing on their stardom. On the surface it might appear purely money minded. But Johar’s casting feels different because he capitalizes not just on their name but also on their perceived personalities. SRK had spread his arms since DDLJ. But go to the Brooklyn Bridge any weekend and watch NRIs take cheesy pictures with their hands outstretched to get a feeling that it all started from Kal Ho Na Ho. Ranbir Kapoor was decried as a forever-man-child before ADHM, but the film becomes the more blatant example when the topic is brought up. It is the mark of a good technician to utilize the image of the star and cement it effortlessly.
This unapologetic unabashed honesty in the pursuit of commercial gains makes him seem almost immoral to culturally and cinematically traditional audiences. Lindsay Ellis, author and prominent film essayist, in her essay about Michael Bay, defends “commercial purpose” as a legitimate objective to define the aesthetic of a film. While Bay and Johar have similar goals, the difference is that Bay was a good technician of a director right from the start. Johar, on the other hand, started with only passion and sincerity, and in chasing all those he thought are great technicians, he has improved himself to be a good director, if not a great one.
Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003); Dharma Productions