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We continue our exploration of Karan Johar against Andre Sarris’ Notes on Auteur Theory. In this part, we evaluate Johar for the two middle circles – as a stylist and as an auteur.

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.”

2.2. The Stylist: “Must Have Distinguishable Personal Style”.

We cannot deny that there is such a thing as a ‘Dharma Aesthetic’, which is probably derived or evolved from a Yash Chopra aesthetic. Just the opening paragraph of Yash Chopra’s Wikipedia entry tells us that that he a) started the ensemble film in Bollywood, b) ended the violence-heavy era with Chandni, and c) dealt with mature and uncomfortable subjects. Add to that Chopra’s penchant for romance, locations, clothes, music, emotions, and a certain lifestyle, and we get half of all obvious trademarks of Karan Johar films.

The other half are his own takes on art, culture, beauty, and economics. While Chopra's personal views came across as progressive through films like Lamhe (1991), Johar’s final ingredient of his films is his own personality. His take on relationships, sexuality, infidelity, family, friendships, and even fashion, are all transparent throughout his work and life. We know this because the man is open about who he says he is, and we, Indians, have a para-social relationship with him where we feel like we know him personally. His columns, interviews, and autobiography tell us exactly what his thought process is, and how it has evolved. This blend is what makes Johar a great stylist, as defined by the second layer of the theory.

Taking a look at a list of things that make Johar’s films his own, there are stamps of his personality that are sprinkled all over his filmography. (Apart from the ones below, there are other obvious trademarks to Johar that are well-documented. **)

One, his protagonists are all men who appear either emasculated or infantilized. They are not the macho stereotypes that permeated the 90s or even the ambitious or cheerful go-getters like Ranveer’s Bittu (Band Baaja Baraat), or even SRK’s carefree Raj (DDLJ). Often, the hero’s 'manhood' is challenged in some fashion. In KKHH, Rahul is a pant-forgetting, almost motherly father; a man surrounded and shaped by women all his life. Dev in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is a petty, insecure man jealous of his wife’s success, and carries an unappealing personality. Rizwan’s role as a husband and protector is challenged in My Name is Khan when he is unfairly blamed for his son’s death. And Ayan in ADHM is immature and clingy, by design and not by oversight.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); Dharma Productions

Two, Johar’s heroes’ success in their love lives mostly depends on someone else’s charity or sacrifice, or their lack of it. Salman Khan’s Aman in KKHH must happily “hand over” Anjali to Rahul to give Shah Rukh Khan the happier ending. Rani Mukherjee’s Naina in K3G must willingly take rejection so that our favorite arm-spreader gets Anjali again. The “good” spouses in KANK must almost forgive infidelity regardless of how hurt they are. Sacrificial Aman returns as SRK in KHNH where he is not just a happy dying man. Instead, he’s a large-hearted angel whose tragedy is not only in his death but in his gift of a well-loved life to his love, Naina. Naina again settles, Aman again forfeits.

Three, the setting-up game. Many of Johar’s films have characters manipulating the protagonists to fall for or reconcile with their partners. An eight-year-old Anjali hatches an elaborate plan to reunite her father with his college friend in KKHH. In K3G, a younger sibling games his family to help resolve their differences. Aman in KHNH engineers the falling in love of Naina for Rohit. In KANK, the protagonists initially meet with the intent of helping each other fall in love with their own respective spouses. While Saba in ADHM does not set Ayan up with Alizeh, she does shoo away our favorite man-child Devdas because as his Chandramukhi, she knows she can’t ever receive the love that Paro gets from him.

Four, the inadvertent pre-climax reveal of a crucial or foreboding nature that leads directly into the climax. Sonali Bendre’s Dr. Priya accidentally lets the cat out when she tells Rohit and Naina about Aman’s heart issues in KHNH. Oops. The cheaters are quietly atoning for their sins in KANK, when Zinta’s Rhea spills the beans of her divorce to Maya and encourages her to find Dev, thus leading to the extended epilogue that could have been left out if Johar were to be more cynical a storyteller. Fawad’s Ali in ADHM by happenstance meets Ayan and informs him that he’s no longer with Alizeh.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003); Dharma Productions

Five, death. Tina (KKHH), a grandmother (K3G), Aman (KHNH), Samarjit (KANK), Sameer (MNIK), Alizeh (ADHM) – all deaths are above a seven on a 0 – 10 scale of plot importance. The grandmother dying in K3G served to finally unite the family, as Rahul, fulfilling her last wish, finally relents and goes back home for the funeral. Tina’s death sets the plot in motion. Alizeh’s death wraps up a convoluted plot. And while Aman’s death is a ticking clock for the audience, Sameer’s demise is a rude alarm clock waking us out of the American dream.

Six, an intense personal encounter in an otherwise routine public setting, set to then-operatic/now-soapy music. While my favorite of these is the scene where Aman reads a blank diary at a train station, my mother would agree with Filmfare that the ‘re-tuning of clap-chemistry’ scene from KKHH, when Rahul and Anjali meet at the summer camp, is the best example of such a scene. Then, there’s the mall meeting in K3G where the King and Queen ‘stumble’ onto their long-exiled Prince. KANK has an outrageously tense scene of the hero holding a bouquet of flowers for his oncoming lover while his wife appears in the same frame. These scenes may not have the rawness in their execution like, say, the pub scene from Tamasha, but on paper, an intensely public altercation is prime property for drama.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001); Dharma Productions

Seven, kids. KKHH has Anjali as the showrunner of the screenplay. K3G had the heroes as kids in flashbacks driving the plot to present-day. MNIK has the kid’s death as a trigger for the plot. KHNH is Naina telling the story to an adult Jia, who had met Aman as a child. And Jia had a Harry Potter look-alike for a stepbrother, who was also the only legitimate sibling of the two, which was a significant sub-plot for the film and drove tensions that were critical to the second act. Dev’s relationship with his son in KANK, especially how he projects his insecurities on the kid, forms a major character development tool in the script. Johar’s films, even when they’re not “about loving your family”, still feature families as a basic unit. That holds true for most films he has produced as well (We are Family, Kapoor and Sons). The kid-trope is abandoned for ADHM where the adults behave like kids, and perhaps even for SOTY where the protagonists are actual kids themselves. It might be incidental, but I had a hard time trying to think of other non-children’s films that prominently feature kids. Kashyap, Hirani, Ali, Akhtar(s), Gulzar, Banerjee, Sircar, Shetty – none of these filmmakers have made so many films that show a world with children.

Eight, a consistent sprinkle of patriotism. So, the British pride of the summer camp gamekeeper is toppled when Farida Jalal raises the Indian flag in place of the British one. There’s not just a speech about India, but an entire remodeled Vande Mataram track in K3G. Likewise, the fuel for renovating a dying café in New York is a tank full of nationalism set to Lagaan’s Chale Chalo. And when there wasn’t any overt nationalism, Johar himself was infamously forced to prove his love for his country in the case of ADHM.

Nine, homosexuality. Johar has maybe brought the topic of homosexuality into the living rooms of shy middle-class families more than any other mainstream filmmaker. Diverse endorsers like Aatish Taseer, Vir Sanghvi and Kavaree Bamzai have acknowledged this as well. But his “insincere” depictions of homosexuality in the mainstream (often callous and trivial) and his attempts at a serious portrayal in the Bombay Talkies’ short seem to have one of two reasons – either commercial profit-making, which keeps his genuine self to less-commercial films like Bombay Talkies, or it took him a while to be brave enough to show it or think the audience is ready. It can also be both. What matters is that he did, even when it wasn’t plot related at all. In KANK, a random passerby says “I am gay” in the middle of the film for no apparent screenplay reasons. SOTY features a gay character, played by Rishi Kapoor. And Bombay Talkies marked Johar’s most serious depiction of a closeted life. Were some depictions caricature-ish? Yes. But were they significant? Possibly.

Bombay Talkies (2013); Ashi Dua

2.3. The Auteur: “Must have a consistent world outlook (inner meaning) that shows tension between the maker and the material.”

This is a more nebulous category. Screenwriting classes will tell us that the end of a film shows us the writer’s outlook. By that theory, Johar’s endings are mostly poignant, somber or bittersweet with at least one character left sad. They’re happy but not jubilant, except, perhaps, in K3G. His endings are mostly kind to the people who think they are “bad” and don’t deserve a happy ending.

Pauline Kael argued against the auteur theory by saying that repetition without improvement is decline. Johar then passes her test, as even though his films do not show the same outlook, they are consistent, linked, and show evolution.

Love and Friendship: He began his career by theorizing that love is friendship. The theme matured and got twisted through the years; his last film denied the theory completely, and how! ADHM says friendship is just that and sometimes can never be replaced by romantic love. Johar himself has come a full circle with visible steps along the way. KHNH makes love and friendship tussle and tells us that love can be “arranged” and settled for, that happiness in love is a choice. KANK is just a little shy of endorsing pursuing whatever the heart desires, regardless of social acceptance. According to the film, love that is born out of friendship triumphs all other.

Morals, Wealth, Honesty and Realism: Johar’s characters and their fate are as unapologetic as Johar’s personality. (Yes, he was forced to bow down to political goons, but we all saw through his “apology” and he knows that; he probably hopes that we did.) The fact that he does all that only to ensure good returns to his distributors and collaborators is probably a sign of his honesty. His heroes are often wealthy individuals battling issues of the heart. They don’t grapple with social issues, or if they do, that’s not central to the films. For Johar and his characters, heartbreak is the ultimate poverty, love, the ultimate currency, and being dishonest to one’s own self, the biggest sin.

We as a socialist country post-independence have been trained to be judgmental of the wealthy on screen. For the longest time, our protagonists fought the wealthy zamindar or industrialist, who were the villains. This equation of wealth and immorality was somewhat changed by the likes of Chopra, Mukherjee, later Barjatya, and recently, Zoya Akhtar. But still, if the wealthy had to be the protagonists, they needed virtues and morals (DDLJ, K3G). The difference with Johar is that his rich people are often unlikeable. Barjatya’s innocent gaze came with dollops of values and tradition. Zoya Akhtar’s wealthy people are also the good guys, the morally superior ones. If they are unlikable (like Anil Kapoor in Dil Dhadakne Do), then they either change by the end or they are “defeated” (Kalki Koechlin in ZNMD). The only redeeming quality for Johar’s protagonists is that they’re unfailingly human and arrestingly charming. His characters are rich and beautiful, and flawed. And they still come out as winners in the end, mostly.

The Raichand Mansion in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001); Dharma Productions

While the realism that Anurag Kashyap and Ram Gopal Varma brought to the screens is very much detached from their own personas, Johar's realism, for good or for bad, gets tied to his public personality. A portrayal of cheating spouses makes the country paint him in shades of immorality. An unabashed take on childish, stalky behavior becomes a stick of immaturity that we beat him with. Or, in the case of his first film, he is bashed for superficial sexism against the character of Anjali (which he has admitted to, later).

This inner realism of his characters, however, might hit too close to home. His protagonists are not serial killers or goons with hearts of gold. They’re people fighting the burden of being “bad.” They are politically incorrect, socially immoral, and against most “traditional” values. The only time he bowed to tradition was K3G, and the film ended up being bashed for its “backwardness”.

Johar tells us that it is okay be stylish, to want to be loved, to enjoy wealth, to crave sex, to be fallible, to be human, as long as we are honest. In one of his interviews, he says that one of his favorite books is Enid Blyton’s The Land of Far-Beyond, because it is reminiscent of his own films and characters. “It’s about a group of people who are going from a land of torture into a land of happiness, and they carry a burden with them, the result of being bad people. This burden was symbolic of the emotional burden we carry with us, but because it was a kids’ book, they showed it in the form of a physical burden. It was a journey of people who had faltered, fumbled, and failed. It’s a value book that I was drawn to, and it talked about karma at a very young stage. I was impressionable and it stayed with me.”

Although his films are far from perfect, the reason for the dislike towards him is not his films, but our familiarity of him. His views are of their time, and he admits to evolving over time. He shows us that evolution instead of disowning it. We know his character's values are his own values. We don’t associate killers with Fincher or gangsters with RGV. But we associate weddings with Barjatya, opulence with Bhansali, and homosexuality, wealth, infidelity, melodrama, kitsch, arrogance with Johar. And because we don’t like those qualities, we hate him. If we have liked his films, then we have treated them as guilty pleasures, as something to apologise for.

We are maybe even overexposed to him. Familiarity breeds contempt, and of all contemporary filmmakers, he is the one who has the most intimate parasocial relationship with us. He is a talk show host, a TV judge, a social media personality, a producer. Is art only arty when it does not reflect the artist? Johar’s crime is that he never strives to maintain any mystique around him, that he dispels the myth of the tortured artist and that he is honest about his dishonesties and his hypocrisies. Anupama Chopra calls him the ‘Human Rorschach Test’; what we think of Johar tells us more about ourselves as a society. So, the left hates him because they think he bows to the right. The intellectuals dislike him because he is glossy, sometimes without realizing that he uses gloss to make the messy commercial, and often mistaking gloss for fluff. The poor hate him because he is wealthy and seems unrelatable. The rich hate him because he doesn’t apologize for their wealth. The traditionalists loathe him because he is immoral.

Johar may have no “inner” meaning, but he has a consistent thread throughout all his films, that of honesty and acceptance. His meanings are all there, underlined, bulleted, and blunt. His hallmark may be simplified to ‘beauty’, and by his own admission he likes beauty for the sake of it. (He had spoken about a color coordinated song, Tumhi Dekho Na, in KANK that had no deeper purpose other than the aesthetic value). Not all art is beautiful. And not all things beautiful may be art. That Johar is reduced to tags like ‘flagbearer of nepotism’ is a tragedy. If there are seven things to dislike him as a personality for, there may also be seventeen reasons to like him as a filmmaker

The song Tumhi Dekho Na, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); Dharma Productions

In the next part, using all this above, I will try and propose a new and hopefully evolved version of the Auteur Theory, one that does not cause this much of a cognitive dissonance when Johar is mentioned as an example of it.

**ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen can be things like the bench and bridge scenes, the vicariously lived-through sporty protagonists, and the love triangles respectively. These trademarks have been discussed in interviews and other publications, including Film Companion.


In Defense of the Auteur - Part 2

The tropes and themes that are sprinkled over his filmography seem to cement Karan Johar as an Auteur, by qualifying him for the inner circles of Andrew Sarris' model of the infamous Auteur Theory.
Part 2 of 3

Dec 14, 2021

About the Author



Prasanna is yet another engineer who harbors a passion for writing. As a Controls Engineer, he works for a cheese manufacturer (Leprino Foods). To make up for making the world an unhealthier place, he hopes to write engaging things that dwell in his readers' minds for at least as long as Leprino’s cheese lines their gut.

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