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MANISH DUBEY | 9 MARCH, 2017

How Karan Johar Loosened Bollywood's Tongue (And Maybe Got Singed In the Process)


NEW DELHI: Karan Johar has always maintained that Bollywood is not the big happy family it wants the world to believe it is. One suspects then that several industry folk are secretly thrilled at the flak he is getting for his recent remarks on Kangana Ranaut.

It isn’t the first time something said on Koffee with Karan - the television show where Johar interviews Bollywood’s crème de la crème - has sparked controversy. The difference this time though is that it is Johar himself who has gotten publically embroiled. It would seem that the fires he has been stoking on Koffee have ended up singeing him.

One suspects the current controversy will be short-lived but it is a good time to reflect on how Johar got Bollywood to loosen its tongue in the first place.

We have always ‘known’ – thanks to ‘reliable’ sources and Devyani Chaubal, Shobhaa De and their later-day copycats – that Bollywood stars are vain and insecure and have multiple skeletons in their cupboards. However, it’s taken Johar to get the stars to (sort of) fess up in person on national television.

Not for Johar the Tabassum and Simi Garewal template of interviewing which allowed stars to build halos around themselves. Johar keeps the romanticizing about early career struggles, middle class upbringing and family values – the hungry nights on the park bench and un-chauffeured schooling with regulated pocket money kind of stuff – in check.

Instead, what Johar wants – and gets – his guests to do is bitch and admit to being naughty. Have they cried at a rival’s success? Which contemporary would they not mind exploring a same-sex relationship with? Which of their peers do they find overrated? What’s the cheesiest pick-up line they have used/ fallen for? And so on. The responses titillate. Sometimes they just confirm what we have suspected all along but there’s pleasure in confirmation from the horse’s mouth too.

The Koffee set caters to the voyeur-audience. It’s glitzy, has mood lighting and a colorful couch and looks exactly the kind of space we have imagined Bollywood’s A-list to be unwinding themselves in. If Tabassum’s tacky set screaming middle class prepped us for condescension and Simi’s posh all-white set prepared us for sanitized babble, Johar’s promises us keyhole access. The ladies gave us the chance to listen to the stars; Johar gives us the chance to eavesdrop on them.

The show format helps. A lot. The masterstroke is in having two stars appear together. The celebrity’s inherent desire for limelight-hogging eggs guests to outdo each other in terms of delivering the catchier sound bite, the more shocking revelation, the more innuendo-loaded reply. The one-upmanship runs through the episode and peaks in the rapid-fire round where guests literally compete for a gift hamper based on how boldly they tackle questions about their fantasies, peers and fantasies about peers.

Johar subtly fans competitive instincts with a reminder of the stars’ past record in the rapid-fire. Also the show has now reached a stage where the star not only competes with the person sharing the couch on a given day but all those who have occupied the couch before them.

Though not a regular feature yet, the newly introduced coffee shot round – where guests down a shot if they have done the wild thing Johar’s asked them about (skinny dipping, role playing, etc.,.) – raises the naughtiness quotient further. The brilliance is in how the confession is extracted. Wordlessly, sparing the potential embarrassment of a verbal - even a single word - owning up. Via the cool gesture of downing a shot.

The bigger ‘success’ factor though is the show host himself. Johar keeps the gossipy, confessional tone of the show going nicely. Peppering it with his own struggles with fat and insecurities as a director, insinuating about his own much-speculated sexual orientation and admitting to an empty love life and poking fun at people’s English and wardrobes, Johar relaxes and coaxes the stars into saying things they wouldn’t normally.

That Johar is the quintessential Bollywood insider helps. He gets to dig into guests’ minds and hearts knowing that they enjoy no plausible deniability. They know that he knows and that the 3Ds that work with film journalists – dithering, deflection, denial – won’t ease matters.

Tabassum and Simi were industry insiders too but - being older and having cast themselves in the Sweet Neighborhood Aunty and Cool Socialite Aunty mode, respectively – would have only discomfited themselves, their guests and their audiences had they tried venturing into the Johar zone. Johar meanwhile exudes the ‘been there, done that and wanting some fresh masala’ vibe and digs into topics that would have driven the ladies’ to a smelling salt addiction with relish.

More than anything else though Johar knows the pulse of the modern star and audience. He delivers stars vying for mindspace and willing to put themselves out there to audiences craving a peek into their inner lives and thoughts. The exhibitionist star gets a voyeur audience, the voyeur audience get an exhibitionist star and Johar takes the best seat in the house. Perhaps he gets some kind of release himself from that vantage point.

In any case, it’s win-win for everyone. Most of the time. Only rarely will an atypical celebrity – someone who comes across as secure in their space and not really desperate to impress Johar or the rest of the world – throw things off kilter. Ranaut did that when she appeared on Koffee and who knows whether that played a part in the controversy that followed.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer with interest in politics, cinema and cricket)

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