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The Woman’s World, According To Karan Johar

The Woman’s World, According To Karan Johar

November 23, 2012

Glamorous, gorgeous, dumb – is that how Bollywood’s most successful filmmaker projects his women?

A few days ago I read an interesting review of ‘Student of the Year’. The critic, clearly not a Karan Johar fan, opined that from ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ (KKHH) to ‘Student of the Year’ (SOTY), the filmmaker had not grown up. It was an amusing argument though I really wondered why she felt so.

A few days later I ventured to watch the much-hyped campus caper. Needless to say, I knew what to expect – good-looking dudes and dudettes, designer labels, harmless candy-floss entertainment, a few tears, lots of laughs and some maudlin drama. On those accounts, the film didn’t disappoint. After all, a Karan Johar film is often as predictable as say, a Rohit Shetty potboiler. Both are highly entertaining, have characters that don’t bother about living in the real world (nothing wrong with that, escapism is the most prominent genre in Bollywood anyway) and deliver good value for your popcorn.

There is one major difference though – critics are far kinder to Karan than they are to someone like Rohit. Terms like ‘brainless’ , ‘lacking in logic’, ‘massy’ ‘regressive’ are rarely applied to KJo’s movies when in fact, they are pretty much those and more!

Call me biased but I often rate a filmmaker’s sensibilities on the basis of the way he portrays his female characters. Agreed, most women in Hindi films are strictly ornamental but that doesn’t stop me from hoping to see women in films portrayed the way they are in real life – with flaws and strengths, without going to extremes of any kind.

On that note I feel Karan Johar’s cinematic world-view is quite archetypal and yes, even regressive. Of course, it can be (rightly) argued that other filmmakers are far worse but point is - Karan isn’t just any other director. As a brand, he is the best and most powerful - sexy, suave, sophisticated and very articulate. Place him in any forum and he can charm the audience with his sharp with and intelligence. He can also be credited with giving Hindi films a supremely polished look and making them beautiful enough for a global audience. Stories of how his ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ and ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ have found fans in Romania and Malaysia are famous. Over and above, he is a lot of fun, which is reflected in the films he directs.

Perhaps that’s why the disconnect between KJo the person – liberal, global and evolved and KJo the filmmaker – stylish yet conventional – is so glaring.

Let’s begin with SOTY. In this Archie-comics world, Shanaya, played by Ms White Face, red-lips Alia Bhatt is both Betty and Veronica but way ditsier than either. She is the object of affection for the two guys, one of whom even rags her about her lack of brains. Now, any self-respecting girl would have given him one tight slap, but Shanaya kisses him instead. So what? She is super glam and despite being a school girl knows how to make her beau jealous by parading in a bikini.

Her competitor and vamp Tanya (Sana Sayeed) outdoes her in her attempts to woo the boys by shedding her clothes. Bottom-line: good-looking sexy girls are but a piece of meat to be dangled and fought over by good-looking sexy men.

Fine, that was student life and in school we were all Bettys, Veronicas or someone in between.

But how does Karan treat his women 10 years later when they meet? The smart girl in the group – the academically inclined, ambitious and unglamorous girl Shruti (Manasi Rachh) is a ‘mere housewife’ as she describes herself. Shanaya has gone on from being a trophy girlfriend to a trophy wife and the vamp is still the vamp – ‘in search of a rich husband’.

Now, let’s go back in time to Karan’s first film KKHH. We all remember how simple Kajol aka Anjali lost out the love of her life to sexy but sweet Rani. Years later what did Anjali transform into? A coy ready-to-be-a-housewife, sari-clad beauty. And pronto, she bags the man!

There’s nothing wrong in being beautiful or dressing up in Manish Malhotra’s saris but in Anjali’s case, she changed her career to suit her makeover! I often wonder why she became a nursery teacher to suit the new ‘image’! How fun it would have been if Anjali had been an ace basketball player or coach despite her makeover! And it would have been so much more progressive if she hadn’t lost to SRK in the game after donning a sari! Bottom-line: women in saris don’t win at basketball!

Next came ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ (K3G) that gave us the unforgettable Poo – who was super irritating or super cute depending on your taste. An extreme form of Veronica, Poo (Kareena Kapoor) was the ultimate airhead. As for Kajol, playing the housewife yet again, it was all about loving her husband - be it in the designer Chandni Chowk where she was shown living before her marriage or in spiffy London after it.

Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna’ was probably Karan’s only film that showed fairly real, less-than-perfect women – beautiful (naturally!) but with flaws and insecurities. However one couldn’t help feeling that once again, it was career-oriented Preity who got the short end of the stick.

Comparatively, women in the films Karan has produced (not directed) have been far more realistic. For instance, I loved Priyanka Chopra in ‘Dostana’. She is gorgeous, knows what she wants in life and discusses career issues – scenes rarely seen in Hindi films. Ditto for Konkona Sen Sharma in ‘Wake Up Sid’. Even the Kareena of ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’ was far more relatable and sensible than the Kareena of K3G.

To be fair, one can’t accuse Karan of objectifying his women like other regular filmmakers. One great quality about him is his belief in equality. Ever since he discovered John Abraham’s trunks in ‘Dostana’, it’s the male gaze that is dominant in all its trunk-clad glory. Even in SOTY both the school boys are gloriously semi-naked in certain scenes.

So it’s not that we women mind the display of beautiful bodies – male and female. Nobody is being a prude here. But seriously, how about living up to his oh-so-polished image and giving his female characters a little more…umm…’character’? For, going by the films Karan Johar has directed, the afore-mentioned reviewer was quite right – Bollywood’s ultimate commercial and polished filmmaker, the one who works his magic globally on Bollywood fans, does have some growing up to do. 


  • Stuart Martin
    Stuart Martin
    30.01.13 12:29 PM
    For me, the regressive presentation of women in KJo's films is just a kinder, gentler version of the manipulative misogyny he revels in when hosting that vile "chat show" of his. Constant cruel barbs about actresses' body images and provoking "cat fights" make me hate that show with a passion, and his filmi women reflect the same need to have women as merely his puppets, IMO. And don't even get me started on his casual cruelty to children in his films.
  • Tharun Jimani
    Tharun Jimani
    29.01.13 09:08 AM
    "Perhaps that’s why the disconnect between KJo the person – liberal, global and evolved and KJo the filmmaker – stylish yet conventional – is so glaring."

    -Interesting point; never really thought of it that way.
  • Atheist Indian
    Atheist Indian
    01.12.12 12:20 AM
    I watched this film yesterday, after reading the article here. Unfortunately, no subtitled, so I couldn't figure out half the things they said (in Hindi/Punjabi, which I am not all that slang-familiar with).
    Anyway, I feel that apart from the classic over-the-top stylisation of Bollywood films and the emphasis on the desiness of the culture, there wasn't anything particularly amiss. It is a film that showed schoolkids, although the whole glam thing was somewhat overdone. I guess in the decade or so you worked as a journalist, you forgot what it is like to be a young schoolgirl in India. Guess you should ask actual schoolkids who studied in the elite schools of India, what they thought about the film.
  • Lekha
    24.11.12 10:12 PM
    @Kevin and Santanu. Thanks for your comments.Honestly, even I didn't think much about it until i watched SOTY... which school kid dresses and behaves like that?

    @I agree, Satish. Prakash Jha, Mahesh Manjrekar etc have had strong portrayals of female characters. One of my all-time favourites is Astitva. I don't think it got the attention it deserved.
  • Santanu
    23.11.12 07:05 PM
    Beautiful analysis. Never thought that way...good.
  • Kevin
    23.11.12 04:37 PM
    Totally agreed. I am glad you bought up character of Konkona Sen Sharma in "Wake up Sid" and one could add Vidya Balan's work of late as well.
    Anyway its still an awesome article. However prepare for the haters.
  • satish
    23.11.12 06:53 AM
    Thoughtful analysis. In contrast, the women--indeed the men too-- in the 'Raw' film makers (Prakash Jha, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ramu, Anrag K) films are much more real. But on the BO, candy floss ki jai ho!

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