Shashi Baliga

Behind KJo’s candyfloss…

Shashi Baliga | Updated on December 12, 2013

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Don’t be fooled by his frivolous image; he wields enormous clout.

It is so easy to dismiss Karan Johar. Or, rather, the popular perception of this film-maker of syrupy gloss, party addict, often teary-eyed judge of reality shows, a 40-plus man who likes to dance to item numbers, and a director who seems to spend more time judging talent shows than on a film set.

Watch the opening credits of his chat show Koffee with Karan, with him swinging a jaunty leg, and if you didn’t know who he was, you’d be surprised to find he is the second-most powerful man in Bollywood.

Also, one of the hardest-working. Consider: He is a director who also writes his movies; he runs a major production house that’s scheduled to have five movies out next year and is one of the most successful in the industry; he is the host of India’s most successful chat show; he is a judge on two reality shows; he has his own fashion label with designer Varun Behl and designs for close friends as well; and he likes to party. That’s a lot to fit into a schedule.

To the world outside B-Town, the mega-stars’ popularity would seem to translate into power. They generate the fan frenzy and box-office collections, sell thousands of soaps and watches and phones. Directors and producers (the latter more than the former) are the not-so-glam backroom guys.

But within the industry, it is the big directors, film-makers and producers who wield the real clout. If professional power is the ability to create your own opportunities, work on your own terms and generate wealth for others, the stars will have to settle for second place. Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, can save hundreds of lives by lending his weight to a pulse polio campaign, but inside the industry is another story. He is enormously respected and loved, of course, but get down to brass tacks, that is, the box-office and revenue generation, and he falls far behind.

Karan Johar, on the other hand, has a rather frivolous image outside, but wields enormous power inside the industry and his Dharma Productions is next only to Yashraj Films in the non-corporate rankings. He routinely features in various power lists.

And he has been a speaker at the Wharton, Harvard and Kellogg business schools.

So why does this powerful man behave like a kid in a candy store? The simple answer is that he is one; and not ashamed to admit it. That is one of his, dare one use the word, endearing qualities. No one in the film industry that I have met wears their success and power as lightly as he does; there is little arrogance. And he is one of the very, very few who have a genuine (not affected) sense of humour about themselves. He can joke, for instance, about all the online chatter about his sexuality and even confess to checking it out occasionally.

It is rare for anyone to get to the very top in any field without making enemies at every step of the way; Johar must have the least enemies and the most friends in the industry. Which also means that he is the industry’s Gossip Central. Cleverly, or perhaps organically, he has channelled all these attributes into Koffee with Karan.

Everyone on this show is clear this isn’t some deeply analytical discussion on cinema; it is, like most of his movies, about emotions, relationships, toss-off lines and well-dressed people; glamour and style are mandatory; intellectual depth is optional.

Shallow and frivolous, you mutter? No problem, he’s just having fun. So long as you don’t accuse him of being tacky, he’s cool. Just as he’s okay with being ticked off or teased mercilessly by the guests on his show. When he meets his match or kindred soul as with Salman Khan, it can be an exercise in the kind of mindless banter that you are either virulently allergic to or that you can lap up if you’re a film buff, because it is often about iconic figures who are part of the lore of Hindi cinema.

Test case: are you interested in why Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan fell out? And whether they’ve made up? If you are, you might have read between the lines in Salman’s matter-of-fact and, I think, largely honest if restrained retelling of the episode and its aftermath.

Coming up this Sunday will be Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao. Don’t know about you, but I will be watching.

Do I have a soft spot for this director-show host? Have to confess: yes. He’s wonderfully entertaining to talk to, throws no weight around, is so cool about being who he is and, above all, is super-accessible at all times. Send him a text message and you will always get a prompt, no-fuss reply. In a journalist’s book, that has to rank top of the list.

Published on December 12, 2013

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