W Power 2024

Karan Johar: The man and the business behind the bling

Karan Johar didn't choose entrepreneurship. Over 25 years, he's honed an unrivalled understanding of the Indian cinema audience, and a supreme knack for predicting trends. But the journey hasn't always been easy

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Jan 2, 2024 04:27:30 PM IST
Updated: Jan 2, 2024 08:02:48 PM IST

Karan Johar, Film director and producer
Image: Mexy XavierKaran Johar, Film director and producer Image: Mexy Xavier

At first glance, Karan Johar’s suburban home isn’t what you imagine. With a white washed wraparound terrace, it’s elegant, filled with plants and books, and a whole lot of… beige. It’s quietly luxurious, of course, but feels like the tranquil antidote to the glitzy Raichand or Randhawa homes we’ve come to expect from Johar.

The shot is ready, and Johar strides into the living room, imposing in a stark aquamarine suit. It’s evident that his fashion and interior styles have different functions—one is a statement, the other, a sanctuary.

For someone who spends most of his time behind the scenes, the 51-year-old filmmaker is clearly a camera darling—as he works the camera, pouting and preening just so, you see flashes of his outward personality in the finer details of his home. He drinks from a crystal-studded Versace travel cup; a sophisticated faux-fireplace holds a black Chanel perfume-inspired sculpture, which looks like it is dripping; a metallic sliver of gold runs across the otherwise understated bar area.

At first glance, Johar’s home is cosy and understated. It’s when you suss out the details that you see that it’s decidedly individualistic, with quirky intricacies camouflaging in broad daylight, in just about every corner. A metaphor, perhaps, for his brand of cinema.

“The truth is, he’s always pushed the envelope with his content, but he’s never really gotten his due because it’s all dressed up in things that are so beautiful and so glamorous that people forget he’s pushing that envelope,” says film critic Anupama Chopra.

Johar celebrates 25 years of filmmaking this year, and his big directorial release of 2023, the blockbuster Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt-starrer, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (RRKPK), was perhaps his most political film yet. With a glamorous cast dressed in Gucci tracksuits and rainbow-chiffon saris, the film addresses themes of patriarchy, masculinity, cancel culture, body image and cultural stereotyping, amidst Johar’s larger-than-life sets and song sequences.

“Remember that Karan Johar made his filmmaking debut right after Sooraj Barjatya and Aditya Chopra,” Chopra adds. “So he’s coming from a time where making cinema was about the great Hindu family, which has unbending morals, unflinching togetherness—and even within that, he was trying to push the envelope.”

Johar is, of course, best known for his own portrayal of the big Hindu family, courtesy the star-studded Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, which came with the tagline ‘It’s all about loving your parents’ in 2001. Five years later, he took a risk with Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, a story about infidelity and extra-marital relationships. It opened to mixed reviews from critics as well as the audience, but on a bankable star cast and with Johar’s stamp on it, made for a commercial success.

In 2010, Shah Rukh Khan starred in (yet) another Karan Johar film called My Name is Khan, portraying a Muslim man with Asperger’s Syndrome, who sets out to change the perception of the Muslim community across the seas.

“Obviously, we now look back at Dostana’s portrayal of homosexuality or look at Kantaben in Kal Ho Na Ho and say that that was incorrect… but 20 years ago, it was a different world, and a lot of people on the internet today don’t realise that,” she adds. “The fact that you could even make a joke about two leading men being queer was a big deal. Of course, we look back now and say that [using them for comedic effect] was not cool—and Karan is the first to say that. The fact is that he’s always tried to put things we haven’t seen before into the vocabulary of Hindi cinema.”

“There’s obviously been an evolution in these 25 years—the 25-year-old who made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the 51-year-old who directed Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, I feel, are diametrically two different people,” Johar tells Forbes India. “In my career span, I feel like there’s one person that I was and will perhaps always be, and another that made this film. And it feels great.”

Taking the Reins

Johar’s father, Yash Johar, was a celebrated film producer and the founder of Dharma Productions. His untimely death forced Johar junior to take the reins at age 32. Until then, he had never concerned himself with the business side of things.

“It was a huge setback to us as a family, but also to Dharma Productions,” he says. “I lost my father in 2004, and until then, he was my only connection with the business side of things. I had never dealt with the financial or administrative aspects of the company—I was allowed and, in fact, encouraged to be creative. For the first few months, I was lost.”

Johar had considered shutting shop and making films for other producers, unsure of whether he would be able to run a company on his own. “I’m an only child, and my mother is an only child. I was not actively in touch with my father’s side of the family, so I had no real family to fall back on,” he says. “That’s when I called my childhood best friend, Apoorva Mehta, who was then working in London, and asked him to come and help me out.”

Dharma was more than a company to his father, Johar had realised. “It was a dream, a home. I put Apoorva [now CEO of Dharma Productions] on my father’s chair, and as the cliché goes, found that the adversity lent an opportunity. I had to jump right in and take the company forward, instead of letting the ship sink.”

Dharma Productions now has four verticals—the film production division, Dharma Productions; Dharma 2.0, for advertising; Dharmatic Entertainment, for OTT productions; and DCA (Dharma Cornerstone Agency), for talent management.

Also read: I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi

“What I learnt from my father was his simple three-word philosophy that I go back to even today: ‘People need people’,” Johar says. “This is not an industry bound by contract or legalities or modalities, as much as it is bound by relationships. He always said that it’s so important to nurture relationships even outside of the films you are making—you never know when you need someone, or when someone needs you. This was, of course, before the industry became exceptionally corporate—but I think sticking to this philosophy has worked well for us.”

Dharma is now also known for being a studio that offers opportunities to young talent, including actors, directors and writers. While Johar has faced criticism for ‘nepotism’ or favouring star kids, many of the talents that Dharma has invested in have gone on to see great success. The otherwise-frivolous Student of the Year franchise, for instance, has birthed the careers of Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra—but Dharma’s young director roster has been robust too, with the likes of Ayan Mukerji, Shakun Batra and Nikkhil Advani emerging from the stable.

“Karan has his father’s fearless heart—a true producer to the core,” Advani, who directed Dharma’s Kal Ho Naa Ho and is now co-founder of a production house called Emmay Entertainment, says. “He might have started his career as a prolific writer and director, but for those who knew his father, he has managed to step into those big shoes with elan and has taken massive steps.”

“Karan’s commitment to fostering emerging talent showcases his dedication to the industry’s future,” says Mehta, CEO of Dharma Productions. “It’s what will contribute to a sustainable ecosystem.”

Johar has managed to scale his company since taking over the reins, investing in new talent and innovation in tapping the internet influencer market with DCA, and in digital with Dharmatic. How has he evolved as a leader since he first started?

“The question is—do you feel like you are the leader? That’s where the first problem arises,” he says. “I think, especially in a creative domain like ours, it’s important to feel like a team member. You’ve been given the designation of a leader on paper, but your attitude needs to be of a collaborator. The moment you exercise superiority and advocate it with your body language, you create this distance between yourself and the team, and they won’t be able to express their real thoughts.”

The second thing he believes in, he says, is in delegation and trust. “It’s essential to do both—many people delegate, but don’t trust, and others don’t delegate at all. I’m pretty good at delegating and letting go. That’s how you get creativity to flow through the team,” he says.

Johar claims to have an open-door policy at work, and doesn’t operate by appointment or email. “Of course, I’m busy with various things and may not have the time to meet immediately, but I don’t make inaccessibility my thing,” he says. “I always say the three As are critical in a creative business: Accessibility, affability and amiability.”

Decoding the box office

This year has been a roller coaster of sorts for the film industry, with very low theatre occupancy in the first half of the year. A lot was riding on the success of RRKPK, which released in July, as the industry waited to see if it could pull people back into theatres.

And it did, clocking ₹355 crore in box office collections, and setting the stage for a record series of hits. Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawaan, which released in September, made a whopping ₹1,145 crore worldwide, and Sunny Deol’s Gadar 2 amassed ₹691 crore, before the industry saw another dip around the ICC Men’s ODI World Cup in October and November—and then another high in December.

The industry, which has always lived from unpredictable Friday to Friday, now has solid prediction models in place, and organisations like Ormax that forecast opening numbers.

“There’s always that magic that you can’t predict, but of course, things are more structured now,” Johar says. “I’ve been told by filmmakers that ‘don’t rob us of our instinct’ when relying on the data science—but I always say, you have the instinct, but it’s not your money in the game.”

“Karan’s acute understanding of market dynamics positions him at the forefront of industry trends, enabling him to make strategic decisions that align with audience preferences,” says Mehta. “His unique blend of creative vision and commercial awareness allows him to produce films that not only resonate artistically, but also perform exceptionally well at the box office.”

Also read: I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

“Filmmaking is a beautiful balance of commerce and art,” Johar adds. “If you’re making a film for your passion and your desire to tell a story, please do tell it—but then tell it with your own money. The moment you borrow money from somebody else to tell that story, it’s no longer just your passion and your baby. Now you share it with somebody else’s hard work. We’re not in a business that’s easy to predict and it’s important to protect ourselves as much as we can.”

Not all films work at the box office anymore. The pandemic has altered movie-watching habits, at least for the near future, and there is, Johar says, a definitive difference in what now works on the big screen and what makes for a good home-watch.

“I would say that tentpole films and the big cinematic experiences are more celluloid friendly,” he says. “Genres that are dramedies or family comedies or for that matter, even suspense thrillers or rom-coms—genres that defined our films in the 90s are not easy to sell today. So when you turn on a digital platform, you’ll see a lot of psychological thrillers, and you’ll see some love stories. The Korean drama wave is huge even in India, and that format of love, the young adult sorts of stories, are more wired to the digital platform.”

This isn’t a set formula, however. As Johar highlights, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail has proved an exception: “To anybody’s thinking mind, it would have been a great digital bill—but it turned out to be a solid commercial success, and well done to the team to take that call.”

Dharma roped in Somen Mishra as its head of content (fiction) for Dharmatic Entertainment, who, according to critic Chopra, has a diametrically different sensibility to what you would imagine a Dharma film to be.

“He very much comes from the Anurag Kashyap school of cinema. I think it’s great that Karan can, from his position, say that this is what I can do and this is what I can’t, and then use his power to platform different kinds of talent. Look at Kill, for instance [a dark film about commandos and bandits, yet to release in India]. It’s not at all what you think a Dharma film should be,” she says. “That’s true evolution.”

Rocky Randhawa, Ranveer Singh’s rambunctious character in Johar’s latest film RRKPK, was inspired by the internet influencers of West Delhi. Johar himself is investing in nurturing and managing internet stars with DCA, and says he sees huge potential in the Instagram audience, and in talented entertainers to make a pop culture impact.

The internet has also blurred the lines of fame—the difference between a movie star and a famous internet star, for instance, is fine.

“There is no concept, according to me, of superstardom post the era of the Khans. I feel we are now in the age of actors,” he says. “Celebrity can mean so many things today—you could be a food blogger or a fashion icon. The nation’s crazy love for Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir, Akshay, Hrithik—or for that matter, for Kareena, Kajol, Rani—that’s all built over three decades of love. That kind of movie star magic or movie star mania is really tough to create in this generation of noise.”

With that context, it isn’t surprising that the best received episodes on Johar’s popular talk show, Koffee with Karan, have been with 90s stars this season—one episode with brothers Sunny and Bobby Deol, and another with 90s leading ladies, Kajol and Rani Mukerji. In an era with Gen-Z celebrities ubiquitous and perhaps, overexposed, is doing a talk show still good business?

“Well, somehow this season still is doing phenomenally,” Johar says. “The thing with Koffee with Karan is that no matter what, it captures a conversation you won’t hear in other interviews. It’s not something the celebrity will say in a promotion interview or to a magazine, or anywhere they’re not at ease and don’t know the interviewer as well. Often, other hosts don’t have the gumption to ask things that I perhaps get away with. I think the success of the show lies in its candour.”

Now in its 8th season in 18 years, Koffee with Karan loyalists have been missing the appearance of an erstwhile regular fixture—and often considered the last of the megastars, Shah Rukh Khan.

Koffee with Karan is our periodic reminder that Shah Rukh is the only film star we have who can be witty, sardonic and philosophical all within the span of a single conversation, and everyone else is just water in comparison,” writer and editor Sayantan Ghosh wrote. Can anyone take over that mantle—or Koffee with Karan hamper?

“I don’t think there is a better conversationalist, a more intelligent mind, a more charming and arresting persona than Shah Rukh Khan,” Johar says. “That majestic magnetism only he has and I think in that respect, he’s a force of nature. There will be many great actors perhaps, but a personality like Shah Rukh Khan, there will never be. I say this not with bias, but with complete assurance of knowing him and knowing several others—there is just never going to be another.”.

(This story appears in the 29 December, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)