In middle school, I knew a girl who named herself Poo, after Kareena Kapoor’s character in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. She sashayed down the corridors as though auditioning for a beauty pageant, her entourage of two girls imitated and flattered her to the best of their abilites.
I never liked Karan Johar. Not his first movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, in which I heard him tell me tomboyish girls are undesirable, making me feel awkward in my cargo pants and sports shoes. Not his second movie, a family melodrama in which helicopters brought children home; there was also a patriarch whose neck had an unusual crick that wouldn’t allow him to bend. I disliked his talk show, which I thought became progressively boring with each season, except when some guests took it upon themselves to enliven the proceedings. I do feel more ambivalent towards him of late, with his most recent work (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) coming across as an honest movie – in spite of the constant urge I had to yell at the characters, “You have a private jet for fuck’s sake, get over yourself!” He is also the most overexposed celebrity of our times, making us think we’ve been voyeurs looking into his life for years and years. What then is left to know of him? An Unsuitable Boy tries to answer this question – Karan Johar’s life in his own words, written with Poonam Saxena.
We learn of his childhood, his fears and insecurities, how he was almost strong-armed into making his first movie with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, his work at Dharma Productions. Some of it is moving, such as his troubles with being an effeminate boy, teased and called a pansy; and later when he deals with the loss of his father. Some of it is cheap thrills, like an entire chapter on Shah Rukh Khan and then one on Love and Sex – because a book from Karan Johar would be incomplete without references to these entities. Some of it makes you cringe – when he talks of his middle class existence that allowed him to live in London in a rented apartment while writing scripts (Really now?).
I did realize a few things though. I was always of the opinion celebrities must be vocal about their sexuality – I imagined this would be serve as motivation for others having to hide in plain sight. But when he explains that he does not want to discuss his sexuality, especially in a country that still criminalizes certain acts, I find myself wanting to agree with him. It makes me think we must not hold famous people to different standards simply because they are famous. I also did not think of how important lowbrow humour is, in bringing conversations about homosexuality to living rooms. If it weren’t for the awful Kantaben jokes in Kal Ho Naa Ho, or two men pretending to be gay so as to befriend an undeniably attractive Priyanka Chopra (Dostana), I wouldn’t be using the word gay at home, when talking to my parents. In our demands for more sensitive portrayals of people repressed by the mainstream, we often tend to forget how this humour has helped.
An Unsuitable Boy isn’t a bad book, just a poorly written (and edited) one. An autobiography indicates a certain level of self-absorption, but even by those standards, the self-involvement is over the top at times. It reads a bit like the director is talking nonstop and nobody had the heart to stop him, which can get exasperating after a while.