How Karan Johar 'queered' the Bollywood love story – The Indian Express

Having turned 50 on May 25, Karan Johar decided it was time to conquer new worlds. “I will commence the shoot of my action film on April 23,” he announced in big, bold letters. An artist — which Johar is, no matter what his legions of detractors might say — must constantly innovate to stay relevant and his new guns-and-glory adventure will perhaps give Johar a creative boost. Such recharges are necessary, especially if an artist has dominated their chosen field, like Johar has undoubtedly dominated — even transformed — Bollywood romance, specifically by opening it up to queer narratives. Could a fairytale like Badhaai Do, for example, about the lavender marriage of two queer people (Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar), have been imagined in pre-Johar Bollywood?
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This is not to discount the role that other filmmakers, such as Onir, have played in telling much-needed stories about queer lives, nor is this an attempt to play down the space for such stories that opened up with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018. It is also not possible to overlook the troubling portrayal of queer folks, especially gay men, in some of Johar’s productions: the jarring comic sub-plot involving the two male leads (Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan) and a housemaid (Sulabha Arya) in Kal Ho Na Ho (which Johar wrote, but didn’t direct) is notorious. As is Dostana (produced by Johar) in which the two male leads (John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan) pretend to be gay in an over-complicated attempt to woo the female protagonist (Priyanka Chopra). Such depictions, as some of his critics point out, did damage that was not helped by the fact that Johar himself, beyond a short in the 2013 anthology film Bombay Talkies, has not made a full-length feature with a queer love story at its heart.
Still, Johar must be credited with “introducing the idea of homosexuality by stealth into the Indian home”, as the writer Atish Taseer once put it — by, in other words, making what was once never mentioned the subject of dinner table conversations. He did this, firstly — and controversially – not so much with his movies, as with the relentless queer-baiting on his hugely popular TV show Koffee with Karan. The show’s sly jokes and innuendos, made with Johar’s complicity and frequently at his own expense, all but confirmed what everyone with any familiarity with Hindi cinema had long gossiped about. On this matter, it is worth noting that no amount of speculation about Johar’s sexual orientation (which he has hinted at frequently, including in his memoir, An Unsuitable Boy, without ever explicitly coming out of the closet), has done little to affect his box office success.
But the second way in which Johar, in a sense, “queered” the Bollywood love story is a lot more subtle. He uncoupled the camera from the male heterosexual gaze, thus making room on the screen for stories that were decidedly non-mainstream before him. It is, for example, hard to think of another Hindi film director who allowed the lens to train so lovingly on the sensual male body as Johar did in the song ‘Suraj Hua Maddham’ from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G). In the way it zoomed in on Shah Rukh Khan’s dripping wet, see-through shirt, the camera’s gaze challenged Bollywood’s idea of romance, opening up space for, among other things, female desire. This, in fact, is Johar’s other great achievement, as far as Hindi film love is concerned: So many of his female characters, whether it is Pooja in K3G, Jazz in Kal Ho Na Ho or Saba in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, were unabashed in pursuing what they desired, physical and otherwise. This quest to centre non-masculine heterosexual desire found its apogee in the 2018 anthology film Lust Stories, where Johar’s section told the story of a newly-wed woman (Kiara Advani) who seeks sexual fulfillment.
In his announcement, Johar noted that he’s been in the industry for 27 years. That is a long enough period in which to start feeling like one has stagnated. And while making an action film would be enough of a challenge to give Johar the creative shakeup he seems to feel he needs, a queer romance would be an even bigger one. Hopefully, one day, Johar will be up to it.
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Pooja PillaiPooja Pillai is a Special Correspondent working with The Indian Expres… read more


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