Karan Johar: Audience never stopped loving Bollywood

...says Karan Johar, who is joined by his co-producer Guneet Monga, as they discuss Bollywood, social media controversies, and their recent co-production KILL, which premiered at the TIFF.
Karan Johar: Audience never stopped loving Bollywood
Karan Johar: Audience never stopped loving Bollywood

During an interview at Toronto, filmmaker Karan Johar made a declaration about Bollywood. “Never went away, here to stay,” he said. Karan was referring to recent social media controversies about some recent commercial films and their content. He was in town for the premiere of KILL, the latest Dharma Productions release, co-produced with Oscar-winner Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, at the Toronto International Film Festival(TIFF). The slickly produced action thriller was showcased in Midnight Madness, only the second Indian film to feature in this section dedicated to horror, blood and gore at the world’s largest public film festival. 

The Hindi filmmaker spoke about the current landscape for films in India after the disruption of COVID and strident social media campaigns directed at some films and Bollywood personalities. He argues audiences are flocking back to the theatres. “The proof lies in the pudding,” Karan said, adding, “This year, this quarter, will be the best quarter for Hindi cinema in over two decades. And not just Hindi cinema, but Telugu cinema, Tamil cinema, Kannada cinema, Malayalam cinema —we’ve had seven back-to-back successes right now in a span of 4 months.”

This year’s box office blockbusters include Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan and Pathaan, Sunny Deol’s Gadar 2, and Rajnikanth’s Jailer. In recent months, Bollywood has been roiled by social media campaigns directed at some recent releases, including calls for boycotting some films. Activists have pointed to the failure of some long-awaited films like the 2022 Aamir Khan starrer Laal Singh Chaddha as evidence of the audience’s displeasure with Bollywood.

Karan was eager to dismiss the influence of negative social media, saying, “There was a time a year ago when social media had actually made people believe even in our industry that audiences are not loving our movies anymore, or boycotting Bollywood, that the love seems to have gone away and there’s an anti wave to the people who make the movies.” He added, “Social media, you realise, is a mirage. You think it exists but it doesn’t. It’s there, it’s rampant, it’s noisy, but it’s mainly faceless, nameless and pointless people...all the love that everyone was saying had gone away, it’s there in abundance.”

He also made light of the talk of a North-South divide in commercial cinema, which sprang up after the box office success of films like RRR, Pushpa and Kantara at a time when some Hindi films were struggling. “We are Indian cinema, one cinema. So when people from Hindi belts are loving RRR it’s a victory for Indian cinema. When Jawan is doing well in Tamil and Telugu markets, it’s a victory for Indian cinema. Any time an audience flocks to the cinema hall to watch content made out of India, it’s a victory for everyone,” said Karan. Guneet, also in Toronto to present KILL, chipped in, “As an outsider or independent filmmaker I was even excited about Dharma presenting Baahubali. That was the start of bringing South cinema to the entire country and putting it out there. And how much love Baahubali got, kind of started the whole acceptance.”

Streaming services came into their own during the pandemic, tailor-made for watching content from homes during lockdowns. But Karan believes the streamers are no match for the box office, and are at best, complementary to it. “I think one is helping the other,” said Karan. “Streaming gives you great actors, great writing, great content, and great everything…but there is that one kind of film that you want to watch in a cinema hall. For example, a Jawan, a Pathaan or my own film Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, and several others — Gadar, which has broken all records. Now people are feeling they don’t want to watch films in confined spaces. They want the community feel, which is what theatrical films are always about.”

There is a strong Indian presence at TIFF this year, including KILL, directed by Nikhil Nagesh Bhat; Karan Boolani’s raunchy comedy Thank You For Coming co-produced by Ekta Kapoor, Rhea Kapoor and Anil Kapoor; the delightful Laapataa Ladies produced by Aamir Khan and directed by Kiran Rao; and the powerful Marathi film Sthal. Most of them are headed for theatrical release.

Indian cinema has left COVID and other crises firmly behind, asserts Karan. “We’re in a happier zone today in our country, and the movies are back,” he said. “The environment has finally become fantastic. Everyone’s doing well, everything is doing well, and that means that the audience is back with abundance, and they never stopped loving us.” That’s what a movie might call a happy ending. Bollywood might prefer, “Picture abhi baaki hai.”

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