“Biographies do walk the 'precarious high wire between fiction and non-fiction” (Claire Battershill in “No One Wants Biography”). Fictional engagements with biographical tropes are irresistible as the author renovates the past straddling between past and present, and perhaps future, argues Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2011). The Unsuitable Boy, published a year ago by Penguin India, is a quintessential celebrity biography and written, interestingly, at a point in life of the author when the sun has not set for Koran Johar (as is the case for most celebrity biographies); rather, when he is at the top of his game.
Why a biography at this juncture of Karan Johar's life? We shall explore it further, but a more fundamental question needs to be asked at the outset – is the author, important for us at all? Does celebrity culture really matter? Why are today's sub-continental youth obsessed with Bollywood celebrities? These are complex and plural questions, and we may not have concrete answers to them.But it cannot be routinely ignored, not any more, now thatBollywood is so ubiquitous and a source of young people's sense of agency, even in Bangladesh, no less than in India and Pakistan.
Johar—and his influential production house—is worth a few hundred millions in the multi-billion-dollar Bollywood entertainment industry.He himself is a big brand, by his own admission, and the biographical book is (or can well be) yet another PR-stunt to generate press coverage and fast create explosive conversations to be and remain in the public eye. Such marketing spectacles, in this age of viral videos and social media, are not unheard of. But we must not dismiss the book so readily.
'If you're smirking, or giving a stern, thin-lipped stare in your black-and-white picture, and if you go out of your way in every interview to talk about how “unserious books do not deserve serious attention,” then it's literature,' quips American writer Jennifer Weiner, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Johar's book, with its black and white cover,appears to fit the criteria perfectly. So, what is in the memoir that we don't know? Much of his life is already public knowledge, particularly to those who follow Johar's flippant, high-society celebrity talk shows, including Koffee with Karan, or read his articles and interviews, which are churned out ever so frequently.
The title reverses Vikram Seth's epic novel, A Suitable Boy; the 'un-' prefix is a reference to Johar's adolescence when he was ridiculed for being effeminate. Yet, unlike Seth, who has publicly criticized the draconian Indian law that criminalizes homosexuality, Johar has opted to leave just bold clues about his sexuality in the book, and later clarified: “The reason I don't say it out aloud is simply that I don't want to be dealing with the police complaints. I'm very sorry. I have a job, I have a commitment to my company …”
However, he is not always so guarded in the The Unsuitable Boy. To counter the ridicule, Johar reminisces how he secretly took classes in voice training to cultivate a baritone. More such candidness follows when he chronicles about his running away from boarding-school, asking for costume changes for a beggar girl or recounts the poignant memories of living in a South Bombay bubble. He is in his elements – like a classic emotion-laden and extravagant Johar film about family values and friendship – when he nostalgically talks about being the 'prodigal son' and then how he has evolved as a businessman following his father's death, trying to live up to his reputation.
The minute details of Johar's father's cremation in The Unsuitable Boy are marked by an unmistakable honesty; the reader does not miss the emotion that is attached to it. The reader, however, one cannot but notice that his relationship with his mother is mentioned by the author just in passing. Even after the reader is made aware that by the writer that he lives with her, he often leaves no stone unturned to exhibit his admiration for her in public. There must have been honesty in admitting to the relationships that have soured, and matured, but most of these are public knowledge and we get know just about the Johar we already know.
Johar's earlier films of the 1990's are remembered in rich details, yet the most recent ones, which are said to be influenced by his struggles of coping with unrequited love and sexual identity, are left out, much to the disappointment of his audience. His snide remarks about certain artistes are typical of Johar, the articulate and opinionated talk-show host, and the reader understands fully it that it tells only half the story, his side of the picture. His monologues in the process however, provide a sneak-peak to the 'good-bad-and-ugly' that resides behind the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry. By the end of the memoir, Johar's increasing consciousness of his mortality: “I am in and out of hospitals because my mother sometimes keeps poor health …” foreshadows his recent experience of fatherhood through surrogacy: “I wonder, do I want a child just because of my needs?”- his most recent headliner that swept Bollywood by storm.
Over the course of more than 200 pages, Johar's memoir (co-authored with journalist Poonam Saxena) comes across as conversational; a lengthy interior monologue that does not get monotonous. The Unsuitable Boy, particularly in its boy Johar episodes,is an emotionally riveting tale of struggle and fears. The road to success and personal solace episodes are less fluent and occasionally frivolous, and do not live up to the vivid, affectionate, and gritty earlier portrayal of the boyhood. No-regrets, confessions and naming-shaming about friendships-gone-sour project, a personal vendetta appear to tell the reader that it is the publicity hound Karan Johar talking (“happy to be in the limelight”), not the man who is haunted by some inner demons. Perhaps that is what is new about the book – compared to his TV shows –it is not entirely gossipy, and at the same time, it does not try to be overtly philosophical.
Manzoorul Abedin teaches sociology of education at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is a film buff.