Karan Johar Unpacks Success of ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani,’ Reveals ‘Apprehension, Fear and Deep-Rooted Anxiety’ About ‘Barbenheimer’

Indian filmmaker and media personality Karan Johar’s “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is one of the few local films that has withstood the “Barbenheimer” juggernaut and emerged triumphant.

The film had a lot going for it. Johar is a hitmaker whose credits include “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” (1998), “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…” (2001), “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna” (2006), “My Name is Khan” (2010) and “Student of the Year” (2012). And, the cast is bursting with A-listers including Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt.

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Produced by Johar’s Dharma Productions and Viacom18 Studios, “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” opened July 28 in the wake of the twin releases of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” After its second weekend of release, the film has grossed $26.1 million worldwide, including $15.7 million in India, and is going strong. “Oppenheimer” has grossed $16 million in India and “Barbie” $5.8 million.

“The ‘Barbenheimer’ hype was real. Both have been tremendously loved and appreciated and I was really nervous because we were coming in the midst of a storm. It’s been one of the biggest Hollywood weekends in I don’t know how long and both have performed exceedingly well,” Johar told Variety. “At first I had apprehension and fear and then there was deep-rooted anxiety because both these films also performed very well in India. We are already fighting with each other – week after week there are releases – there are huge regional successes, then there are the OTT [streaming] platforms that you’re combating with. And now we have to deal with the success of Hollywood. I’m like, ‘It all is too much.’ But I’m glad that we could shine even though there was a storm.”

Written by Shashank Khaitan, Ishita Moitra and Sumit Roy, the Delhi-set “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is a culture clash family comedy-melodrama that examines the differences between the intellectual Bengali Chatterjee family and the wealthy Punjabi Randhawa clan. En route it tackles several hot button subjects including patriarchy, gender stereotyping, body shaming and cancel culture, within the entertaining parameters of a mainstream Bollywood film.

“I believe that the quintessential family entertainer, you’ve seen a gazillion times in mainstream Bollywood. If you had to make that in 2023, if you don’t update the syntax, and don’t put in elements that are relatable, then the film will just flatline,” Johar said, adding that films in the genre are constantly playing on streaming platforms and satellite television.

“If I had to take a mainstream family film with a large cast, if I didn’t bring in some new elements, some subversive politics, my take on patriarchy, entitlement, fat shaming, gender role reversal, if I didn’t do that in an organic fashion, and it’s not in a way that’s on the surface and on the nose, it’s very much embedded in the fabric of entertainment – it was very critical for me to do that,” Johar added. “Because otherwise you lose an audience when you try and be extra preachy and try and give a sermon that doesn’t actually connect to you in an emotional way because you’ve got to love the people, then love what they say.”

“There was a conscious effort to update, it’s like, in a sense, ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…’ 2.0, you update the syntax and make it for an audience of today. So even the Gen X, Gen Z kids, the millennials and the boomers, who’ve grown up watching the old Hindi film music, all of them collectively love the film for various and different reasons,” Johar said.

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani
“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani”

Johar is associated with creating glittering on-screen worlds and “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is no different.

“The world is, of course, far from real. If you see the homes, they’re exaggerated versions of what could be. In Delhi I know, I’ve seen ostentatious homes but the house of the Chatterjees – there’s no such size of house in Delhi. The tone is also lifted quite a few notches,” Johar said. “I think what is working for the film are the characters, within the world of melodrama, and notched up level of everything, dialed up to 11, the characters are still empathetic, they’re still saying things that are relatable. They still have an arc. They go through a journey. And you see that happen upfront. And that’s what I think is moving an audience because while they’re surrounded by an inauthentic but aesthetic world, the characters are still coming across real because they all are feeling, saying and experiencing very real emotions of life.”

“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is the latest film to bring cheer to the Bollywood box office, which is experiencing a revival in 2023 after a dismal 2022, when films from southern India ruled. Johar said that the success of the mass-oriented films from the south blindsided Bollywood for some time, adding that the industry needs to utilize the huge amount of writing and acting talent unearthed during the pandemic streaming boom and that both mediums can coexist.

“Everybody had gotten a little confused about what tonality to do, forgetting that we have our own strengths, and we have to constantly leverage them,” Johar said. “Take that strength in the writing, put in cinema and just make good films. And we won’t need to fight with anyone. We will go back to being an individualistic force that we’ve always been. We went through a phase where we were a bit lost. We’re finding our paths out of this jungle.”

“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is Johar’s first feature film since 2016’s “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.” He is set to make his streaming show-running and directing debut with a global giant.

“One thing I promised myself that next year, no matter what, I’ll be on a film set, even if I stand alone on it. This was a seven-year gap, seven years too much, too many. I don’t know what I’m making, I’m shuttling between a couple of ideas. But I’m working towards getting back on that set ASAP because this kind of gap is not healthy for any filmmaker,” Johar said. “I promised myself that I would make many more movies. Before I start losing the plot, I think I need like, 10 more movies out there in the world.”

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