How Koffee with Karan lost its mojo

Bollywood is no longer mature enough to take humour in good spirit


In May last year, Karan Johar announced on social media that his popular and often controversial chat show, Koffee with Karan, after airing 135 episodes on TV and OTT, would not be returning for a seventh season. "I'd like to think we have made an impact and even found our place in pop culture history. And so, it is with a heavy heart that I announce that KwK will not be returning," he said back then. Those who knew him well knew that he did not mean it. How could the scion of Bollywood's Dharma Productions―known for his sensationalist, over-the-top drama, both on and off-screen―give up what essentially forms his core, they asked. The past seasons had successfully taken the audience on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from shock and surprise to awe and anger. It was in season 3 that Kareena Kapoor broke the news that she and then-boyfriend Saif Ali Khan would tie the knot in 2012. Not only Johar, but even Saif was taken aback by that announcement. Then in 2010, Deepika Padukone shocked the audience by suggesting that Ranbir Kapoor should endorse a condom brand. Salman Khan evoked gasps when he declared himself to be a virgin. Vidya Balan once talked about her fantasy of a married man cheating on his wife with her and how she wanted Shah Rukh Khan to be that man, as "the second one always sticks". In an episode with Emraan Hashmi, Johar asked him what came to his mind when he thought of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, to which he replied, “plastic”.

Interestingly, as critics point out, all this happened at a time when Bollywood was more "open minded and mature enough to take humour in good spirit". Sadly, however, with the drug abuse of some stars coming to light, the change in work dynamics post-pandemic, and a series of flop films, the industry has become more cautious―speaking only during film promotions and as per PR mandate. This might have been one reason why Johar decided to take a break from KwK, as stars preferred lying low.

67-Ranveer-Singh-and-Deepika-Padukone-and-Karan-Johar Bollywood brewing: Karan Johar with Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone.

Yet, within three months of the announcement, season 7 of KwK was back, premiering with Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt as guests. Theirs was a pairing with a strong undercurrent, with their spouses being ex-lovers. And now, the first episode of the eighth season featured Bollywood's power couple, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer. However, many have reportedly declined to appear on his show this season and Johar has confessed that he has been trying hard to get those like Ranbir, Shah Rukh, Anushka Sharma and Salman. Salman was in fact the first guest in KwK's fourth season in 2013-2014. Shah Rukh has appeared in seven episodes, the last being with Alia in the premiere episode of season 5 in 2016, shortly before the release of their film Dear Zindagi. The reason for declining, they all say, is the highly personal and controversial nature of the questions.

This is also symbolic of how Bollywood itself has evolved over the years― hiding inside its shell and coming out only when it "needs" to. The fun and frivolous nature of the almost 20-year run of KwK was appealing and binge-worthy, because Bollywood celebs were "chilled out" enough to let the audience have an insider (almost invasive) peek into their lives. This continued until social media trolling and the growing atmosphere of intolerance caused the industry to clam up. In the older episodes of KwK, guests spoke with candour, self-deprecating humour and intimacy, like the ones featuring Shah Rukh and Gauri, Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt, Mira Nair and Tabu. This has been missing in the last six to seven years.

67-Kareena-Kapoor-and-Saif-Ali-Khan Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor

The show used to be akin to a glossy magazine that discussed campiness, sex, power and money without qualms. "Now the idea of what constitutes Bollywood needs to be questioned,” says writer Jerry Pinto. “Earlier, it was based on this elevated sense of melodrama, but now that is gone and the stars are done with it. Now, what we are seeing is the last flicker of stars, and that is why Koffee with Karan seems so old, because who is interested in stars?”

He compares KwK with India's first entertainment talk show hosted by actor Simi Garewal. "I think Simi seemed to be interested in the people behind the personae. Karan is adept at creating spaces where the surface glitter completely overwhelms you. He is most comfortable at the level at which the stars want to be perceived as playful children who have loads of money and sex appeal. He is interested in sensationalising the shows; the byte becomes of utmost importance."

67-Salman-Khan Salman Khan

Episodes of Rendezvous With Simi Garewal featuring those like Rekha and Jayalalithaa remain memorable, because even as Garewal indubitably thought of herself as a star, she respected the individuality of the guest. Whereas in KwK, the guests seem too distant and impersonal, which also explains the larger dynamics between the actors and the audience today. There is nobody one can look up to as an ideal. Some episodes like the one in which Ananya Panday wonders who the Indian prime minister is or Alia Bhatt wrongly names the president of the country as Prithviraj Chauhan instead of Pranab Mukherjee, does not reflect too well on Bollywood's general interest in anything outside itself. "If KwK is not scripted, then I am appalled at the guests' lack of intelligence," says Pinto.

Kalpana Swamy, founder of Nostalgiaana Jukebox, adds, "It is all about promoting one's film or work. And KwK is only symbolic of that culture that has pervaded Bollywood. Nobody will now come to speak about their life and times, as before. They will only talk when they have something to sell, and that is the unfortunate manner in which Bollywood now functions."