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Cringe Cringe Hota Hai

In ‘What The Love!’, Karan Johar tries to play Agony Uncle and give millennials a makeover and get them ready for romance—with disastrous results

Huma Qureshi on ‘What The Love! With Karan Johar’.
Huma Qureshi on ‘What The Love! With Karan Johar’.

Is Karan Johar secretly working for Amazon? I ask this given the abysmal content repeatedly pumped into Netflix India by Johar’s Dharma Productions, arguably India’s glossiest studio, a banner with slick and world-class production values that announced a multi-year content deal with the streaming giant in September. Yet what Dharma has displayed on Netflix thus far has been unforgivably tacky. First came a film called Drive—starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Jacqueline Fernandez and what looked like cardboard race cars—and then there was Johar’s own short film in Ghost Stories, a horror anthology that may prove frightening only to Netflix executives scanning viewer numbers. Johar’s segment plays out like a spoof that forgot to be funny.

The same can be said for a new Netflix series called What The Love! With Karan Johar, in which Johar tries to play Agony Uncle, give millennials a makeover and get them ready for romance. On paper, this take on Queer Eye doesn’t seem like an entirely bad fit for Johar, who is both a film-maker known for love stories and a chat-show host eager to nudge celebrity friends into spilling gossipy beans. It is therefore tragic how catastrophic it is, right from the start. I dare you to sit through the first episode without flinching.

It begins with blindingly bright colour. Saturation levels are turned up to a brutal maximum, making the club setting of the show look more like a dance bar, or the back seat of a blingy Mumbai autorickshaw. It hurts physically, particularly with the unforgiving sharpness of 4K video. Johar passes through a roomful of single people, stumbling first upon a boy and a girl talking. Based evidently on the fact that two people can have an actual conversation, Johar announces that they don’t need his help, at which point the girl corrects him. “I like girls and he likes boys," she says, but the frankness of the moment is dashed by how badly the scene is acted and staged—nothing about this show is natural.

Soon, a pair of stylists enter the scene—Johar calls them his “shamazing experts"—who sit next to the film-maker and proceed to cattily dissect the various contestants/auditioning extras at the party, calling out their shiny jackets and ill-fitting dresses. This feels unnecessary, especially given that one of them appears to have styled his sideburns to look like the MTV Roadies version of Mogambo. It’s all rather hideous, and one wonders why Johar, a film-maker proud of his personal style, would be part of such a cheap-looking product.

(Then again, the great David Lynch just made a brilliant but absurd Netflix film about talking to a monkey—What Did Jack Do?—so I reckon film-makers deserve their indulgences.)

Things get weirder. Johar casually asks a plucky girl her caste, she repeats it, and for some reason this overtly scripted show with multiple retakes chooses to leave the line in. Why on earth do we need to know she’s a “UP Khatri"? Should that be making a difference to Johar, or to his viewers? And if so, shouldn’t the makers of the show offer context as to why they believe it matters? Then again, that may feel like too much to expect from a show where the word swayamvar is translated in the English subtitles as “an autonomous", and where Johar talks to a girl with a scar on her face and then feels the need to spell out what he believes is her problem. “Geetika is scarred," he says in a solemn voice-over, and, just to make sure nobody misses his point, he emphasizes, “And I mean that pun."

The first episode is the most unwatchable, after which things appear to be getting better—but only just. In episode 2, Johar tries to connect with a young girl struggling with fatphobia and body-image issues, which feels empathetic and sweet till Johar’s celebrity guest Arjun Kapoor shares a pizza with her. Johar watches their date unfold on a TV set, talking to himself as if he is fab enough to be every member of Queer Eye’s Fab Five. “Both of them could do without that pizza," he giggles, making his conversations about image and loving oneself immediately appear hollow. The young lady talks bravely about being abused as a child, and Johar—who is a good listener—appears to feel everything can be solved by meeting the right boy.

In the next episode, Johar’s guest is a young male model longing to fall in love. Johar decides to take on this “mental makeover" himself instead of bringing in a special guest, which leads to a candid conversation about the hurtfulness of name-calling and the importance of being yourself, before the celebrity date. Since very few Hindi film personalities self-identify as homosexual, straight man Ali Fazal steps in as the boy on this date, and is charmingly befuddled by the young boy’s unsubtle overtures. In the styling section, the boy is told he dresses too boldly and should be careful not to “intimidate", which rings offensive, as do Johar’s gasps at the sight of one man kissing another on the cheek. By the end of the episode, the young man may not have found the adarsh balak of his dreams, but is sent away with a boy named Adarsh.

When Johar produced the comedy Dostana a dozen years ago, I had called out the film for its regressive use of cliché and the way the film’s leading men, two straight men, started acting offensively campy in order to pretend they were gay. Then, at a Delhi dinner party a couple of years ago, a queer rights activist explained to me what a big step even that film had felt like for gay men in India, forcing a mainstream audience to confront their homophobia. Despite its many, many problems, the film was normalizing the idea of Indian families accepting the coming out of their children.

I would love to be corrected here, and told how What The Love! too, for an audience bred on bahus and naagins, is a step forward. Every now and then, even though Johar bombastically utters lines like “I am the light at the end of that deep, dark tunnel called love" with a straight face, some instances of sincerity do sneak in. Johar draws his viewers closer by revealing details of his own life, like how he once paid for sex—and that it was good—and it is indeed refreshing to see one of the most famous people in the country willing to bare himself. I only wish he was doing it on a better show. What The Love!, ironically enough, is a show few could like. Except perhaps Jeff Bezos.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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