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Karan Johar’s mistrust of labels

...Is not his alone. Question is, why do identity labels have bad name in the first place?

Karan Johar’s seems to be an ongoing struggle with how much tradition and convention he is willing to upend. Photo: Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times
Karan Johar’s seems to be an ongoing struggle with how much tradition and convention he is willing to upend. Photo: Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times

The excerpt from Karan Johar’s book that was published in The Times Of India earlier this week is exactly the sort of robust argument that is made when personal actions are subjected to political critique. Apurva Asrani, a film writer most well-known for the recent film Aligarh, wrote a critique in The Wire which, among other things, sought to correct Johar on the mistaken assumption that calling himself gay could lead to his arrest under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—it wouldn’t. In The Huffington Post, Sandip Roy wrote a piece rallying around Johar, stating that the three words that the director, whose last film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil grossed over Rs100 crore, needed to hear were: “It gets better."

But rather than support Johar or criticize his decision to not “spell it out" (it being his sexual orientation), it’s important to understand the impetus which underlies his—and our—mistrust of identity labels.

Reading the excerpt from his biography, The Unsuitable Boy, it struck me that Johar’s struggle was not so much with his sexuality—though one has no intention of disregarding that struggle at all—as it was with his being the sanskari Indian, someone we meet in all the films he makes.

His seems to be an ongoing struggle with how much tradition and convention he is willing to upend. And from someone who didn’t address his sexuality till his mid-20s to a man who asked his mother to sit in the front row at an All India Bakchod (AIB) Roast in Mumbai in 2014, requesting her to laugh at jokes about his sexuality, he has certainly come a long way. Yet Johar, as the excerpt reveals, would rather not label himself. He fears arrest, he is tired of the homophobic abuse he receives on Twitter, and he owes no one any explanation about his orientation.

This is not only a mistrust of labels, and I’ll come to that shortly, but also an unwillingness to let go of the legitimacy that a heteronormative society confers upon those who uphold its norms. We conform to tradition but do not understand the ways in which tradition oppresses a large swathe of people— lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, transgenders, women, single women, Dalit women, Dalit transmen, young girls, the labour class.

Johar’s films show us an ideal, the great Hindu undivided family ruled by fathers, brothers and sons, and upheld by mothers, daughters and wives. This sanskari Indian family is a creation of the same heteronormative patriarchy that allows boys to be boys, asks girls to come home before dark, and allows hashtags like #NotAllMen to trend on Twitter when women speak about sexual abuse and harassment.

By mistrusting identity labels like “gay" or “lesbian", we make the label the problem rather than focusing on the real issues of oppression or discrimination. I know women who lead extraordinary lives, earn their own money, buy their own homes, support family members and believe that a woman must possess every right over her body, mind and money, but refuse to call themselves feminists because they fear the connotation of man-hater that the word carries. It’s ironical since this stereotype is symptomatic of the oppression that women face in the first place.

But make no mistake—it is far more necessary to explore the politics of identity before taking on the label. Let’s say Karan Johar had decided to use those three words for himself after all, and continued to make films with gay characters, who are either lampooned, as in Dostana, or remain silent about their sexuality, as in Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). The status quo won’t have shifted one bit; the sanskari Indian wouldn’t have found himself questioned at all.

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