Last time I had coffee with Karan Johar, he talked only about his twin babies Roohi and Yash Johar. This was mid April; they were born two-and-a-half months prematurely on 7 February, but now they were home. And so was he. Proudly Karan told me, "On paternity leave!" He had been waiting for the day, he added, when they would be discharged from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of Surya Mother and Child Super Specialty Hospital in suburban Mumbai. That was the day Bollywood's "Unsuitable Boy" turned into "Superstar Dad."
I caught him at his Dharma Productions office for a HT Brunch cover story. A team from Amazon Studios was knocking on Bollywood's doors. Karan was not just its most celebrated producer and director, but the film industry's gatekeeper as well. He hadn't been to work in over two weeks. But he made a special appearance for Amazon. I had coffee with him after that. He dreamily sipped a tall, cold Caffe Frappuccino from Starbucks while I was given regular machine-made coffee out of the pantry. I don't know what he offers his starry guests on Koffee With Karan but I know he has Diet Coke out of a coffee cup himself on the show!
But the man sitting opposite me was not Sunday night's nattily attired impresario of India's most watched celebrity chat show. Karan was sleep deprived. He was dressed in his trademark black—a hoodie with a roaring tiger that said "Blind for Love", tracks and silver laced-up keds, and a New York Yankees baseball cap sitting jauntily on his head. I don't know if he's the trendsetter, but I have seen others in Bollywood similarly clothed. "I have my hands full at home, the babies have taken over my life, it's unprecedented for me to stay away from work for long," he said with a yawn. The staff at Dharma, and his mother Hiroo Johar, who are familiar with Karan's "non-stop mad energy" (that's how Shah Rukh Khan put it), were amazed at the change.
Karan's 45 today, and he's Bollywood newest and most extraordinary single parent; he gave me the impression of being both—a doting father and fussy mother. He interrupted our chat only to take calls from the twins' pediatrician. "This is my biggest blockbuster!" he said. "I still haven't realised the enormity of what's happened. They're two months old. All they do is eat, sleep, burp, wail and poop. Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham! While I sit and stare at them in wonder. I can't get over the fact that they're mine. It's like a powerful switch has suddenly come on in my life filling the emptiness in my personal space with new energy. I get teary eyed just looking at them."
It's like a powerful switch has suddenly come on in my life filling the emptiness in my personal space with new energy. I get teary eyed just looking at them.Karan Johar
I thought this was rich, coming from the filmmaker who skillfully tugs at the heartstrings of his audience with emotional social dramas that leave not a dry eye in the auditorium. "You don't understand, these are strange emotions for me," Karan explained earnestly. "It's surreal to think of Roohi and Yash as my daughter and son. It's daunting in a gorgeous way to wake up suddenly at night and remember that I have life breathing in the next room that I'm totally accountable for." When they were born, he knew it would be this way. That his work, travel and social commitments would go for a toss because he'd want to give them unconditional love, care and attention. "Now they are home, I cannot stay away from them for long," he admitted.
They are productions of Dharma Productions. I want them to be all over the place. I'll build a crèche here, like Disneyland! And they'll travel with me for shoots.Karan Johar
I knew that was true. He kept looking at his watch. And his phone. They are his lifelines, his channels, to what's happening at home. "I've decided once they are old enough, and before they start school, I'm going to bring Roohi and Yash to the office," Karan said. "They are productions of Dharma Productions. I want them to be all over the place. I'll build a crèche here, like Disneyland! And they'll travel with me when I go on shoots. Bebo's son Taimur is a few months older than Roohi and Yash and we are already making plans for holidays together!"
He described the day the babies were brought home with a touch of humour. "It was like the premier of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998. That was my first film and I still remember every moment. The day I carried Roohi and Yash home was like that. It will stay etched in my memory. It was a K3G moment! With my Mom proudly standing at the door like Jaya Aunty holding a puja thali with burning diyas to welcome not her bahu but her grandkids, all my aunts crowded behind her." He took them into the room where his father Yash Johar's picture is put up. "When I saw their reflection in the glass, merging with his image, I knew they had his blessings. For me, that was a moment of faith," Karan said.
When I saw their reflection in the glass, merging with his [the late Yash Johar's] image, I knew they had his blessings. For me, that was a moment of faith...Karan Johar
But that was only the trailer. "Picture abhi baki hai! Fatherhood is a breathtaking rollercoaster ride," he said excitedly. "I'm struggling to do the right things for my kids. When they were conceived, I was ecstatic, but I told myself I would be a responsible father and not a paranoid mother. Then came the complexities of premature birth. And the heartache of seeing them in the incubator. But I felt a strong sense of ownership. This was a lifelong dream come true. I felt enormously blessed as a parent. And I couldn't wait to take them in my arms. When I did that for the first time, it was incredible. I knew this was the beginning of a different kind of love story. The start of the best phase of my life."
He's aware that a single father is an unusual status in India. Out in the world, there are some famous single fathers, celebs who were brave enough to have babies out of surrogacy. Like Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricky Martin. But Karan wasn't inspired by anybody. He said, "You have to be emotionally ready. I was also prepared mentally, physically and logistically. At 43, I decided I needed to bring this new energy into my life. I didn't want to be a victim of my achievements. It's easy to get carried away by who I am. But I never wanted to be defined by my professional successes. I thought I had lived half my life, and all the things I had done were great, but what about things I hadn't done? Your achievements are transitional. Emotions are permanent."
It was an emotional, well-thought-out decision made after acknowledging and addressing all the issues facing me, and it's the best thing I have done in my life.Karan Johar
Emotionally, he knew he had the capacity to be an adequate parent. "I've nurtured so many people in the film industry, so many young actors, I've been like a parent to them more than a producer and director. I've seen their ups and downs. Been with them in their professional highs and their emotional meltdowns," Karan said. But he played devil's advocate with himself. "Was I being selfish? Did I want to have a child only because I was afraid of growing old alone? Would I be an overprotective and overindulgent father because I wouldn't want my child to accuse me of being a flawed parent and grow up missing a mother? But who's to tell me that I can't be a responsible parent? And the best mother and father in the world to my kids?"
He took the call after considering all the responsibilities and duties that come with being a single parent."It was an emotional, well-thought-out decision made after acknowledging and addressing all the issues facing me, and it's the best thing I have done in my life," he admitted. Now the babies are the superstars of his universe. "People have been dropping in non-stop to see them, they come in shifts, and I've been running around serving them tea and snacks. Babies absorb energy. I like to think they are making eye contact with everyone but they're just looking into oblivion. I like to imagine they are smiling in recognition but actually they're just passing gas! I introduce every visitor to Roohi and Yash by name. 'This is your Chacha and this is your Bua!' I give them all a family tag. I want my babies to know that their family is large. It's not just Mom and me."
[People] want to know if I change my babies' nappies. I think this is overrated. I don't remember my parents changing mine. I remember being held and hugged. Karan Johar
He's on several WhatsApp baby groups. "It's funny, I receive thousands of suggestions," he laughed. "On pediatricians, nurses, how to make the nursery adaptive, what music to play for them—Baby Mozart, Baby Beethoven or nursery rhymes, which formula is best—Nan Pro, Similac or Enfamil, how to burp them, monitor their temperatures, when to take them for their immunity shots, what to do if they have nappy rash, what to do when they cry. I could give paranoid mothers a master class!" People also ask him if he's a hands-on parent. "They want to know if I change my babies' nappies," he said wryly. "I think this is overrated. I don't remember my parents changing mine. I remember being held and hugged. But I did it once—changed their nappies, because I felt it would be great if I was able to clean up their mess. It was like ticking a checkbox! I don't want to be that kind of hands-on parent when I can be a fulltime heart-on father and mother!" At 45, that too. Happy Birthday, Karan Johar.