“I was sweating, I didn’t even realise. He (Varun Dhawan) came to me, held my hand and asked ‘Are you okay?’ And my hands were shaking. I first thought it was a cardiac arrest. I went back home and I just went to my bed and I cried. I didn’t know why I was crying.”
After the very first episode of season 8 of filmmaker Karan Johar’s talk show Koffee With Karan was aired on 26 October, something unusual happened. Usually, after each season (or to be fair, each episode) social media trolls get to their job of hating Johar.
This time around though, along with the usual negativity, there was a sympathetic wave for the filmmaker. On the show, Johar had asked actor Deepika Padukone about her struggles with mental health and how Ranveer Singh helped her through it as a caregiver.
During the episode, he also opened up about his own brush with anxiety at the opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre just months before in March. But this wasn’t the first time the filmmaker acknowledged his mental health issues.
Over the past few years, Johar has often used his stage, mic, and privilege to shed light on mental health and medication.
‘Like Oxygen From Your System Has Been Sucked Out’: When KJo First Talked About Anxiety
Back in 2015, when Padukone had first talked about her battle with depression, it gave space to others in the public domain to break their silence too.
Leading up to the release of his 2016 directorial feature Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Johar told NDTV,
“There was a phase in my life when I was really depressed. I realised that I had some internal issues to deal with, which got built up to such point that it resulted in anxiety.”
Just a few months after this, in January 2017, when his autobiography An Unsuitable Boy was launched, it came with quite a few revelations. Johar had dedicated a whole chapter to what he called his “midlife angst.”
To Johar’s credit, it was nothing short of brave for a mainstream massy filmmaker to tell the world that he was on medication for anxiety.
Time and time again, the latest being on his show, Johar has emphasised that those struggling with mental health conditions should be provided access to professional resources and not given “simple solutions like “go for a drive!!! Meet friends!! Go for a holiday. Get a massage… (sic)”
And of course, in his classic storyteller style, he has also helped his readers visualise exactly what he was going through.
“You feel like the oxygen from your system has just been sucked out. You feel like you’re in Ladakh. You feel you need acclimitization. Your mind is running, your dreams are running. You dream, you wake up, you dream, you wake up. That’s anxiety.”Karan Johar, in his book An Unsuitable Boy
Many Triggers, Much More Courage
Whenever Johar has talked about his mental health, he has very often delved into the specifics of his life, and revealed his potential triggers.
As a child, Johar was called “pansy,” for being more feminine than the boys his age. Recently, in a conversation with content platform Yuvaa’s Nikhil Taneja on the latter’s show Be A Man, Yaar, Johar had mentioned how he always wanted to 'fit in, until he realised he couldn’t.'
That’s also a recurring theme through his book – how even though his family loved him unconditionally and was extremely supportive, he did grow up with insecurities.
The filmmaker, who is also famous for knowing how to take a joke on himself, has often said publicly that humour and self-depreciation, for him, are actually defense mechanisms.
But what has majorly pushed the director to also speak up is the social media trolling he has faced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, when actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, there was a wave of anti-nepotism (in Bollywood) sentiment that surfaced online, with Johar being one of the primary targets.
The filmmaker, in the past year, revealed how much of a toll it took on not just him, but also his mother – who would see all kinds of negativity being spurned towards Johar on different media platforms.
To the audience too, it was quite evident that Johar was down bad. On Taneja’s show, there was a segment where the team had curated compliments for Johar from social media users.
As the host fished out these compliments, it was a little sad to see the filmmaker be genuinely surprised that people were saying nice things about him – after so many years of only being trolled online.
All this also got a hold on Johar as the filmmaker admitted to growing more and more anxious leading up to the release of his 2023 feature Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.
Johar also told film journalist Anupama Chopra in an interview with Film Companion,
“I have never been this stressed before a release. I think it's a combination of the fact that it's been a seven year gap (of directing) and also a certain anxiety that built over the last three years within me with a lot that happened on social media.”
There's Still Criticism...
As a hardcore KJo fan (Dharma [Productions] is my only dharam), I have always believed that Johar knows how to balance the business of storytelling with the stories he wants to tell.
Many of his films, like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and My Name Is Khan, have been ahead of their times. At the same time, he has also made films purely for business and to cater to what the audience wants when they go to see a Dharma film – a masala entertainer like I Hate Luv Storys and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.
He has also been one of those rare filmmakers who has always talked about their feelings.
But with Johar taking the stage to talk about mental health, a similar criticism has come forward too.
Johar knows what his audience wants. 25 years ago, it was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Today, it may be mental health conversations that the GenZ wants.
But that said, opening up about mental health struggles in public is never easy – whether it's Karan Johar, Deepika Padukone, or the person reading this piece.
With the World Health Organization estimating that mental health illnesses account for 15 percent of the global disease burden, every little conversation around stigma and seeking mental health support must be welcome.
In this context, doesn't a filmmaker like Johar, who has taken very many opportunities to speak about mental health conditions, deserve more than just a wave of sympathy?
I cannot help but wonder if Johar deserves some acknowledgement or even appreciation for speaking out – and for invariably sparking more conversations.