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Birthday Love: Karan Johar – Bollywood’s fashion storyteller

Karan Johar may have had highs and lows as a filmmaker, but he never stumbles when it comes to his aesthetic. Watching his movies, the beauty feels instinctual instead of artificial, a feat even most experienced directors struggle with. What most viewers are tempted to dismiss that as superficial fluff is actually an important aspect of character building.

Johar is one of Bollywood’s biggest fashion icons because he understands the emotional connection that goes into a person’s style. In his work, he uses clothing with meaning, informing us more about the character without using any words. The prominently featured makeovers don’t feel hollow, statement looks don’t seem out of place. He makes beauty feel alive and lived in.

‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ (2001)
Take Poo for example. The frosty pink lipstick, the blow-dried hair, silver accessories paired with a pink crop top with the angled hem. Am I describing her introduction outfit or the iconic ‘Bole Chudiyan’ lehnga? This consistency is what sets Poo’s styling apart and so true to herself. Poo is very unapologetically confident in who she is, and it reflects in how she dresses. Her western and desi styles aren’t disconnected, they are guided by her personality. Years later, she’s still the definition of the ultimate It Girl, not out of luck, but due to the thought and care put behind bringing her to life on the big screen.

‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ (2003)
“Nice dress!”, “Nice tie!”. In ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’, Johar uses clothing to show Naina and Rohit’s struggles with love. The red dress and red tie that they have developed an aversion to due to heartbreak, later become gifts by the person who they are beginning to heal with. The dress also marks how much Naina’s perspective towards life has changed. Reflecting back to the beginning of the film, it would have been hard to imagine that Naina in a bright, cheery red dress, but as she learns to find happiness in small moments, her choice of clothing seems perfect. The makeover, as a result, doesn’t feel superficial, but is organic.

‘Lust Stories’ (2018)
Johar’s part in ‘Lust Stories’ begins with gazing at the sari. Megha’s drape, contrasted with Rekha’s. The story explores a woman’s sexuality, but by framing it around the way Megha wears her sari, it becomes less about her sexual awakening and more about her growing more comfortable in her own body. As the film progresses, she learns to disassociate from the requirements and shame society has prescribed to her. Her sari stops being her shield and transforms into an accessory. A minor detail such as her outfit does so much explaining in the 30 minutes of the short film that it really helps focus the narrative.

‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ (2016)
The driving force in ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ is heartbreak. Alizeh, whose heart is still stuck in Lucknow with DJ Ali, roams around London in kurtas, only switching once she finally lets the love of her life go. The one character that experiences the most transformation, however, is Ayan. When he first meets Alizeh, he is trying to portray himself as a smart, sorted young man, but his childish innocence is always peeking through his accessories. He pairs sober colors and fitted Burberry trench coats with t-shirts, backpacks and a wide collection of designer sneakers. By the time Saba comes into his life, Ayan has learnt to embrace that side of him and almost hopes he could go back to the naivety of that time. He ditches the trench coats for more casual jackets and adds a lot more color into his wardrobe. Then finally, when he finds Alizeh again, Ayan opts for warm, cozy clothing just like Alizeh’s new look. Both evoke the comfort of their friendship through their outfits, subliminally reiterating what Alizeh keeps telling Ayan: friendship is calm.

With ‘Takht’, Johar is exploring a new style, one that deviates from the contemporary look he is known for. But Johar understands that at the heart of beauty lies personality and emotion, so despite the change in direction, the intent is still the same. As Bollywood tries to focus more on grit and realism, Johar makes a strong case for the joy of aesthetic. Films are a visual medium, so why not paint a beautiful picture?

Happy birthday, Karan Johar, from Team BizAsia!