Dinesh Raheja column: Can Karan Johar bring back the multi-starrer?

This week, we have been all but carpet-bombed on social media with publicity material from Karan Johar’s forthcoming production  Kalank which boasts of a grocery list of stars — Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Sonakshi Sinha. Though this Abhishek Varman-directed film is set in the blood-soaked 1940s, it brought to my mind Johar’s earlier family blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham released back in 2001…God, has it been almost two decades already!).

Like Kalank, the grandiosely acronymed Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G) crammed six stars into one film (albeit bigger names like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Jaya Bachchan, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor); and like with Kalank, the publicity material focused on stunningly photographed portraits of the six elaborately outfitted stars in eye-catching combinations of red and black.

Kalank
Kalank

Johar obviously loves big, shiny film stars (his fascination with them is what fires his celebrity chat show Koffee With Karan) and he likes festooning his films with stars … the more the merrier. The joke about talkative people goes that they never use one word when two will do, similarly, Johar doesn’t cast just two stars in a film when three will do. He heads what is arguably the biggest production house in B-town today, and he can get Shah Rukh Khan to pop up as Aishwarya Rai’s ex husband in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Rani Mukherji to do an extended special appearance in K3G, and no one less than Amitabh Bachchan to do a go-nowhere cameo in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehnaa.

Johar’s love for stars spills over in his forthcoming directorial venture too…the lavishly scaled Takht which stars Ranveer Singh, Vicky Kaushal, Anil Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Bhumi Pednekar and Janhvi Kapoor. If nothing else it can claim to bring together three generations of Kapoors!

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham

Multi-starrers have always garnered attention, but the 1970s were their heyday. Most of Amitabh Bachchan’s early blockbusters had multiple heroes and/or heroines: Sholay (Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Sanjeev Kumar) Amar Akbar Anthony (Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi), Muqaddar Ka Sikander (Rekha, Raakhee, Vinod Khanna), Naseeb (Hema, Shatrughan Sinha, Reena Roy, Rishi).

But for me a galaxy of stars by itself has never been the reason to see a film first day first show or else I would have seen all the Rajkumar Kohli films on the Friday they were released. Rajkumar Kohli collected stars in Nagin, Jaani Dushman and Badle Ki Aag like pennies in a piggy bank. I enjoyed Nagin (1976) which distinguished itself from his series of balderdash films because at least it entertained: as a teenager I enjoyed watching an array of pretty women like Rekha, Yogeeta Bali and Mumtaz. In the titular role of a revenge-seeking, mini-sari-clad snake-woman, Reena Roy slithered her way to the A-league with Nagin, a film that also featured Jeetendra, Sunil Dutt, Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan and Kabir Bedi. Besides everyone’s favourite, Sholay (1975), my top three favourite multi-starrers are Waqt (1965), Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

Kabhi Kabhie
Kabhi Kabhie

The eternal appeal of Waqt lies in the fact that despite being crowded with stars like Sunil Dutt, Sadhana, Raaj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore and Balraj Sahni, each star had a well-etched out character. The film doffed its hat to the popular adage ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’. While I prefer to think that we can change our destiny, I loved Waqt for its seamless screenplay, melodious music, beautiful mise en scene and the spot-on performances from the ensemble cast.

In Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie, besides the plethora of stars and Sahir Ludhianvi’s exquisite lyrics, ‘Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai’, I was delighted by the progressiveness of the character played by Shashi Kapoor, who shrugs off his wife (Raakhee’s) pre-marriage affair with Amitabh.

The film boasted of excellent melodrama thanks to the conflict between the disgruntled ex-lover, Amitabh, and the happily married couple; and also between the couple’s son Rishi Kapoor and his perennially squabbling lover, Neetu Singh. Neetu had the best role of her career as a daughter trying to reconnect with her birth mother, Waheeda Rehman (now married to, who else but? Amitabh!)

Clear your mind of “cannot” said Hollywood actor Samuel L Jackson. And that is what filmmaker Manmohan Desai did most notably in the seminal multi-starrer Amar Akbar Anthony (AAA). In the pre-credit sequence of AAA, three brothers Amar, Akbar, Anthony, unaware of each other’s identity, offer blood to their mother, simultaneously! Two sparks of bright light emanate from Sai Baba’s statue and restore the sight of a blind woman. When all hell breaks loose in the climax, Akbar plays the accordion while Amar and Anthony toss the villain to a one-storey high ledge as if he were a volleyball. But people queued for hours to buy tickets to this zestful entertainer.

Amar Akbar Anthony
Amar Akbar Anthony

Today, we do have the occasional multi-actor films like the Houseful, Golmaal, Race, and  Welcome franchises but most of these films too are anchored by a single major star. Or we witness two-hero tussles as in Thugs Of Hindostan (Amitabh-Aamir) or 2.0 (Rajanikant-Akshay Kumar).

I am curious to know if Karan Johar can, with Kalank and Takht, bring back the multi-starrer trend which ruled the latter half of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Dinesh Raheja is an Indian author, columnist, TV scriptwriter, and film historian. In 2017, he initiated The Dinesh Raheja Workshop in which he teaches Bollywood aspirants everything related to the media.

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