Filmmaker Karan Johar's new book The Big thoughts of little Luv (2020) revolves around the questions and confusions of a boy named Luv. The child wonders why he is treated differently from his sister Kusha although their "eyes and hair are the same colour", they are "as tall as each other", they both like the same things " swings, television and chocolate " and even their "poo-poo looks the same". The fact that the adults in their household have different expectations of boys and girls does not make any sense to him. This book is about his process of discovery.
Published by Juggernaut, this is a children's picture book recommended for two to five-year-olds. However, it will also speak to parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, older siblings, caregivers, babysitters, teachers and school librarians who interact closely with that age group. A large part of its appeal lies in Priya Kuriyan's illustrations, which add texture and emotion to Johar's words. If the author is a giant in the Hindi film industry, the illustrator has a towering stature in the world of children's literature. Therefore, the book seems like a collaboration of equals.
The book is dedicated to Yash and Roohi, who are Johar's children. In the introduction, he writes, "Look at our family. Do any of the old rules apply to us? I am a single man who had children through surrogacy. Our family unit is dad, grandparent and kids " pretty different from the 'perfect' family set-up of mom, dad, two kids and a dog, right?" Yash was named after Johar's father, who passed away in 2004. Roohi takes her name from Johar's mother Hiroo; the letters in the grandmother's name were rearranged to form the granddaughter's name.
Luv and Kusha are twins just like Yash and Roohi are. If the fictional characters created for the book make you think of the Ramayana, remember that Johar has a long-standing interest in the epic. In An Unsuitable Boy (2017), the book he co-authored with journalist Poonam Saxena, Johar narrates the central idea of his film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). "I wanted to make the Ramayana, but in a modern milieu. One of the brothers is sent away, like being banished from the house. And the younger brother goes and gets his brother and bhabhi back," he writes.
If Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is all about loving your parents, The Big thoughts of little Luv is all about accepting your children. In Luv's mind, there is absolutely no contradiction between embodying the role of a mace-wielding Hanuman during playtime, and wanting to wear "princess clothes" in the same instant. His father disapproves of this. He says, "Silly Luv, boys don't wear dresses." That sounds unreasonable and unfair to Luv because his sister Kusha is allowed to wear a dress even when she takes on the role of Ravana during playtime.
There are other instances in the book where the elders try to mould Luv's behaviour according to the gender norms they regard as inviolable. When Luv falls off a swing in the park, and begins to cry, Dadi " his paternal grandmother " says, "Be brave, my silly Luv, boys don't cry." When he wants to wear a pink T-shirt to a friend's birthday party, his mother shoots down the idea. She asks him to wear his "nice blue shirt with the stripes" because, apparently, "boys don't wear pink." Luv is bothered about why Kusha can cry and also wear pink when he is asked not to.
The fact that Johar has drawn inspiration from his own life while constructing Luv's character is no secret. In An Unsuitable Boy, he writes courageously about the bullying he experienced in his younger days for being effeminate. He also ended up joining public speaking classes run by a man who told him that his "gestures were very feminine", that his "hands flapped a lot", and this his "voice was very squeaky". This man and his wife promised to "bring a baritone" in Johar's voice with coaching. He sought their assistance for close to three years, twice a week.
The fact that Luv's story is linked to Johar's makes it a lot more personal, and not just another book on gender stereotypes churned out because conversations around gender diversity and queerness seem 'trendy'. In his autobiography, Johar mentions, "I was interested in my mother's saris. I would stare at what my aunts were wearing. I was fascinated by the handbags they carried." Johar was born in 1972 " decades before Luv came into the world " but gender stereotypes continue to exist even though a lot has changed between then and now.
The voice coach that Johar went to trained him "to be a little more masculine". He was asked to gargle every day, learn to project his voice, and focus on changing it gradually. The teacher used to tell him, "Imagine that you're living in a box, now make sure your hands don't get out of this box." This description from An Unsuitable Boy is chilling because it demonstrates quite literally the act of being put into the closet. Johar cannot go back and alter his past but, as a creator of fiction, he can script a more liberating narrative for Luv.
Luv might come across as a helpless child at first but he holds the key to transformation in his family. He makes all the adults rethink their time-tested notions. Mind you, he throws no tantrums. He only asks questions " simple but powerful and thought-provoking ones. At his aunt's wedding, when his father wears a pink turban, Luv remarks, "But I thought boys didn't wear pink?" When the father starts crying because his sister "is going to a new house" after marriage, Luv asks, "But why is Daddy crying? I thought boys didn't cry?"
If you read the book, you will see that the child is not snarky. He spots a dissonance between what adults say and what they do. This is a source of confusion for him, and he wants a way out so that the world around him becomes more comprehensible. As you might have noticed, most of Johar's films have a happy ending. People have a sudden realisation about the hurt they have caused, so they apologise for their mistakes and try to make amends. The resolution might seem too easy and forced but children do not limit themselves to the pages they hold in their hands; they make their own book as they go along and process text as well as images.
The Big thoughts of little Luv marks a significant moment in Johar's journey since his directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), which reinforced gender stereotypes even as it won hearts and earned a lot of money. In An Unsuitable Boy, Johar writes about a call he got from actor Shabana Azmi after she finished watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai at a film festival in Birmingham. Apparently, she said, "Main aap se sawal karna chahti hoon. Chhote baal the toh pyar nahin hua, lambe baal ho gaye, sexy lagne lagi toh mohabbat ho gayi. Iska kya jawab denge aap?"
If you are unfamiliar with the plot, watch the film on Netflix. However, to put it in a nutshell, Azmi was concerned about the fact that the same man who rejects a woman in the first half of the film because she is "a tomboy" and not attractive enough for him, is passionately drawn to her in the second half because she now has long flowing hair and dresses up in saris. Johar told her, "Main bas yehi kehna chahta hoon ki I'm very sorry, I have no answer to give you. Ladkon ko khoobsurat ladkiyan achchi lagti hain. Toh main kya karoon? Maar dalo mujhe, that I like beauty. Kill me."
This might sound bizarre now, especially after the children's book that Johar has written. However, people do change over time not only in their physical appearance but also in their thought process. Those who are critical of Johar's films, especially his portrayal of heterosexual women and gay men, may not be able to wrap their heads around how he could have written a book that encourages parents to let their children "flower into whoever they want to be". Perhaps this is a good time to cut him some slack, and engage with the book for what it is.
It is possible that fatherhood has changed Johar in a dramatic way. While working on An Unsuitable Boy, he was still thinking, "Am I ready to be a father? Am I ready to slow down and take care of another life?" Today, in The Big thoughts of little Luv, he proudly notes, "I say I am the mother of my twins " I do all the things that moms 'traditionally' do. I plan their birthday parties and schedule their doctor's appointments. Maybe there aren't any rules any more about what men and women can and cannot do." Amen to that!
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect