Bollywood Filmmaker Karan Johar's Autobiography Sparks Debate About Being Gay in India

Karan Johar (center) featured in a 2015 online Bollywood roast 'AIB Knockout' that was pulled due to obscenity charges.

The popular celebrity writes that he “will not say the three words that possibly everybody knows about me,” because “I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this.”

Well-known Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar's autobiography has sparked a debate about being gay in India where homosexuality is considered a crime, according to a law going back to British colonial times.

In his book An Unsuitable Boy, co-authored with journalist Poonam Saxena, Johar writes that "everybody knows what my sexual orientation is, I don't need to scream it out. If I need to spell it out, I won't only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this. Which is why I, Karan Johar, will not say the three words that possibly everybody knows about me.”

According to the country's Section 377 law, introduced in 1862, homosexuality is defined as "against the order of nature" and can attract a maximum sentence of life in prison. India's gay rights crusaders have long been fighting a battle against Section 377, and in what appeared to be a breakthrough in 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized consensual homosexual intercourse. But in 2013 the verdict was reversed by the Supreme Court, which said that it was for India's parliament to decide how to amend the law.

But in 2015, India's lower house of parliament voted against the introduction of a bill to decriminalize homosexuality, proposed by a member of parliament.

Johar, 44, is one of India's best-known personalities since he also hosts a long-running popular TV talk show, Koffee With Karan, which airs on 21st Century Fox's Star India network. He heads Dharma Productions, a banner established by his late father, which has many Bollywood hits to its credit. As a director, Johar has helmed hits such as his 1998 debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, starring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, with whom he has worked on various films, including 2010's My Name Is Khan, which was distributed by Fox Star Studios India.

In 2015, Dharma inked a nine-film deal with FSS. More recently, the banner also inked a film licensing deal with Amazon Prime Video.

Johar's book, which was launched at a function in Mumbai last week by Khan, is currently among the best-sellers on Amazon India as it has sparked debate over why he does not use his status as a celebrity to support gay rights.

Back in 2013, well-known author Vikram Seth, known for his best-selling book A Suitable Boy, which seems to have inspired Johar's book title, penned an essay against Section 377 for India Today magazine. He posed for the magazine's cover in a photo styled like a police mug shot, holding a sign stating, "Not a Criminal."

While Johar's filmography is largely family friendly, some of his films have flirted with gay themes, such as 2008's comedy Dostana, in which its two male leads, played by John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan, pretend to be gay. Last year, Dharma produced Kapoor & Sons, which focused on two brothers (Fawad Khan and Sidharth Malhotra) who deal with familial strife, made all the more acute when one of them comes out.

On the other hand, India's rising new wave of independent films are offering a more realistic take on the issue. Last year's acclaimed Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta, focused on the real-life story of a university professor who loses everything, including his life, when he is discovered to be gay.

Aligarh's screenwriter, Apurva Asrani, who has publicly admitted he is gay, criticized Johar in an open essay in The Wire. “Do you realize that your statement will push so many people who struggle with their identity back into stuffy closets?” wrote Asrani. He also said that Johar's statement about the implications of Section 377 were incorrect because "you cannot get arrested for saying you are gay. You cannot even get arrested for being gay. The law (Section 377) can only be invoked against you if you are first caught in the act."

Johar has also been trolled on Twitter and recently went on the attack when a user named Sherlock Holmes tweeted, "@karanjohar Are you a gay? I'm ready to lay if you launch me."

In his retort, Johar posted, "Listen Sherlock!!! First solve the mystery of your existence??? The prize will be to LAUNCH a missile up your arse!!!"

Johar explains in his book: "The reason I don't say it out aloud is simply that I don't want to be dealing with the [police complaints]." He adds that he has a commitment to his company and to all the people who work for him, stating, "I'm not going to sit in the courts because of ridiculous, completely bigoted individuals who have no education, no intelligence, who go into some kind of rapture for publicity."