Farhan Akhtar experienced postpartum depression when he stopped doing 2500 crunches a day. When he stopped training and living as Milkha Singh, it felt like he’d “lost somebody”. In his words, “It is an intense experience when you deal with a character that so consumes you. I remember, when the film wrapped up, my first instinct was to tell Samir [Jaura], my trainer, ‘Let’s maintain going to the track once a week and training. Let’s go to the high-altitude centre once a week.’ He said yes, but he knew it wasn’t going to happen. The drive to do it was gone. It had to gradually work its way out of my system. It was hard to deal with it being over.”
We are in Akhtar’s sitting room. A book by poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi is in one corner. A large drum with the cover of Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band painted on it is in the other. In person, Akhtar is no-nonsense and nice, but also slightly aloof. His words are carefully chosen. Not like he’s reading from a press release, but as if it isn’t like him to shoot his mouth off. Half the interview is over before he starts making eye contact and smiling more easily.
He says he found the role of Milkha Singh tougher to handle emotionally than physically. On his rigorous training, which involved two intensive workouts a day, six times a week, he says, “It becomes a part of the process of becoming the character. There’s something inside you telling you, this is what I have to do. And, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many times you have to wake up early and push yourself, you’ll do it.”
Most actors wouldn’t have touched Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Most directors wouldn’t have approached Akhtar for the role. There’s nothing in his filmography to suggest that he understands the villager’s or the athlete’s perspective in India. The film is a strange experiment, in which hydrogen was mixed with oxygen and ended up in buckets of sweat.
When Akhtar acted in his first film, The Fakir of Venice (unreleased), he never thought he’d end up in a biopic. “I was emotionally blackmailed into doing the Fakir of Venice. The director, AnandSurapur, was my friend, and he was convinced I should do it. Honestly, I did not feel ready. We used to hang out a lot, and he used to see me doing my antics. Working on that film, the first thing I felt was some degree of artistic liberation. I felt that you can be something 100 percent. To be so uncorrupted was a wonderful feeling. The story of my acting career is incomplete without a mention of how helpful my Fakir of Venice co-star AnnuKapoor was. Not that he told me what to do. He helped by talking to me about his own experiences as a theatre actor, the importance of being relaxed and other things like that. Because I’m not a trained actor, it took me a while to lose my inhibitions with so many people staring. Usually, I’m the one watching other people and commenting on their nuances.”
Akhtar did not study filmmaking either. He learnt on the job and made sure he hired the best professors to teach him. In the four films he has directed (Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya, Don 1 and 2), he’s never repeated a director of photography, a job he describes as “my closest associate in the technical department”. He’s worked with three costume designers, four editors and five production designers. “You want to work with people whom you can rely on to do the little, important things. For example, I was working with Suzanne Merwanji [production designer] on DilChahtaHai, and we were shooting in Dimple’s [Kapadia] house. There was a desk there, which you only really see in one shot — when she’s talking to her husband on the phone. While setting up the shot, I opened one of the drawers and found it filled with pins, pencils and papers. I thought it was just junk the production team had left there. But, Suzanne said, ‘It’s meant to be there because Dimple plays an interior designer. This is where she keeps all her things.’ I was completely blown away. It opened a little door in my head to just how far you can go with details.”
It isn’t new information that you need to get the right people together to make a good film. Akhtar has just pulled it off more consistently than most. Before Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, his standout films were Dil Chahta Hai, which he directed, Luck by Chance, which he produced and acted in, and Fukrey, which he produced. For those who haven’t seen Fukrey, it is this year’s Vicky Donor. The film is absolutely nuts. “When Mrighdeep [Singh Lamba, director], an extremely witty guy, narrated the script, we knew it was a laugh riot. It felt like he knew this world, these people. We even asked him, ‘Which one of the four characters are you?’ You could see it was special for him. When the material is so strong and powerful, it’s rare that you’ll get it wrong. Plus, he had a certain control over the story. Every time we spoke to him, he seemed to know the answers.”
Among all Akhtar’s ventures, the only ones that haven’t interested me enough to even watch them are his Don films. I start telling him about a friend who’s seen Don four times. He interjects, “What a nice guy. I hope he is not talking about the 1970s Don.” “No, that’s me.” He responds, “That’s me also.” What the original means to me is also what it means to him. It makes you wonder: why would a man who cares so much about growing as an artist remake a classic? Why would he then make a sequel to that remake? Then, you look at the beautiful two-tier bungalow, at the sparkly Bandra sea it overlooks, at the big rooms, and you think, well, it all has to come from somewhere.
But, to write Akhtar off as a gold-grubbing director is an unfair assessment. He does understand the value and responsibility of being a celebrity. Last year, he launched a social initiative called MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination). “We’re in a fortunate position because people are looking at us and reading about our lives. We can’t just use it to say, ‘Come, watch my next movie.’ When I travel with the MARD concerts, people come and talk to me about it. Universities have set up awareness booths, and several NGOs are also part of this. All we have to do is keep the volume up.”
There is a scene in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag depicting marital rape that is nearly two minutes long. It is one of the few scenes in a slow film that justify the time they are given. “That was Rakeysh’s [Omprakash Mehra, the director] doing, and I completely agree with him. I remember when we watched the edit, I felt so uncomfortable watching that scene. Your first instinct as a human being is that it stifles you. That’s how it should be. You should feel like, pardon my French, but, what the fuck is going on? How can this be allowed to happen? If you don’t feel that way, it just becomes titillation. The scene will transgress voyeurism only when the length is as long as it was. The treatment of important issues, concerns and crimes, if not portrayed correctly, becomes voyeurism.”
Akhtar’s next film, Shaadi Ke Side Effects, which will be released in February 2014, also deals with the position of women in our society. “ShaadiKe Side Effects felt like a simple but sweet story. Men need to start accepting responsibility in a relationship, especially in our patriarchal society. If your wife’s making certain sacrifices to make your marriage work, why are you complaining? Either respect that, or give her the same freedom you have. That message, which isn’t preachy, but more subliminal, I liked that.”
Akhtar is picky about his projects because, “You know your entire life’s journey has brought you to this point, at which you want to make this one film.” It isn’t a bad philosophy. For any writer, director, actor, producer or singer.
Hair by Walter Dorairaj; Make up by Swapnil Pathare