Although he hasn’t been especially visible of late as an actor, Farhan Akhtar is still a major creative force. From producing films and web series’ (Raees, the Kannada hit KGF, Inside Edge and Mirzapur) to performing live with his band (and being the hottest thing on Instagram with his new beau Shibani Dandekar), he remains as relevant as he’s been since the release of Dil Chahta Hai.

Before Farhan Akhtar was “hot”, he was “intelligent”. As a film-maker, that’s the word that was overused by journalists (along with “cerebral”) while describing him. Not any more, though. After the acting bug bit him, he evolved into one of the most desirable men in the industry. After Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, they called him a sex symbol. Today, he is often shirtless on Instagram, either working out his biceps or taking a swim with his new girlfriend in a pool. He hasn’t stopped singing (which is the thing about him that gets criticized the most), still packing auditoriums and stadiums around the country.

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The film-maker in him hasn’t disappeared, either. Excel Entertainment is at the forefront of film and web content production, delivering great numbers with series’ like Inside Edge and Mirzapur. They are kicking off 2019 with Made In Heaven, starring Jim Sarbh, on Amazon Prime. Of his last few films as a producer, Raees and KGF have struck gold at the box office. Gully Boy is gearing up to become a memorable cinematic experience. The man knows how to reinvent himself and stay relevant, that’s for sure. When we sit down to discuss his plans for this year, the list is both exciting and daunting. Excel is ready for digital domination, while Akhtar is collaborating with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra for the second time with Toofan, a boxing film (and, true to form, he has started sharing workout videos on Instagram). His album, which he has been working on for two years, will also release by the end of this month. Akhtar hopes that it will introduce him to newer audiences to perform live for. “That freedom of being in front of people that you don’t know, but at the same time feeling free enough and feeling loved enough to just be yourself is an amazing feeling and is very liberating,” he tells us while talking about his gig life.

The man’s become much more open about his personal life in the last few years, and he tells us that has been a gradual process, given the amount of scrutiny celebrities endure. But he is in a good place right now, with his children, and partner Shibani Dandekar. “I turn to her for many things,” Akhtar mentions, “for advice, for support, for just keeping things real. She has an amazing ability to keep things real, and I find that very admirable.”

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Most importantly, he has an astute understanding of what audiences want — on screen, on laptops and on social media — and Akhtar is serving them dollops of exactly that.

Two months into 2019, how many resolutions have you broken?

Well, I didn’t make any resolutions to start with, so there’s no prospect of breaking them.

You don’t make resolutions?

No, not really. I think everybody knows what they should be doing and what they should be focussing on.

What are your plans in 2019?

To try and do more good work and just hopefully — there’s so much change going on around us in the way content is consumed, with the whole digital revolution that’s happening, and so to constantly keep exploring that and try to figure out how to stay atop this wave that’s happening, with whatever we’ve done so far with Inside Edge and Made In Heaven that’s coming up. So, there’s a lot of interesting stuff coming up on that front. The second thing that’s happening is that my album, which I’ve been working on for the last two years, is releasing at the end of February. Hopefully, it’ll give me the opportunity to go and play before a different kind of audience and crowd – that’s what I’m looking forward to. And then there’s Toofan that I’m doing with Rakaysh Omprakash Mehra, and I’m excited about collaborating with him again. On the home front, it’s time for my daughter to check out colleges where she wants to go, and it’s exciting but at the same time, this is the time where your daughter has grown up and you also have to kind of let go. So it’s an interesting time in both Adhuna’s and my life.

Even now, the streaming space is still relatively new. Although, we’ve been very fortunate and had two exceedingly successful shows, it’s been new and there’s still a long way to go

You just celebrated your birthday — how do you think you’ve changed as a person in the last 10 years?

Wow, I don’t know, to be honest with you. I do feel that with every passing year, a certain sense of maturity keeps creeping in. So, you know, that does happen but I really don’t know how else I’ve changed. There are things I was doing 10 years ago that I’m still doing now. I am still as excited about work as I was then. I really don’t know what the major change is but I would hope, at least, that in terms of a certain understanding of things, in hopefully being a calmer person than I was 10 years ago, I’ve progressed.

Excel, as a company, has been a major player in the streaming space, with two seasons of Inside Edge and with Mirzapur being such a huge hit — what’s the game plan?

To be honest, at that point it was recognising that there is an entire, a huge segment, of India’s population that is consuming content not in theatres — they are really happy to consume on their televisions or streaming services or on their laptops and phones and tablets. Every time you’d speak to this lot of people, they’d always talk to you about shows they’re watching from the US or the UK, but they were never really watching any Indian shows. So, we did realise that there is a huge void in content creation that needed to start getting filled. So, when the opportunity presented itself when Team Amazon met us and spoke to us about wanting to create something that could be a standalone show out of India itself, both Ritesh and I were extremely excited and we jumped at the opportunity, and Inside Edge was a script that had come to us not as a web series but as a kind of a film script. Somehow it suited this format really well, because you could really invest in all the characters and take a lot more time to tell the story. So we adapted it into that format and that’s how it happened, but it really started off by recognising that there is a void that needs filling, an audience that needs addressing that nobody is really talking to at the moment.

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Excel had already had a lot of success with feature films – did you feel that branching into the streaming space was a risk?

Not really. I feel that people are very habitual in the way they consume things. There are people who love going to a theatre every weekend and nothing will change that. There are people who sit on their couch and want to watch something on their televisions or however they consume it, nothing is going to change that. Of course, once in a while, there will be an anomaly where something comes around that makes you want to get up and go or sit back home and watch, so that does happen but more often than not, you’ve created a sort of pattern where you like to watch something. I don’t think that because a show like Inside Edge or Mirzapur has done as well as it has done that when a film releases, the audiences going to watch it will be less. We are engaging with people in the theatrical space, which has given us the opportunity to engage with a whole new audience.

What’s the blueprint for Excel in the next five years?

I’d say to further consolidate the stuff that we’ve got going, to really build on that and create more shows. I mean, of course, to continue to create the kind of films that we believe in. It’s really just that — to start consolidating what it is that we’re setting up. Even now, the streaming space is still relatively new. Although we’ve been very fortunate and had two exceedingly successful shows, it’s been new and there’s still a long way to go, so we’re just going to stay a little bit more focussed on how to consolidate this kind of good start, I guess, if you want to call it that.

What are the parameters you look at when you’re reading scripts for a web series?

I think there’s only one — whether it’s engaging or not. I think that’s basically it. If it’s engaging, it doesn’t matter what formula it is – those things become technical, but the important thing when you read episodes that are sent to you is whether it is holding your attention through and through. Are you really feeling, “Oh my god, I want to know what happens next”? That’s really the criterion for it, and then when you go further into it, there’s how well the characters are written, how believable the drama is.

Do you want to act in a web series?

That would depend on what it is. Like I said, to me it’s a very exciting new world, and you’re really reaching different people, some of whom are aware of the kind of work you do in films, have watched your films and there must be many who haven’t. They know you in terms of what you do but I don’t know how familiar they are with you. It would be nice to engage with them but it would depend on what the script is and what the part is.

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How much do you enjoy the freedom offered by online streaming services?

There is absolutely a certain liberation in being able to write scenes the way you’d like to write them, and allowing characters to speak in the way the world of that show wants the characters to be speaking — that does make a huge difference. It also increases the believability of the world for the people when they’re watching it. That actually is the crucial thing, you’re not doing it so you can be sort of sensationalist. It’s not about that, you’re trying to stay true to the world you’re representing and when that happens, people recognise that as well and they respect that.

You’ve said that we are creatures of habit, but as someone who is straddling both spaces, do you see web series’ taking over the silver screen in the next 10 years?

No, I think there’s going to be a happy coexistence between the two. I do feel that there is something very special about the cinematic experience of going somewhere — there’s something ritualistic about it. There’s a certain satisfaction, some kind of a feeling that that experience gives you, which is very different from watching something in the confines of your home. What may need to change is the kind of content that is created, what may need to happen is to increase the number of screens in this country now, because sometimes people have to travel very long distances to be able to watch a film in the theatre. That must change, it should be convenient for people to go to a theatre.

On a different note, what’s the high you get from live performances?

It’s difficult to describe what that feeling really is. You know, it only truly works and people only truly enjoy the evening if you have zero barriers and zero walls and absolutely be yourself. That freedom of being in front of people that you don’t know, but at the same time feeling free enough and feeling loved enough to just be yourself, and the more you are yourself and the more you don’t pretend to be something that you’re not, is what they appreciate and that’s where the love comes from. It’s an amazing feeling, and it’s very liberating.

You seem more open about your private life now than you were previously — is it because you’ve changed as a person, or is it because social media has pulled down these barriers?

It’s been a slow and gradual process over the last couple of years because for the longest time, I did not want to share images of my kids on social media. I just stayed away from it, but I did feel as time was progressing that I have a lot of joy in these relationships with my children, with my friends, with my partner now. Somehow, because of what we do, we constantly feel that we’re being watched, questioned or judged on some level, you create this defense around you where you want to kind of protect things or at least that’s what your mind is telling you, but I really felt that the more I can be open about who I am, the more I can be open about how I feel about things, about the people in my life, about the joy that they bring, about the love that there is. I just think it’s a nicer way now to just be, and there’s no secrets, there’s nobody having to second guess. You know what I mean? It’s just there and that’s how life should be — if you’re happy where you are and if you are in a place where you’re fortunate enough to be with people whose company you enjoy, with somebody that you love, there’s no reason to hide it. It’s nice, and hopefully it’ll make other people smile and get them to start feeling happy as well.

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You have a new lady love — how has Shibani Dandekar changed your life?

Changing my life right now, I mean, it sounds a bit extreme. Definitely, there is some influence of course, because of the kind of person that she is. That automatically has an effect on you and like I said, I don’t want to get into too many details about this, but I think what’s important is that I really do feel that through meeting her and now being with her, that there is a certain joy, there is a certain happiness in our relationship, in each other’s’ company. I turn to her for many things – for advice, for support, for just keeping things real. She has an amazing ability to keep things real, and I find that very admirable.

You’ve been friends for a while. Do you remember the first time you met?

Actually, we met on this show that I had done for some channel. It was a game show of sorts which was in 2015, if I’m not mistaken. After that, our interactions were very sporadic and as I said, sometimes life has these amazing, pleasant surprises for you, and one thing just kind of led to another.

You’re a father to millennials — how different is parenting now, as compared to when you were a child?

I don’t think you can compare the two, because times have changed so much. More than parenting, it’s the understanding of the father’s role in parenting that has changed a lot. I think there always has been a lot of clarity in terms of the mother’s role, but there was this strange thing — what is the father’s role, precisely? I feel like from the time I was a kid to now when I have kids, I do feel that — and it’s not just me, I’m not only speaking about myself, I feel this way about many young and new parents now — you see that the fathers are a lot more hands-on, more involved in terms of sharing time and responsibility. The relationship between parents and kids now is a lot friendlier. The way my kids speak to me and share things with me, it’s very apparent to me and I feel very happy about it that they are comfortable to talk to Adhuna and me about everything that’s going on in their life, and with absolute confidence that we’re going to listen, and we’re not going to judge, and will help as much as we can if there’s an issue of any kind.

I turn to her (Shibani Dandekar) for many things – for advice, for support, for just keeping things real. She has an amazing ability to keep things real, and I find that very admirable.

Do you think this paradigm shift in parenting is because our ideas about gender have changed?
I think more than that, what has emerged over the last decade, if not slightly more, is recognising and respecting and empowering women to achieve dreams that they’ve had for themselves. Becoming a mother is not the end of a woman’s aspirations for herself, and I think that for a long time, at least in some kind of a traditional and patriarchal kind of way, the role of a woman was do what you want and then you get married and that’s it. That’s your life — that you are a mother. I think that’s changed, recognising the fact that women want careers and women would like to have a life outside of just being a mother, have their own experiences, whether it is to travel or learn something new or start a new business and do whatever it is they want. That requires time, and for more time to be made possible, the male partner has to step in and step up.

Do you feel that the rules of relationships have changed in modern day courtships?

Well, I hope so. I would like to believe so, and you do see examples of that happening. That’s a very healthy thing. You’re creating something together, but that does not mean you don’t have ambitions outside that thing.

If you could remake Dil Chahta Hai with three of the younger actors of today, who would you pick?

Probably Varun (Dhawan) to play the part that Saif (Ali Khan) played, somebody like an Ayushmann (Khurrana) to play Akshaye’s (Khanna) part and for Aamir’s (Khan) part, I would imagine somebody like Ranbir (Kapoor), I guess.

And would they still be going to Goa?

Yeah, Goa is timeless, yaar.

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QUCK PICKS

What are you binge-watching right now?

A show on Amazon Prime called The Profit.

What’s the last show you watched and loved?

It was Mirzapur, to be honest with you. I really enjoyed watching it.

The last film you loved?

I absolutely loved A Star Is Born.

An Indian actor you’d love to work with?

I don’t have these kinds of fantasies. I just hope that I can get an amazing script, that’s what I fantasise about, and then the cast follows.

One Indian film-maker to watch out for?

Shakun Batra, who made Kapoor and Sons. I’m quite looking forward to seeing what he’s doing next.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY ABHEET GIDWANI | CREATIVE DIRECTION BY SHWETA MEHTA SEN | STYLED BY NEELANGANA VASUDEVA | ASSISTED BY AABHA MALHOTRA | HAIR BY SAURABH BHATKAR AT BBLUNT INDIA | MAKE UP BY SWAPNIL PATHARE | ALL CLOTHES BY LINEN CLUB | ALL JEWELLERY BY PLATINUM MEN’S JEWELLERY | LOCATION COURTESY: VERBENA BREWPUB & SKYGARDEN, MUMBAI

STORY BY ARNESH GHOSE

INTERVIEW BY MAYUKH MAJUMDAR