Imagine being at a shoot on a dock, in Mumbai’s unpredictable weather where it gets annoyingly hot by the time it’s noon, even in January. And then on the same set there’s Farhan Akhtar, with his bare bod, posing with the sea link in the background. Temperatures soar, hearts break, and Akhtar is just there, effortlessly doing what he’s best at, despite being off carbs for the longest time to look like this. If there’s anything that defines Akhtar’s journey in the industry, it’s the word ‘evolution’. From his Rock On avatar, to his quiet Sunny in Dil Dhadakne Do, his zinda ho tum Imran or the endearing Panda of The Sky Is Pink, Akhtar’s roles have differed from each other in the most characteristic manner, and he has never really seemed like the same person in two movies. Not to mention, playing Milkha Singh was his tipping point, he went into a different dimension altogether. Now taking his next big step with Toofan, the actor has stepped into a zone that feels liberating to him, and inspiring to us. Here’s looking at Farhan Akhtar: The actor, the family man, the fitness freak, the opinion leader.

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THE ACTOR

You come from a highly talented family in the industry, I tell him, and he nods. Is being an artist in your genes? “There’s no denying that you’re a product of your environment, and the environment at home was always leaning towards creativity, art and music. Also my family, especially on my father’s side, for six to seven generations, have all been writers. That has definitely had its impact,” he says. As an actor, like I said earlier too, his journey has evolved. But what are the changes he has noticed in his acting? I ask. “It’s difficult to be so self-analytical. From the time that I did Rock On, my belief in being able to do things that are further removed from who I am in my daily life has increased.

A huge turning point was Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Up until then, I had been playing characters that were urban, and now I had to play someone who was so far removed from my reality. It was a character who has never been to school, doesn’t speak English, hasn’t been to a big city. The physicality of the character was still easier to achieve, but to remove your city from you and imbibing in the character was a huge challenge. There’s a certain simplicity that comes with being a person who is not from Mumbai. We are constantly analytical and think ‘what does this person want from me’ when someone approaches us,” Akhtar laughs, and continues, “When you think of a person like Milkha ji, he takes people at face value. Playing him gave me the confidence to keep stretching myself further and further.” While Akhtar finds comparing the challenges of acting and direction as different as comparing apples and oranges, he does know he’s been quite the multitasker, whether it’s acting, direction, production or singing. What’s worked best? “I think that’s not for me to decide, it’s for the people who watch my work. So at the end of the day, I’m very passionate about everything I do, and I’m grateful I’ve got to do so much,” he says.

With the onset of all the content that OTT and the web is giving us right now, mainstream surely has competition in terms of storylines. As an actor, according to him, how is mainstream going to evolve to keep up with the changing times? “It already is. Mainstream is not a monolith, it’s constantly evolving. Look at the past decade. Storytelling will keep changing, because the audience that’s growing up and coming to the theatres, is changing. Their exposure is very different from their parents’ exposure. The only downside currently is that people are consuming content at an alarming rate right now, so how much does something stay with you, resonate with you, is being a little compromised. Mainstream, at some level, is at a really good place. The kind of films, the level of acting and technical finesse has got better, and not just for the lead roles. A lot of attention is being paid to detail, the cast you pick,” he adds.

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So as an actor, what is non-negotiable for Akhtar when he’s selecting a script? “I can’t do anything that has a “leave your mind at home” story, it needs to have some value, not necessarily social value. It needs to be aspirational, or motivational, or emotional. It has to be a film that touches your head or your heart, and not just your funny bone,” he explains. A pressing question in today’s times, I tell him, is about how actors are now again becoming director’s actors. What does Akhtar feel about shaping an actor’s role? “Cinema is a director’s medium. You want an actor’s medium, you go to the stage. Eventually, a film is going to be one person’s vision, and that’s the director’s. Of course, thinking actors will bring stuff to the table and raise questions for a director. The synergy between an actor, writer and director has to be tremendous. The lines between their work is blurred. But you have to trust the director,” he explains, and I just take a moment there, stunned, but not surprised, at how articulate he is. It’s also important to ask an actor with versatility like his about what we lack in our films.

With much candour, Akhtar states that it’s the science-fiction genre. “If you look at mythology, the kind of stories we can tell through science — fiction, cultural-fiction are tremendous. Obviously we can’t make it the way we did for Doordarshan. We need the budgets. Our audience is now used to watching movies like Avengers, so we need that quality. I think that genre is waiting to be explored in the Hindi film industry because honestly, that’s not been done well,” he says As we finish the conversation about all things technical, I ask him a simple question, but the answer is intense. What’s one thing you wish someone had told you when you started out? “Well, I guess when you start out, you feel very invincible, and I don’t think you’re prepared for the first time you fail. No matter how much someone tells us, you only feel it when it happens to you. You’re not prepared for how it feels like when the audience rejects you, how it affects your psyche,” he says. So is it something he will tell someone who is starting out? “I don’t think they will listen. I don’t think I’d have listened either as a young, fearless person,” he laughs.

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THE FAMILY MAN

Any celebrity Akhtar’s age wasn’t even half as publicly aware as star kids today are, thanks to the pap culture and the constant social media buttons, and Akhtar reiterates the same, adding that there was no public scrutiny in that sense. “Very rarely would I ever go to a film function with my parents. People were there to see stars, to see Rishi Kapoor or Kamal Hassan or Dimple Kapadia, they didn’t care about the kids,” he chuckles. His parents were surely the celebrities, but if his sister Zoya is a talenthouse. So what’s the most inspirational thing about being Zoya Akhtar’s brother, I wonder. “I am a fan of the way she writes, there’s a lot of learning I can still do from that. She has an understanding of writing, the finer nuances of a relationship, peeling layers of it and bringing it out in a way that’s not overdramatic,” he says.

Akhtar is one of the vocal ones in the industry (more on that later) and comes from a family that has strong women like Shabana Azmi and Zoya Akhtar. I prod and ask him for his opinion on the changing role of a man in today’s society, in a family. “I think the biggest change is shared responsibility. That being said, it’s difficult to say something broadly, because we still live in the most cosmopolitan city of the country. I see shared responsibility, and the involvement that men have as fathers has changed so much. I don’t remember that when I was growing up, and it wasn’t just because my father was busy. I don’t think anyone understood these things back then. It was the mums that came to school, picked us up from parties. I think conversations, dialogue, role models are evolving and it’s so aspirational,” he says. He adds, and laughs, “If my mom had ever asked my dad to give me a bath, he wouldn’t know what to do with me.” But that’s not him, as a dad. Speaking of how fatherhood has changed him, he says that it’s made him think about going beyond what he feels is right. “When I make a decision now, especially a creative decision, whether it’s a film to do or a product to endorse, I always think of it in terms of what my daughters will feel when they watch me. I’ve brought that into my filter system in choosing things to do,” he says. In fact, he’s quick to add, “my younger one cringes at my French beard, she wants me to get rid of it,” he laughs.

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THE FITNESS FREAK

Akhtar’s next film, Toofan, has him playing a national level boxer. The first look sent the Internet into a frenzy, and his fitness was all anyone could talk about. Newspapers and media outlets interviewed his trainer, and everything is currently about his prep. “I had to learn a sport I had zero knowledge about, but it’s one of the best disciplines. What boxing does for you physically, mentally, and even spiritually is amazing. I’ve genuinely had the best time of my life learning boxing, and I intend to carry on learning and playing the sport,” he says. So did the prep for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag help him here? “Oh yes, definitely. When I got Toofan, I knew it’s going to be tougher because running is not unnatural, but boxing was so alien that I knew what the work for it would be,” he says. He hates routine in the gym, and he needs his workout to be mixed up. “There’s nothing I don’t like doing when it comes to working out, but I hate monotony in my routines,” he adds.

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But social media has also made fads and crash diets available to people, and Akhtar doesn’t encourage this trend. “No matter how unfit you are, no matter how unhealthy you are, it’s completely fine to not give yourself unrealistic short-term goals that will make you take shortcuts with fads. Everything is possible naturally. Our bodies can do wonders with the right discipline. Discipline changes the game. That mental strength and willpower is what separates people who are supremely fit from those who are not. A realistic goal is great to work towards — you can’t be Brad Pitt in three months,” he advises. Another important aspect of health is definitely mental health, and more so, when as a celebrity, your social media is constantly under scrutiny. What’s the subconscious toll of being a celebrity, I ask. It surely must be difficult? “Of course, but it also depends on your personality. If you’re constantly in need of validation, it will affect your mental health. Ask yourself this: Are you in the industry because you want millions of followers, or to be an actor? If social media numbers mean people love you, every film you do should be a super success, na? They’re just peripherals, don’t take them so seriously,” he bluntly states.

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THE OPINION LEADER

Akhtar has reasonably been one of the most opinionated voices from the film industry about issues most don’t want to speak up about. I also get a lot of “why ask them about current affairs in a magazine interview” (seriously, who told you magazine interviews are only about “easy to answer” stuff?) but I’m tired of trying to get people to talk about things that matter. You don’t want to, so be it. But when I have a Farhan Akhtar in front of me, albeit with a PR person dangling on our heads, I know he will talk about things on his own. He addressed gender pay gap in some interviews about five years ago, supporting equal pay. Have you seen that happen, I ask. “You’ve been around too. You tell me,” he quips, and says, “We have so many more female directors, writers, women in lead roles with men as the piece on the arm. It’s happening. But any change can’t happen overnight. You slowly, but surely, see things change. See what Deepika did in Chhapaak. With Priyanka co-producing The Sky Is Pink, I could’ve easily said I have my own production house too, but that’s not what you’re looking for. The sooner we start removing this “man-woman” nuance from the conversation, the better. We need to remove the ‘woman director’, ‘woman DOP’. We just say ‘woman’, and normalise it. Now, less people will ask you “You’re working with a woman director, how does it feel”. That’s a change too,” he points out. And what about being vocal on topical issues, is it not a moral responsibility? Akhtar very rightly brings to light the “whataboutery” of everything. “I think if something matters to you, you will speak about it. Everyone has a certain value system and social sensibility that, if rankled, they will speak. It’s difficult to talk about everything that is happening, you may not be able to comment on everything. You may say something in condolence or in protest of it, but it’s not always possible to follow up on that school of thought. For me, being against sexual violence and discrimination is a huge part of my make up because I’ve grown up in an environment predominantly of strong women and I’ve seen them struggle and work hard. It’s important to support their confidence and give them those opportunities,” he states. There have obviously been some trolls who have had a major chip on their shoulders and have gone on to diss Akhtar when he tweets on certain issues, especially the political climate. “I ignore trolls, but sometimes I reply for my own fun. I do it for my amusement, then I get bored of it, and stop,” he chuckles. As we wrap up, I tell him that BMB was one of my first trailer launches as a journalist, and I had asked him a stupid question from the crowd. “Really? Well, you have come a long way,” he retorts and finishes the last bit of the coffee left. Farout, a good interview.