Jerry Pinto spends an evening with two style icons: poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar and director son Farhan Akhtar.
When that riderless horse—a literal night mare—whinnied and reared through the dreams of the young policeman in Zanjeer, Javed Akhtar wore denim shirts and the scowl of a man who half-expected, half-wanted the world not to like him.
With Salim Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Prakash Mehra, he had just invented anger for Hindi cinema. Not the pontificatory anger of the speech or the anger turned on the self of Devdas but a raw-boned, unsocialised, fist-in-your-face anger. This was the anger of the orphan, abandoned due to circumstances. This was not a personalised anger; it was rage redirected at society.
“I am eight. My father is in Bombay and mother in her grave,” Javed Akhtar writes in the introduction to Quiver (Harper Collins, 2001), a collection of his poems and ghazals translated by David Matthews from the Urdu. And later, “My younger brother has been retained in Lucknow. I have been allotted to my aunt who has moved to Aligarh. It’s understandable. After all no single family can bear the burden of two orphans.”
That ‘understandable’ is clever, subtle. It suggests a new perspective on old events, the perspective of maturity. It suggests forgiveness but it also suggests that there has been something to forgive. It suggests that the anger, with the denim, has been laid to rest.
Javed Akhtar invented cinematic anger. Farhan Akhtar invented celluloid cool. Two generations, two styles.
With the kurta and the shawl, with the awards and the accolades, with the triple-decker title of successful scriptwriter, lyricist and poet, the cornerstone of Javed’s new personality is dignity.
And yet, he admits that Zanjeer would not have happened if he had not mined his own anger.
“Children are sensitive; they see there are differences being made, intangible differences. Not in the real material sense of less food or less clothes but in things like…” he pauses to stroke his nose, to consider his next words, “like touch. I see this today too in children who are not being brought up by their own parents. Outsiders leave you starved for touch.”
Anger in the hands of an artist is a powerful weapon. For Javed Akhtar, it produced the iconic image that turned into the cliché of the angry young man; it gave rise to the stranger without a past whose screen time clearly begins without the hope of a future, the outsider whose fists are strong and whose words well with meaning.
That doesn’t quite describe Javed but look carefully at the description and it is that of the quintessence of the Romantic age, Heathcliff. Javed is also a Romantic. He writes best when he is depressed. He wears his poetry on the sleeve of his black kurta. He doesn’t just look at you, he focuses on you with an intense stare. He does not speak for himself; he speaks for poets, for poetry. There is no ironic distancing here; Javed takes himself and his art seriously.
“It is poetry when you can say that what you have written is yours, that no one else could have that insight. If you have talent and you are prepared to do a reasonable amount of work on the craft of words, you can write reasonably good poetry. If you are willing to explore the self, if you are willing to exploit your own life, if you are willing to share your experiences, if you show people what it is like to have been you, then you are writing great poetry.”
At this point Farhan Akhtar, director of Dil Chahta Hai, inventor of male bonding, harbinger of a new direction in popular cinema, comes in. He does not break into the flow of his father’s prose. He takes an armchair, sits down and then flips his feet off the ground to curl up, elf-like, in its depths.
But the flow does break.
“I don’t know if I could have praised myself better,” Javed says, self-deprecating smile in place. He makes way for his son, leaving us with an exit line.
“Tell him about your happy childhood,” he says.
Farhan grins. He uncurls, drums his fingers on the arm of the chair, curls up again. His eyes are unclouded, his bearing young.
At 28, he has only begun thinking of the future because of his daughter. Otherwise, it didn’t concern him. Not until Dil Chahta Hai was declared a hit.
“Everyone who asks me about the next film asks with a sadistic pleasure. Of course, I’m carrying around the burden of people’s expectations. But I don’t think I’m letting it filter into my life. I’ve been shooting for the new Pepsi commercial and it was great being back on the set with a hundred things to deal with while eating smoke by the kilo. No time to think. No time to go back.”
“Nostalgia,” as Javed has just said, “is the past blackmailing the present. We edit yesterday to prove that it was better. Even our sorrows are back-lit.”
There lies the difference between father and son. Javed speaks as if presented by a mandate to articulate the dilemmas of humanity. Farhan uses “I”. The Romantic notion of a common predicament has just been chilled slightly by the post-modern present in which everyone is a minority of one. The Romantic self may have been bruised and battered but it was a celebrated self. The post-modern self may not exist at all. If the self is also the result of a creative process, there may no longer be a self.
Or in other words, at the end of history, who will you behead?
And so Farhan bears the name Akhtar lightly. He does not seem to have a problem with following his father’s footsteps into cinema. Either Oedipal rebellion did not happen or it has happened and been dealt with. By both parties.
But Javed? He rejected his father, the poet and film lyricist of the 1950s and ‘60s. Jaan Nissar Akhtar, by rejecting poetry.
“When your father sits in a shop, how do you rebel against him? By not sitting in the shop. When your father is a poet, how do you rebel against him? By listening to poetry, by knowing hours of it by heart, by suggesting lines to friends who are writing it, but not by writing it. I wrote my first poem after my father died in 1976.’
Farhan skipped antithesis and went straight, pragmatically into thesis. He has already made his first film and is planning his second. He admits candidly that he did not have to shoulder his way into any rooms, did not have to carry a dog-eared script to a hundred producers, never bore the label of ‘struggler’ which in the film-soaked suburbs of North Mumbai is a legitimate job description.
“It’s a gentleman’s agreement, I think. I’ll work on the characters and he’ll work on the structure”
“I suppose the difference lies there,” he says. “I never had to go without food for three days or write dialogues for minor films to pay the rent. It’s easier to be cool about things, not to take them too seriously when you haven’t been through the grind.”
Cool. It’s a word that has been used to describe Dil Chahta Hai again and again. The boys were cool. Akshaye Khanna’s hair was cool. The sets were cool. Dimple’s ikat clothes were cool.
What does cool mean to Farhan? Besides the Arjun Bhasin suit that he is planning to wear and the jeans and T-shirt that he is wearing?
“Being comfortable with yourself,” he says.
How cool is he?
“Semi-cool,” he laughs.
He will need to be. The next project will bring Javed and Farhan together. Javed is currently writing two films, one for the Moranis and another for his son. So who’s going to be director?
“Me,” says Farhan.
Javed has a reputation. Who’s going to be director?
“Me,” he repeats.
Pause. I am thinking of Vijay Saxena and Aakash on the same sets together. I am thinking of Nirupa Roy screaming “VIIIIIIIJAY” with a blue lava lamp, sloshing primordial pop philosophy in the background. I am thinking of those archetypes of anger, betrayal and abandonment in a techno music video.
I don’t know what Farhan is thinking.
“It’s a gentleman’s agreement, I think. I’ll work on the characters and he’ll work on the structure. He’s amazing at that kind of thing, where the punch should come, where the hook should go. I think he’s pretty much mastered the craft of filmmaking. I know the kind of people I want in my next film and I know what I want them to be doing. Or even not to be doing. I don’t want them doing improbable things. So we’re working together even as Pa writes it so that we know where we’re going and so that there won’t be any unpleasantness later. We’re at the stage where we’re teasing the idea out and so far we’ve only been pulling our own hair out.”
“Each artist must bring his own sensibility, his own morality to his film,” he opines.
It’s a great way to define the hatke element that went into Dil Chahta Hai. It was an amoral film. None of the three boys were bothered by their histories. None of them were worried by their privilege, by their ability to enjoy their lives. Their neuroses stemmed only from their love lives. Where Javed pitted father against son (and even allowed the father to be soundly humiliated by the rejected son in Trishul), parents are strictly supporting cast in Farhan’s cinematic world, if one can judge from a single film. So how would Farhan define that in terms of sensibility, morality, big words that come so effortlessly to his father?
His father replies.
“This was the first time in Hindi films that all the girls had previous boyfriends or associations. One of them had a fiancé, one was divorced and one was in love, or so she said, with someone else. That was new.”
Farhan interrupts: “And yet in the 70s, a couple of brave young scriptwriters put their hero in bed with his woman, and gave them each a post-coital cigarette.” He is referring to Bachchan and Parveen Babi in Salim-Javed’s Deewaar. Of course, both of them died in the end, thereby proving a point about women who smoked or about prostitutes who thought they could go straight by marrying agnostic gangsters. Like Dimple dying.
“Her character was an alcoholic in the film. That tends to happen to alcoholics,” Farhan says drily. And adds, with a sudden trace of his father showing up, “Whatever you think and say, films do affect people. And showing an alcoholic drinking and then marrying a nice young man…”
Specious. You could equally argue that people might believe that death is the only prognosis for the alcoholic and not even the love of a good man could change that.
Farhan says it as a dismissal. He returns instead to the scene from Deewaar. “We wouldn’t be able to shoot that today. You can’t show your characters smoking.”
Well, if films influence people…
“Anyway,” he says again and goes to change for his shot.
Javed by then is in full flow. He directs the shot, and his son. “Look there in that corner?”
“Pa, do you think I’m a kid or something? Look there, look there, baba, crow?”
“No, I know how these shoots are. You smile and I will look serious. And come closer.”
Farhan turns to me.
“You know what I said about us being able to work together? Could we go over that again?”
This story was first published in the March 2002 issue
Image courtesy: Ashima Narain