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Javed Akhtar. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

It took a lockdown induced by the global pandemic for Indian writer and poet Javed Akhtar to swing back to writing for Bollywood films. The 77-year-old legend, who has written the screenplay for iconic films such as ‘Sholay’, ‘Deewar’ and ‘Mr India’, claims he finally had the time to sit and focus.

“I wrote three scripts and two of them were written during the pandemic. One of the scripts I have given it to producer Boney Kapoor and the other to Ekta Kapoor … I have come back to script writing after almost 12 years and I am glad I am back,” said Akhtar in an interview with Gulf News.

The National Award-winning writer and poet is in Dubai for a three-day Global Urdu Poetry Festival concluding on November 13 at the Art Gallery in Al Quoz.

Excerpts from our interview with the legendary poet and writer as we talk about how deadlines make his world go round and why he thinks his children — actor Farhan Akhtar and director Zoya Akhtar — are his biggest grounding forces in life …

Javed Akhtar with his family
Javed Akhtar with his family Image Credit: Instagram/AzmiShabana

What brings you to Dubai?

 I am here for a unique event called ‘Urdu Nazm/Global Urdu Poetry Festival’ put together by Tariq Faizi. This is a three-day poetry fest that blends mushaira and seminars. I am looking forward to it … Poetry is as interesting as interested you are. If you are interested, then you can never get enough of poetry. But if you are not interested, it won’t move you. I love such evenings. Right now, I am with this talented poet from Karachi whose approach isn’t hackneyed or cliched. Anyone interested in poetry will get curious about his work. But a part of you must want to be a part of his experience. If emotions and feelings go into your written words, they will reach places.

Do you think with OTT platforms dominating our lives have made poetry struggle for relevance?

Contrary to what many think, the younger generation is much more interested in poetry. In the last four or five decades, our priorities weren’t about poetry or literature. Education and knowledge were solely for economic benefits. My generation was all about catching the gravy train and leaving the baggage of art and literature on the railway platform itself. But the young generation is a lot keener. They may not have in-depth knowledge or understanding of the craft behind poetry, but there’s the passion to write. So, I am unwilling to be pessimistic about it.

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Javed Akhtar had co-written the script of the iconic film 'Deewar' starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor.

History has taught us that a pandemic can bring about great literature and poetry … And we just survived COVID-19 …

It’s too early to decide that because whatever was written during the last few years will come out in the public domain only now … But I know that I went back to script writing for films during the pandemic because I had time on my hands.

Was switching from writing film songs to script writing difficult?

Not at all. What we don’t realise is that we play multiple roles in life, and we can switch from task to task. The only difference between writing poetry and writing a song/script for a film is that poem writing places you as the ultimate master. You oversee the topic, the meter, the structure, and how you want to say something. You are writing for only those people who are interested in poetry and it’s not for general consumption. You can afford to be indirect and silent. But with a film song, you know it’s for general consumption and it will be heard by people who have never heard or understood poetry.

Imagine the way you talk at a seminar will be different from when you are talking in a public meeting. In a huge gathering your choice of metaphors, your vocabulary, and your style of addressing a 20,000 people crowd will be vastly different than talking in a seminar filled with people who are already clued in. With film songs, you will make things simple, and you tend to come down a few rungs … But catering to the lowest common denominator is no excuse for bad grammar and bad language.

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Javed Akhtar is the recipient of the UAE golden visa

Bollywood songs, especially item numbers, have questionable and objectionable lyrics these days. I wouldn’t want my kids to hear them. What are your thoughts?

You also need to save your children from some of the political speeches which are sometimes toxic, communal, parochial and polarising. There are all kinds of people in this world, but I can honestly say that I have not written a single dialogue in a film or a song that can be questioned with those lenses. I have lost many films and projects because I refused to be a part of a dubious narrative.

I say this with a clean conscience that I have never been a part of a song or a film that can be deemed obscene by any stretch of the imagination. In the 1980s, I left and rejected many big Bollywood projects because they wanted me to write songs for situations that are distasteful. I remember being asked to write a song where a big hero of that time pretends to be a ladies’ tailor and is taking the heroine’s body measurements. A song had to be woven around that scenario and I refused to be a part of that film.

Your multi-hyphenate children Zoya Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar seem to be your biggest cheerleaders … You have worked with them in the past, so what’s your dynamic like?

I think Zoya doesn’t want to admit that I am a legend [laughs] and doesn’t want to spoil me. If you don’t believe that your children who were born after you cannot be more sensible than you, then you are sorted. You need to know that perhaps they understand the world better than you and that you are on the fringes now. I look at what both say with curiosity. It’s all about a mutual respect. When I am working with them, they are not my children but my directors. It’s a thoroughly democratic and professional bond. As a matter of fact, I have worked with Karan Johar and his dad, and Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra. I know these kids from the 70s and I have seen them grow, but I understand them.

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Zoya Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar with their famous dad Javed Akhtar

Are they intimidated by you?

Initially, they are intimidated by me but once they got to know me, we get along fine at work.

In the film ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’, you wove poetry beautifully into the narrative through Farhan Akhtar’s character … Was there a lot of thought that went into it?

OK, let me break this myth that a lot of thought went into it … They called me to the theatre and said they wanted poetry in the background. It was jotted down right then and there based on the time that background appeared in a particular scene. I added a line or two depending on what they wanted right then and there. It was all done on the fly.

So, it’s official ... You work best under pressure?

Yes, tension and being terrified help me perform to the best of my abilities. My biggest source of inspiration is the pure terror of missing that dreaded deadline. And I don’t believe in revisiting my old films either. I never look back. I saw ‘Deewar’ recently because they were celebrating Amitabh Bachchan’s body of work in a theatre, but honestly, I was revisiting that film after 1978. Once you write something, you can never analyse it or look back on it because you are a different person already.

Don’t miss it!

Javed Akhtar will be a part of a three-day Global Urdu Poetry Festival in Dubai’s Cross Borders Art Gallery from November 11 to 13.