Javed Akhtar
Javed Akhtar. Image Credit: Supplied

Dignity has become an obsolete virtue and being borderline rude has become cool, declared celebrated Indian poet, writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar while talking to Gulf News.

It’s a sobering thought, especially when it comes from a wordsmith who has always been a portrait of keeping it classy. He’s even fighting a lawsuit with actress Kangana Ranaut for smearing his name during a televised interview.

“Dignity has gone out of fashion because it doesn’t have a frantic tempo as being trashy …. Dignity has a certain staid quality to it. If you have dignity, you should be willing to get examined again and again,” said Akhtar, breaking into an impromptu verse in Hindi about how certain people are desperate for attention.

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Javed Akhtar. Image Credit: IANS

“The idea that you won’t hold other people’s attention makes you increase the tempo of your work, your personality, your film … There’s a kind of insecurity that the attention will go away from them,” explained Akhtar. The National Award-winning Indian writer, one half of the famous Salim-Javed duo, did not take any specific names while saying it, but it was clear that he was mildly disillusioned by the mad scramble to stay relevant.

But he’s never had to fight that battle of being relevant. His work has always spoken for itself. And on December 9 at the Sheikh Rashid Auditorium, Akhtar and his body of work will be celebrated.

“I am a bit embarrassed, but my dear friend Tariq Faizi has put this wonderful Mushaira together,” said Akhtar with a laugh. Akhtar remains one of India’s most popular lyricists and screenwriters and boasts a prolific Bollywood career with five National Film Award wins, Padma Shri in 1999, and the Padma Bhushan in 2007, two of India’s highest civilian honours.

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Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi. Image Credit: Supplied

Akhtar became a household name after he collaborated with Salim Khan and turned screenwriter for films such as ‘Sholay’ and ‘Deewar’.

And Thursday evening, all eyes will be on Akhtar and his glorious contributions to the world of words and pop culture.

Organised by Leading Edge Events, the invite-only poetry night symposium starting at will see Akhtar and a galaxy of talented poets take to the stage. His actress-wife Shabana Azmi, whom he admires greatly, will also accompany him as the spotlight falls on him.

Excerpts from our interview with Akhtar as we talk poetry, his writing, COVID-19, and more …

What can you tell us about the upcoming poetic symposium ‘Jashn-e-Javed Akhtar’?

A: It’s not my night of poetry alone. There are some wonderful poets in this mushaira [poetic symposium] and it’s not my solo performance. To be honest, I am looking forward to listening to some good poems. I am more of a listener than a poet there. My dear friend Tariq has organised this wonder meet-up ‘Jashn-e-Javed Akhtar’ and it’s honestly a bit embarrassing and awkward to be celebrated. But it’s all good. He has lined up some extremely talented and young poets. So, I am looking forward to a fine night of poetry.

Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan. Image Credit: AFP

Do you need to be a purist to understand poetry? And what do you have to say to those who resist it because they are intimidated by it?

If you are intimidated, it’s totally understandable. Anything which you are not familiar with tends to intimidate you. For instance, I am technologically challenged and if something happens to my mobile phone in a public space, I look for the youngest person around me and ask them to fix my mobile phone. Everybody has a limitation. People who feel intimidated by classical music, art, or poetry are totally understandable. Nobody can understand everything and nobody can be familiar with everything under the sun. If you are interested in it, try reading poetry and talking to people who understand it and they will explain it to you. Gradually, you will develop an ear for it … Anything which you don’t know is not easy. Try not to develop a fear for it and remember it’s not mandatory to enjoy it. There are many who have lived their life happily without poetry, but there’s no denying that it adds colour and aesthetic if you follow it.

How did you manage to survive COVID-19 lockdown and did you miss live recitals and interactions as an artist? There are many artists who hated the distance from their fans …

Life offers you packages, and every package has something good or bad in them. Ask these artists about when was the last time when they spent so much time with their family, their wives, their parents, their husbands, and their siblings? Shabana [Azmi] and I are in the fourth decade of our marriage and never in my life have we lived together for such a long time without a break. It was our first time and we got so much time to read. We may live close to many people, but we are not close to them. But all of that changed. Zoom has also made us use our time efficiently. We have learnt to have meetings online. COVID-19 may go away, but online meetings won’t. Having said that, being a part of a live performance gives you another high altogether. To hear a poet, recite their poem, fills you with happiness, and not listening to live poetry was a big handicap. But life offered you another package during the pandemic. Earlier if I had a meeting at Church Gate, I would spend three hours commuting to that place. But now we can do the same meeting at home, saving us a lot of time.

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Javed Akhtar. Image Credit: IANS

It’s believed that a pandemic often is a breeding ground for artists to thrive and write … Did a prolific writer like you function better since you had nowhere to go?

It’s true and not true. When I am contracted to write a song for a film, I am prolific, but when it comes to my own poetry, I am not. I write for myself only if I am convinced that it has not been written before. If something had been said in a poem, I don’t write it down. I write a poem only if I am fully convinced that the idea has not been explored before as far as I know … And Shabana often jokes that when it comes to films that I am prolific. In one of the prefaces to my book, she had written that if my Bollywood producers knew how I easily I write for films then they would stop paying me. But for my own works, I am very slow, and I write every little … But I read a lot of poetry.

There’s a biopic in the work about your work and times with Salim-Javed… Tell us more about it.

Some people are making a full-length documentary and they have already interviewed me and Salim saab. They have also interviewed actors, directors, and our colleagues whom we have worked with. We are all here and we can give certain insights on how a film was made and its screenplay was written … It’s more about our work than our lives. It’s wonderful. Author Nasreen Munni Kabir is a London-based journalist who introduced Indian cinema in France. We have already worked on two books ‘Talking Films’ and ‘Talking Songs’ published by Oxford University Press. Now she’s doing a book with me called ‘Talking Life’. It’s more of a memoir where she asks me questions and I talk about unusual, wonderful people whom I met through my journey and all those incidents in my life that were surprising, dramatic, and unusual. We will complete it next month.

You are a treasure trove of life experiences! If you could give your 20-year-old self some life lessons, what would you tell your younger self and why?

See to it that you don’t waste almost a decade since I feel I wasted at least 10 years of my life and I could have used it much better. If I am 20 years old again, I wouldn’t make the mistakes I made...

What’s next for you?

I have finished writing three films during these two years and I am going to sell them. I had time since I hardly had any recording and I used the time wisely. The kind of films that were made in the 1970s and 1980s were different. The language and tempo have changed. The level of realism has changed. A good mainstream film is much more realistic and the distance between the parallel and mainstream cinema is decreasing by the day and it’s wonderful. There are young directors who are doing great work… And writing for web series is a different ballgame altogether. I write for films that feel like you are running 100 yards while writing for a web series is like running a marathon.

Don’t miss it!

What: Jash-e-Javed Akhtar

Where: Sheikh Rashid Auditorium

When: December 9, 7pm onwards

For invites, call 052-6919878/055-8137094