Javed Akhtar
Javed Akhtar Image Credit: Supplied

Kolkata: Javed Akhtar, along with his scriptwriting mate Salim Khan, set the entire Hindi film industry cruising on a hitherto uncharted track in the history of commercial cinema in India when the archetypal baddie Gabbar Singh [Amjad Khan] in Sholay thundered: “Kitney aadmi they” (How many of them were there?).

From the spine-chilling dialogues that gave the 1975 cult production its timeless status like no other in Bollywood, to the highly emotional renditions of a romantic freedom-fighter (Anil Kapoor) serenading his lady love with a mellifluous burst of unparalleled similes in the song Ek ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga (Girl, the way you make me feel) in 1942 a Love Story, the scriptwriter-lyricist-poet has always gone well and truly beyond the obvious, beyond the tried and tested, beyond the formulaic.

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Javed Akhtar

Akhtar is unabashed and nuanced at the same time — just like his repertoire of Urdu poetry and his time and genre-defying lyrics and scripts for many a Bollywood blockbuster. He has absolutely no qualms about the fact that he entered the haloed portals of Hindi filmdom at a time when “music was king” and therefore “to think of a story with a hero who didn’t sing would have been suicidal!”

On the sidelines of the ongoing Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, the maestro opened up during an exhilarating session with Gulf News on March 23.

You began scriptwriting/storytelling at a point of time when probably many people in Bollywood weren’t even aware of scriptwriting as a filmcraft. You, as part of the phenomenal Salim-Javed duo, changed that. How was this made possible?

I always believe that people who bring about a major change and revolutionise things are themselves not aware of it. They don’t understand the magnitude of their task and in a way that’s good because if they had known the magnitude, they might have got frightened about the task on their hands. In all innocence, they must have believed that it was the right thing to do and were somewhat blind to the risk involved. I’ll tell you about a California-based critic called Mary Cohen. She has written a lot about Salim-Javed movies and the kind of meaning she had found in all the metaphors used with the dialogues, in the characterisations etc. So much so, that we [Salim-Javed] ourselves were blissfully unaware of it! We had no idea that this was what we were doing. That was the time when Rajesh Khanna was at his peak and music was king. We had R.D Burman, Lakshmikant Pyarelal giving one super-hit music album after another. So, at that stage, to think of a story with a hero who didn’t sing would have been almost suicidal! But, honestly, we were not consciously trying to be different. And that is why we had no fear or doubt about what we were creating.

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Javed Akhtar with Salim Khan Image Credit: Supplied

Let’s take two examples: ‘Kaala Patthar’ and ‘Don’. ‘Kaala Patthar’ didn’t do well commercially, although it had a very intense script and narrative. ‘Don’, on the other hand, was more flippant in mood, but turned out to be such a cult film. How challenging is it to have your finger on the pulse of the audience, every single time?

Never try to put your finger on anybody else’s pulse. Rather, keep feeling your own pulse because anything that is interesting to you will interest some people at least, hopefully. But if you start feeling other people’s pulse then you may or may not get it right. Believe in your own ideas, your convictions — that’s what matters.

Coming back to Kaala Patthar and Don, you see Kaala Patthar was an intense film, but we had been there before. In comparison, Don was something new. This was the first pure caper movie in Hindi, without any family angle. There were no false emotionalising. There was no ‘mother’. For instance, Pran, in Don, had two children, but we did not turn it into an emotional sub-plot. That is why Don remained a pure caper film and we remained honest with that. You know today, it may sound very ordinary, but in the 1970s, to make a film where the characters had no family background was unprecedented. Recognising a person as a person, as an individual was not there in Hindi cinema until Don happened.

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Amitabh Bachchan in 'Don'.

I can also illustrate this point with my experiences as a lyricist. For instance, I did the lyrics for both Jodhaa Akbar and Rock On!!, in the same year. While Jodhaa Akbar won me a lot of popular and critical acclaim and award, Rock On!! didn’t. But let me tell you, the lyrics for Rock On!! were unprecedented because generally, English words were used in Hindi songs primarily for the purpose of comedy. But this was no comedy. These were words coming straight out of the heart. They sounded like songs written by some rock group and so doing those lyrics was a much bigger challenge than Jodhaa Akbar.

Rock On!!
A still of 'Rock On!!'

In the British National Museum, there is a hall almost the size of a football field, where there are manuscripts and letters written by people like [William] Shakespeare, [John] Dunne, [P.B.] Shelley, [John] Keats, Oscar Wilde … you just name it. And in that room, in one showcase, you will also see Paul McCartney’s Yesterday in his own handwriting. That shows the maturity of that nation and the confidence of the intellectuals of that nation to have both Shakespeare and McCartney under one roof.

Do you see any change emerging out of the contemporary milieu in India, to match the idea of what you have just now mentioned about the British National Museum?

Sometime in 1976, I remember once having a chat with Mr [Satyajit] Ray, in the presence of this journalist called Amita Malik. Amita tried to run down Sholay and you know who contradicted her? Mr Ray. He said: ‘Don’t say that about Sholay. I have seen that film and I’m very proud that today India can make a film like Sholay. I’m so happy about it. It’s such a well-done film.'

Mr Ray could afford to say that, but Amita Malik, the journalist, could not because Mr Ray had no doubt about his intellectual self. Not many of us can do that — that’s the problem. It is very important to be your own voice and not someone’s echo.

Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay
Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay Image Credit: Ramesh Sippy films

How was the experience collaborating as a lyricist with your own children in films? You did it with both Farhan and Zoya Akhtar in some of their movies …

Firstly, you have to forget that they are your children. Secondly, you have to get rid of this idea that anybody who is born after you is less intelligent, less talented than you. ‘I am wiser than my father and also wiser than my son’ — that deal won’t work! Even if they are your own children, you must listen to them carefully because they know many things that you may not know or understand because ultimately, it’s their world. At the same time, I also have certain things to share with them, which they may not know. So, if there is a mutual give-and-take, mutual respect, then you can work with the younger generation. My collaboration with Farhan and Zoya is all about this mutual respect.

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Javed Akhtar with his daughter Zoya Akhtar and son Farhan Akhtar

Your anthology ‘Shyaari’ has been translated from Urdu into Bengali for the first time. How important do you think are translations in promoting literature? And is the end result always satisfactory?

The end result is not always as satisfactory as it should be. However, let’s not forget that languages were meant to communicate. It’s so ironical that more often than not, language becomes a barrier in communication! Translations are the only windows in these barriers. Imagine, had there been no translation, we would not have known who [Leo] Tolstoy was or who Dostoyevsky was or who Alberto Moravia was. We would have still managed to read English literature, but what about Continental literature? It’s a frightening thought.

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Javed Akhtar with acclaimed actress and wife Shabana Azmi

Obviously, translation does have its limitations. At times, the flavour is lost. Certain words cannot be read and understood in full through literal translations. The problem is all the more acute with poetry. More often than not, poetry is in soft focus. It speaks in nuances and symbols and some metaphors in particular are difficult to translate. That is why we have not included any ghazals in these Bengali version because I think ghazals don’t lend themselves to translations. You can translate a word, but how can you translate the history of that word? In Urdu, there is a word called Maikhana, which is much more than just a ‘tavern’... But that’s what a literal English translation would tell you — unfortunately.

It is often said that the power of the written word is fast losing its allure with the younger generation. Your views …

Today’s children do not only depend on books for information. They have their iPads, phones and other gadgets. They do have their sources of information and those do not necessarily have to be in the form of books. Also, that youngsters do not read enough or aren’t too intellectually inclined is one complaint that has been there since the time of Aristotle! If you Google it you will probably be able to see that even Aristotle had once rued the fact that the younger generation wasn’t focused enough! So, we’ve been there before [signs off with a hearty laugh].

Farhan Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and family
A family portrait of the Akhtars