Poet, lyricist and scriptwriter: Javed Akhtar is a man of many words. CNN-IBN’s Anuradha SenGupta chats with him in an exclusive interview.
Anuradha SenGupta: There is not much that you don’t know about the Hindi film industry. In fact, you are almost like a memory or knowledge bank, isn’t it?
Javed Akhtar: Thank you very much. We will soon find out whether I deserve this compliment or not.
Anuradha SenGupta: How much has the milieu changed as compared to 1964, when you came, found your way to Mumbai to find your role in the industry?
Javed Akhtar: The kind of change you see in the rest of the societies are totally in sync with the changes I see in the film industry. We are becoming more professional, smarter, more clever and more tech-savvy. But I’m afraid we have achieved this speed at the cost of some depth. We have achieved glamour at the cost of a certain degree of sincerity and empathy.
Anuradha SenGupta: I mentioned memory almost casually but you have a phenomenal, almost graphic memory, don’t you?
Javed Akhtar: Well, my friends say so but I believe your memory is directly related to your level of interest. If you are interested in something or someone you will remember things, otherwise you won’t. I remember thousands of couplets written by others, paragraphs of short stories and novels by my favourite writers.
Anuradha SenGupta: Verbatim?
Javed Akhtar: Verbatim. I can quote prose also, particularly of Krishan Chander who is my favourite Urdu writer. But I don’t remember the number of cars I own today. I don’t remember anybody’s telephone number.
But I do remember that I saw Naya Daur in 1957 when I was 13 years old. I had gone with four friends and a servant, because 13-year-old boys cannot go see a movie on their own; at least that was the morality and culture at that time.
It was raining heavily that day. 1957 had discovered nylon. So nylon was a big thing and we had those bush-shirts. So we got wet and nylon sticks to your body when wet. So the four of us took off our shirts and hung them on the seats and were left only wearing shorts. So I suppose you remember things if they interest you.
Anuradha SenGupta: You remember that you always wanted to be rich and famous and that was your only ambition?
Javed Akhtar: Perhaps. I was in school in Lucknow at an impressionable age of eight, nine or 10. It was a school full of very, very rich kids. I don’t know why my family decided to put me there. It wasn’t fair of them because I was the poorest child in the classroom. Other children had wristwatches, fountain pens.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you see yourself now, do you feel you have achieved that ambition of being rich and famous?
Javed Akhtar: No, not at all because ambitions change with time. First of all, whom are you comparing yourself with? As a matter of fact I feel very humble and I’m not saying that just because it’s the right thing to say but what makes me unhappy is that there is much more that I could have done.
Anuradha SenGupta: Are you a lazy man?
Javed Akhtar: I am a lazy man and there is a certain virtual laziness also because when you are not doing anything you are thinking and when you are thinking, you are growing.
Anuradha SenGupta: How often have you used this argument and with how many people ?
Javed Akhtar: If you are constantly busy with the outer world you won’t have time to go deep into your psyche and understand what’s there and so on. So laziness isn’t as bad as you think it is. Besides that, lazy people develop a guilt complex so when they work, they work very hard. If they work.
Anuradha SenGupta: You have managed to make laziness a virtue. When and where do you think you developed a sense of humour. Not only do you have a sense of humour, you have a wicked sense of humour. It is witty, bordering on bitchy.
Javed Akhtar: Humour is wicked by its very nature. Humour cannot be noble. It’s not possible. If you take any joke under the sun and realize it and put it under the microscope, lose all your sense of humour, start analyzing it, you will know that there is certain sadism and cruelty involved in it. So humour has an interesting wickedness. We are, perhaps, using this word because we can’t find a better one but wickedness is also not such a bad work.
Anuradha SenGupta: Did you have to cultivate it? From what I have read and sensed, there were times in your life which were very difficult and when you were not necessarily happy.
Javed Akhtar: I would not say that I was a tragic, self-pitying figure, ever.
Anuradha SenGupta: But there was reason to be?
Javed Akhtar: In a deprived society, these reasons are available to most of us. It depends on us, how we take it.
Anuradha SenGupta: Was it a survival skill in the early years?
Javed Akhtar: Maybe, maybe not. But it was not one day that I sat and decided humour—this is what will see me through. But perhaps in retrospect, you can be psychoanalytical.
Urdu also has a great sense of humour. In societies where people read and understand Urdu, and love Urdu are known for their sense of humour. When my maternal uncle Majaad, a well-known poet, died his friends collected besides his poems and also his witty remarks and jokes and published a book. In Urdu, jokes are called latife. So this book was called Majazife. So perhaps it is genetic to some extent or survival kick.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you decided to come to Bombay and start a career in films did you think it was long, tough, hard journey?
Javed Akhtar: I wanted to be a film director. I was a great admirer of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Mehboob. So I wanted to get to the film industry as an assistant director and I though in three-four years I would become a director. I was so convinced about it but life is not so simple. So I went through the ride like many other people. It may sound pompous, but in my worst times, I never though I would not make it. I have seen many bad days like many other people.
Anuradha SenGupta: I think today if people encounter you and know about your achievements they would not be able to relate to your bad days.
Javed Akhtar: The way one should not be too proud and pompous, one should also not be too pompous and proud of your failures also. But it was hard, physically also, going hungry, without shelter and clothes. Just short of having a fatal accident, cancer or losing a limb, everything happened. What surprises me is why the thought of suicide never came to me. I did not, that’s different. But even the thought did not come to me.
Anuradha SenGupta: Maybe you are too arrogant to think of suicide?
Javed Akhtar: I don’t know, maybe, maybe not. Another thing that puzzles me is that I have gone hungry for two-three days and I really know what is hunger. So many times I pass Mahim where so many people are sitting and people stop their cars to give money and feed them. I really wonder: I knew this place, why did I never think of going there? I don’t know. If a man is hungry for three days there is no difference between a man and a dog. You lose all human dignity.
Anuradha SenGupta: You are a khandani writer and poet. Didn’t it take you time to come to terms with this legacy—especially the legacy from your father. You were estranged from him for a long time.
Javed Akhtar: Yes, I started writing poetry at an age when people stop writing. I was 32-33 when I started writing poetry.
Anuradha SenGupta: Was this after your father passed away?
Javed Akhtar: After he passed away. I think quite a few things happened which made me start writing, which I should have done much earlier. My father’s death; my younger brother, who is a very good poet, published his book. Suddenly I was feeling left out—I thought what is happening.
Anuradha SenGupta: You have said in your book every father wants his son to become a very important person and wishes him all the success. At the same time, don’t forget, he is himself a man and doesn’t want his son to become bigger than himself.
Every son wants to look up to his father and believe he is a great man but at the same time he competes with his father and wants to outdo him. You say it’s a paradoxical relationship and my father felt many of these feelings. I want you to answer this in two ways…
Javed Akhtar: I know what is coming.
Anuradha SenGupta: What? What is coming?
Javed Akhtar: That I am a father, and when I said these things I was only a son. Now, shoot!
Anuradha SenGupta: I want you to interpret this both as a son and as a father.
Javed Akhtar: You want to respect him; you want to look up to him but at the same time here is a man who is very important in your mother’s life—the woman you loved when you were born. So there is a kind of a love triangle, like in the film ‘Shakti’. So you have to prove to her that ‘listen, I am also good’. Even if she is dead, even if she is gone and even if she is not taking the message, you have to prove to her.
Anuradha SenGupta: The fact that Jan Nisar Akhtar was absent during your childhood and most of your life—by absent I mean not being around you—did that make you angry
Javed Akhtar: Yeah, perhaps. May be I didn’t admit that because that would have made my life more difficult. But I must have been angry, and it would have been strange and illogical if I was not angry.
Anuradha SenGupta: Very rarely do you describe who did what in that famous Salim-Javed writer combination. But one thing you did contribute to in those stories was anger. The angry young man, a role we saw Amitabh Bachchan perfect, was perhaps an expression of your anger?
Javed Akhtar: It is not true. I think our partnership, which worked for 11 years, was a perfect partnership as long as it went on because there was so much in common between us and there were certain different qualities. As far as the angry young man is concerned it was what was common among us. Both of us lost our mothers at a very young age. Perhaps—I don’t know—suddenly this mother figure that became important in our scripts was the sense of deprivation we shared.
Anuradha SenGupta: Coming back to the famous quote of yours about fathers and sons, now I want you to take this quote as the father. You had worked with Farhan. You are a domineering man. You are someone who has seen success so your point of view has to be right because it has been endorsed by society. It must have been very difficult to work with you.
Javed Akhtar: You have not met Farhan at length I think or you wouldn’t have asked this. He talks in a very soft and gentle manner but I don’t think he can be dominated by anybody and I respect that.
Anuradha SenGupta: When he was a kid, because of your experience as a son did you ensure that you were a more hard working father?
Javed Akhtar: It made me a more responsible father in a way and I saw to it that I provide for them since Zoya and Farhan were living with Honey. So I felt that my responsibility had increased.
Anuradha SenGupta: How would react to the charge that given that Javed Akhtar is an atheist, given that he is a creative person, for a whole host of reasons, he is not representative of the Muslim community. In fact, he is possibly one extreme and the traditional Muslim is the other extreme, whereas the majority of Muslims in India are sandwiched in between.
Javed Akhtar: It will be wrong of me to talk of religious matters. That’s not my business. But when socio-political situations are created by the people who pretend to be religious and are using religion to get mileage or take some kind of control over a segment of our society, I will protest as I belong to that community. I may be an atheist but I am an atheist Muslim. It may sound contradictory but that is how it is. As a member of the community, it is my responsibility to see to it that the fundamentalist does not take over like, as a citizen of India, it is my duty to counter VHP and RSS propaganda and tell people what they are saying is wrong.
Anuradha SenGupta: To be Muslim in India, whether religious or not, does it make you feel different?
Javed Akhtar: If you ask Javed Akhtar, I will say no. I have not felt discriminated and that I lost any opportunity because I am a Muslim. Yes, once it happened that a house we bought was not transferred to our name because it was a vegetarian society. In at least 100 houses I have eaten non-vegetarian food but this is the way they keep Muslims out. At the same time, Muslims also should not develop a persecution complex. They should understand that it is happening to many other people also and a healthy society should be totally devoid of these kinds of discrimination.
Anuradha SenGupta: The Mumbai blasts case of ’93 finally saw closure. Do you feel justice has been done or do you belong to that group of people who say it’s good that a closure has been reached but we need to look at the riots that preceded it and why that has not received closure?
Javed Akhtar: That has been done and this also should have been done. It’s a shame that it has not been done. Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has said that we will do something about it now, after three years. It was in his manifesto. I am saying it on record. Anyone who wants to have a bet can contact me through you. He’ll still not do anything. I’ll tell you why. These politicians have a very low opinion of Hindus. They believe that if we punish those people who have killed innocent Muslims, an average Hindu will be upset. I don’t have such a low opinion of an average Hindu. I think he’s a very fair person.
Anuradha SenGupta: If you were to write your epitaph, what would you like to say, since you are the writer?
Javed Akhtar: He was alive, till he died.
Anuradha SenGupta: Thank you very much, Javed saab.